In wartime, and that's what this feels like, sentient citizens find themselves contemplating the true meaning of courage and its first cousin, heroism. Politicians aren't always the best guides in this arena. In the 1996 presidential campaign, for instance, Bill Clinton's warm-up speakers at every rally were instructed to laud the incumbent for his backbone.
"I just read a book called ‘Undaunted Courage'," Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, told one crowd in his home state. "On welfare reform, the president showed undaunted courage." In Michigan, an anti-smoking activist named Kathy Block introduced the president by saying, "It takes great courage to take on the tobacco companies."
In another Michigan town actually named Battle Creek, local Democrat Mark Schauer used the words "courage" and "bravery" to describe Clinton's actions on Medicare, adding, "This president is tough, battle-tested."
Although there is certainly something called moral courage, this was a bridge too far. As a college student during the Vietnam War, Clinton avoided service by joining an ROTC program, only to ditch it as soon as the draft was curtailed. He later admitted to the director of the program that he'd "deceived" him about having any intention of becoming an Army officer, explaining that his motivation in joining ROTC had been to "maintain my political viability."
The contrast with the wartime service of Clinton's 1996 election opponent could hardly have been greater. Bob Dole was a 19-year-old pre-med student at the University of Kansas and a member of the basketball, football, and track teams when he joined the U.S. Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in December 1942. It seems as if young Dole had hoped to play one more basketball season, but it wasn't to be. Called to active duty on June 1, 1943, Dole was commissioned as a second lieutenant a year later.
On April 14, 1945, in the closing days of the war, he was a platoon leader in the Army's famed 10th Mountain Division, fighting in Italy. The orders that day called for a small squad to take out a German machine-gun nest. Dole was supposed to remain behind. He changed the orders and led the squad, which was raked by enemy fire.
Dole took cover in a foxhole, then crawled out to retrieve his wounded radio man. Dole was hit by shrapnel that tore through his upper body. His days as an athlete were over. Sent home in a body cast, he spent more than four years recuperating. For the rest of his life, he maintained the use of only one arm and suffers from pain to this day. In 1996, Dole's political advisers figured their candidate's story would appeal to voters -- if only they could get him to talk about it. It wasn't easy. Dole's idea of drawing attention to his war record consisted mainly of mumbling something cryptic such as, "I've been tested."
Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage -- although the word Hemingway used was "guts" -- as "grace under pressure." But pressure from what? Since the time of the ancient Greeks the concept has often, though not always, been associated with combat, where the possibility of death or maiming is ever-present. In 1898, Winston Churchill put a positive spin on every soldier's fear. "Nothing in life," he said, "is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."
This quip also points to an essential element of courage: that the brave man or woman is acutely aware of the risks.
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear," Mark Twain wrote in a novel published four years before Churchill's pithy observation. Twain added, only half tongue-in-cheek: "Consider the flea! – incomparably the bravest of all the creatures of God, if ignorance of fear were courage."
I thought of that line recently watching scores of young people frolicking on the sand in Miami Beach despite a deadly pandemic. Were they being brave, or merely ignorant? I lean to the latter. L. Frank Baum expanded on this idea at the end of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy and her pals find out the wizard is just an old carnival huckster. "But how about my courage?" asks the Lion anxiously.
"You have plenty of courage, I am sure," answers Oz. "All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty."
Earl McClung, a soldier in Company E of the 506th Infantry Regiment, in the 101st U.S. Army Airborne Division, discussed this concept matter-of-factly with director Steven Spielberg during the filming of "Band of Brothers."
"I think everybody had fear," McClung recalled long after World War II had ended. "I think there's people that can handle fear. I was just as scared as anybody else, except I could think." That's what the men in Easy Company could do: Put their fright aside and think, so they could do what they were trained to do. Do their duty -- do their jobs -- and perform, with grace, under fire.
That's bravery. And it's what the world's first responders and cops and EMTs and nurses and doctors are doing today in the face of this health crisis. All they ask in return is that we do our part. Clad in masks and scrubs, they hold up signs saying, "We stay at work for you. Please stay home for us."
MSNBC anchor Willie Geist told the "Morning Joe" audience on Thursday how he'd texted a friend who is a surgeon working amidst this crisis to express his gratitude for her sacrifice. "Don't thank me," she responded. "This is my oath. We're all going in there expecting at some point to get coronavirus, but this is what we signed up for."
"This is heroism," Geist noted, "plain and simple." Well said, Willie -- and that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.