In just a few days, the nation celebrates Araw ng Kagitingan, our Day of Valor, in memory of the service of those at Bataan and Corregidor during World War 2, and in the hope that we too may show the same courage when called to do so. In truth, given the current state of the world, I think it would be fair to say that courage is more necessary than ever, in more people than ever.
But what exactly do we mean when we speak of courage? Of all the characteristics seen as virtues, courage is perhaps the most complex, the acts it inspires at times indistinguishable from those fueled by vice. One dictionary definition of courage is the strength to persevere in the face of danger, fear or difficulty. But is a drunk who leaps headfirst into a pool without gauging its depth brave, or foolhardy? Is a man that walks, unknowing, into a minefield because he did not read any of the warning signs brave, or ignorant? In my mind, neither of them should be praised for their bravery, no more than should a person who refuses to wear a mask and observe proper health protocols because they are “not afraid of COVID.” Does such a person march knowingly into danger? Yes. Yet even if that person in truth fears COVID and perseveres in their mask-less outing despite that fear, I don’t think anyone can call this person courageous, or that their actions come from the same wellspring of virtue that allowed soldiers in defense of their motherland to hold out against a vastly superior enemy.
So, if it truly be a virtue, there must be more to courage than the ability to charge into danger. Many have tried to define just what that something is, including the great philosopher Plato. One of the Socratic dialogues that the philosopher wrote concerns competing definitions of courage, and one of these definitions – placed in the mouth of the Athenian general Laches – is that courage is “a sort of endurance of the soul” – but not just any endurance. Instead, it must be a “wise endurance,” to oppose it to the sort of pseudo-bravery that is foolish, evil and hurtful. While in that dialogue Socrates rejects that definition, it has resonated with others through the years, including modern soldiers. In his memoir called “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home,” an American veteran by the name of Tim O’Brien used his experience of the Vietnam War to sharpen his own ideas on courage. As one who disagreed with the war, but who hadn’t had the courage (in his words) to find a way out of serving, O’Brien struggles with the concept of bravery, and the fact that so many people equate it with “the charge” – like that of the light brigade immortalized in the Tennyson poem, the carrying out of orders in the face of inevitable death. Taking his cue from the definition from Laches, he goes on to write: “Men must know what they do is courageous, they must know it is right, and that kind of knowledge is wisdom and nothing else. Which is why I know few brave men. Either they are stupid and do not know what is right. Or they know what is right and cannot bring themselves to do it. Or they know what is right and do it, but do not feel and understand the fear that must be overcome… Courage is more than the charge.”
Like O’Brien, I believe that courage has a moral element. What, then, is courage for me? I believe that courage is the strength to persevere despite knowing the personal risks, costs and fears, for the benefit of something more than just for my own self. The strength can be expressed in action or in endurance – it is possible to see it in both speaking truth to power, and in the stoic persistence despite criticism, but only if these actions come from a desire for a higher good rather than stubborn pride.
In the past year, there have been many among us who have shown that they have displayed true courage. Our medical front-liners, facing down the risks of the virus to save lives; those who got infected with the virus and fought it hard; those who care for the sick; workers who toil to provide for their families; hardworking government workers who do their very best; teachers, parents and children who struggle to adapt to a whole new method of learning.
There has been no shortage of courage in our nation. But individual courage, left unsupported by communities and institutions, too often becomes exploited and tragic. We need look no further than the soldiers who served at Bataan and Corregidor, those lauded as heroes here and abroad and in whose name we celebrate Araw ng Kagitingan. At a time when the Philippines was still a colony of the United States, the soldiers at Bataan and Corregidor fought not only in the service of the Philippines but also of America, as part of the US Army, and they were promised the full veteran benefits that any American citizen was entitled to. However, not even a year after the end of the war, the United States passed the Recission Act of 1946, which revoked much of the compensation due to Filipino soldiers. In return for their valor, in return for persevering through the Death March… all they were met with were broken promises.
There is much to fear in the world we live in now, and there are times when it can seem like just getting through the day digs deep into our store of courage. There will be times when we break and when we falter… but part of courage is the getting up again. Part of courage is reaching out when we need help, and in taking strength from the places and people that we can. Part of courage is the wisdom to know that if we want our courage to matter, we need to do more than bear with the evils of the world. We must actively try to change it.
The courage of individuals saves lives. But what we should strive for is a world where such courage is not a daily necessity, a world where such courage is neither exploited nor betrayed. The best way that we can remember the valor of the past is to make a future where it is at worst rewarded, and at best unnecessary.