The Problem with Courage


The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein volunteered to fight in the First World War despite his eligibility for medical exemption.

He served on the front line by choice, seeing some of the heaviest action of the front. He was an artillery spotter, often stationed in no man’s land, and an obvious target of enemy sniper fire.

He drew his strength from a new-found spiritual faith, he wrote copious notes about his belief that God had given his life meaning among the death, destruction and decay of the front lines.

He carried a copy of Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, becoming known by his fellow soldiers as the “man with the Gospels”. A mythic figure — a young hermit in no man’s land, somehow defying the snipers’ bullets and mortars. He was awarded medals for valour, even being nominated for the very highest accolades.

A report described a man of great honour and integrity: “His exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, composure, and heroism won the total admiration of the troops.”

He was a hero, an inspiration, an exemplary soldier and citizen.

The problem is, he was on the wrong side.

He fought for his homeland, Austria, against the western allies and against the friends he had made while studying in England. When the allies won the war in 1918 Wittgenstein found himself in an Italian prisoner of war camp. His valour counted for nothing when he returned to England. The victors write history.

Some of the bravest human beings to step foot on the planet have been on the wrong side. It’s awkward when courage is put in the service of evil. We try to claim people are brainwashed, lied to, or manipulated. But really, what is the difference?

A question will always bug us. What if we’re wrong?

Courage doesn’t care what you are doing, it just helps you do it better. Courage is indifferent. Courage is an extraordinary attribute in human beings. But is it a virtue?

Courage is fetishized by practically all cultures. All national anthems seem to have a line about bravery in them. It’s an attribute encouraged, arguably, by the least courageous — those who never served and those who don’t serve. Politicians who’ve never been to war — and have actively dodged drafts — love talking up courage, they want nineteen-year-olds to be courageous for them.

Courage can’t escape the political black hole of the culture wars either. Are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange brave people for blowing the whistle? Was JK Rowling brave for criticizing the trans rights movement?

It depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? Either way, the answer will likely be a zealous “yes!” or a vehement “no!”

They certainly took risks. Snowden is in exile, Assange is in jail, and Rowling has activists posting her address on Twitter. Is taking a risk courageous? Are compulsive gamblers courageous? What if you put one in a uniform and give them a gun?

Aristotle placed courage somewhere between cowardice and recklessness, though it’s not clear how you can discern courage from recklessness except in hindsight. Risk and self-sacrifice is recklessness until it’s validated as courage. Courage is bestowed upon us. What we convince ourselve privately to be courage is never courage until somebody else says so.

Other virtues, like wisdom and justice, are intrinsically good. There’s no such thing as a wise Nazi, there’s certainly no such thing as a kind Nazi. But courage can be put to the service of any cause, no matter how repugnant.

There’s a tired cliché that says “fortune favours the brave”. I hope not. I’d rather, “fortune favours the decent.”

Fortune favoured Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a German dive bomber pilot who miraculously survived more than two thousand missions and destroyed hundreds of vehicles and ships in World War Two.

He was shot down several times, once behind enemy lines on the eastern front, and on his return — swimming across the icy Dniester River — he became a national hero.

He went on to destroy hundreds of allied tanks, winning several Iron Crosses, before finally being wounded by anti-aircraft fire. Was that the end of his career? No. Rudel flew dozens more missions, destroying more tanks with an amputated right leg. He finally surrendered in May, 1945.

After the war, he escaped with other high ranking Nazis via the so-called “ratlines” to Argentina, where he embarked on a career as a Neo-Nazi activist and a rep for German businesses expanding into Latin America. As part of the Nazi Kameradenwerk (“Comrades Work”) network, he helped former Nazis find refuge in Argentina and Brazil and paid the legal fees for the likes of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy.

He died wealthy and of natural causes. Was Rudel brave? Undoubtedly. But he was sold to the maniacal racial theories of the Third Reich. He committed his life, his talents, his bravery, to the darkest of causes.

How can we even consider courage to be virtue in the light of a case like Rudel? It seems that if we were to rescue courage as a virtue, it would need to be stacked on other virtues. Without wisdom or justice, courage is a rampaging monster. That monster needs taming to serve the greater good.

Here’s a monster for you, a monster that came to serve his conscience. Oskar Schindler was a citizen of Czechoslovakia, but as an ethnic German, he served as a spy for Nazi Germany, assisting the preparations for an invasion. Caught and imprisoned, he was “liberated” when the plans he assisted came to fruition and the German army arrived in the Sudetenland.

Schindler joined the Nazi Party in 1939. He continued to operate as a spy, this time infiltrating Poland to prepare the way for the invasion that would spark the Second World War.

In the aftermath of that invasion, Jews had their property stolen and divided up among occupying Germans. It was a looting spree. Schindler acquired an enamel factory in Kraków, which he ironically — and unimaginatively — renamed “German Enamelware Factory”.

He employed more than a thousand Jews because — by laws set by the Nazis — Jews were paid far lower wages than Poles.

As the war wore on, the high-living Schindler came under increasing pressure to give up his Jewish workers, at first to the Kraków Ghetto, and then to concentration camps where they would either be used as slave labour, or murdered as unfit.

Initially, Schindler shielded his Jewish workers because he was greedy, but something changed within him. He put himself at enormous risk, as the pressure on him mounted, to devote himself to the safety of community of workers and their families.

He was arrested twice by the Nazis who came to distrust him. The industrialist instead became trusted by the resistance movement and shuttled funds while on business trips. He used his influence to help bribe officials, and used the black market to fortify the meagre rations that were provided for his Jewish workers.

As the Allies closed in, the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was underway. Schindler was forced to work with the most vile sadists and criminals, those making the most they could from the plight of the people at their mercy. He bribed Nazi officials with cash, luxury goods and diamonds to save not only his own workers, but thousands more from Auschwitz.

Schindler was a heavy drinker and a womanizer. He gained everything he had through opportunism and petty bribery. He made his fortune from being a Nazi. But a profound compassion within him made him put his safety and fortune at risk to save thousands of people. In a television interview, he said, “I had no choice.”

What does Schindler tell us about courage? From any perspective but his own, Schindler had a choice, but his conscience gave him no choice.

Schindler had two kinds of courage — the courage to put his safety and wellbeing at risk, but also the courage to challenge his own convictions. On paper, Schindler was “courageous” as a Nazi spy in the former respect, but only brave as a humanitarian in the latter respect.

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