Moral and Physical Courage

Nelson Lowhim, Writer & Veteran

Nelson Lowhim, Writer & Veteran

When I left the Army, I confused physical courage with some of the greatest aspects of this country—or humanity, for that matter. I think many veterans share this sentiment, as it’s part of the culture we’ve given so much to. But it’s also a non-trivial part of the mainstream culture we reenter.  For me it was a shield with which to better bear the shift into the civilian world. That’s not to say that this can’t also be the cause of a rift between veterans and civilians, if not the rift; since the way both see physical courage and especially the use of the word hero, can be a case in point. In reading Phil Klay’s essay, “What We’re Fighting For”, I was reminded of this fact, this reverence for physical courage.

Now, I’m not trying to say that physical courage isn’t something to revere, it’s just that for almost any healthy society, it cannot be the only thing to revere. In Klay’s essay, he mentions what else we should espouse: honor and the principles behind the laws of war. The argument made is that even well intentioned moves away from these laws and principles are not part of what we are as a nation, to say nothing of how they can contradict counter-insurgency principles.

It’s clear that much of this talk is leveled at the current administration, whose bellicose talk of torture and other methods seem to speak to an undercurrent of bloodlust still running through our nation. But, as Klay noted, appeals to the constitution or principle have their limits since everyone has a different interpretation. This basic appeal speaks of the times we find ourselves in and that we have to talk to our fellow citizens about torture is (sad!) but I suppose it’s also necessary.

I’m afraid that the arguments of a principled stand in an unjust war, for me, amounts to little more than window dressing and matters even less for our future. After all, how much good can individual moral stances do in an unjust war? Klay hints at efficacy in terms of winning hearts and minds—in other words, limiting the damage of said war. There’s certainly some truth to that and counter-terrorism in general—but I am much more interested in a safer more humane world. To that end, I think it’s more important to have a set of principles that lead to fewer wars, fewer searches overseas for monsters.

It would appear to me that moving forward in the age of Trump we need to look at the differences in how we label and exalt physical courage and moral courage. This has certainly been a part of my own reeducation as I’ve come to terms with my time in the Army and life on the civilian side. Speaking of the two kinds of courage, the former seems easy enough to recognize and is exalted in every way. And though there is some lamentation in the military ranks of how some of these stories aren’t always applauded in the public, I see other forms of the hero-of-physical-courage worshiped. It is most likely the easiest currency that veterans can use in the military as well as the civilian world—even if it doesn’t buy the same things. Before and after the military, physical courage in the form of the hero and easy black and white worlds is exalted in movies and culture most everywhere. In fact, a veteran without the right currency can feel almost out of place, can feel as if without the same wont to exalt physical courage, they have even less in common with society.

The other currencies veterans carry don’t transfer as well to the civilian world. Honor and some other principles that Klay mentioned aren’t actively hated in the civilian world, they just lose a lot of value, relatively speaking. But when it comes to moral courage, neither world accepts this currency, not within their ranks at least. That Klay didn’t provide examples of equally powerful acts of moral courage as the physical kind speaks to how little this is talked about in the mainstream.

Moral courage is needed in the future more than anything. It’s best exemplified in the case of Hugh Thompson, but also in the cases of whistleblowers and anyone with the courage to stand up for what’s right even when everyone says otherwise. This becomes even more vital when one is threatened with violence or slander or censure or ostracizing for these acts of moral courage. As James Baldwin says:

“A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them.”

This moral courage also comes in the form of the Civil Rights movement or Black Lives Matter and is a large reason why our society has managed to better itself to gain freedoms. The latter group is a current pariah in many conversations, but that is the kind of action in the face of jeering that we need. This kind of courage, this ability to speak truth to power, is what we’ll need moving forward if we are to build anything worthwhile—if we are going to have something worth fighting for. These heroes are who we need, more so than the patching of unneeded wars. Because even within a codified and principled view of the constitution, Trump can do a lot of damage.

Nelson Lowhim is a veteran and writer. He is the author of many novels, short stories and essays to include CityMuse, The Struggle, and the Labyrinth of Souls. You can find more about him and his work at