A Man




An interview with Senator John McCain: Why Courage Matters

I first met John McCain, Senator from Arizona, at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego, CA. As he was walking through a hallway in the basement of the convention center, he approached me and shook my hand. I was a little startled he’d do that. I recall vividly his warm smile and friendly countenance. He impressed me as a man of integrity, with a genuine interest in people.

Many people of varying political persuasions admire McCain, if for no other reason than his remarkable survival as a downed pilot in a POW prison camp during the Vietnam War.

In his new book, Why Courage Matters – The Way To A Braver Life, McCain references some of his experiences as a prisoner of war.

“In prison, I would use my anger to prime the pump of my courage and provoke confrontations with the enemy. But many times, when I was weary and somewhat forlorn, I just couldn’t recover the strength to put myself in need of it. I would hear the guard’s keys jangling in his hand, coming my way, and I didn’t want to lay my ship alongside his. I just wanted to take my ship to some safe, snug harbor that the enemy would never visit. I might have felt the tug of shame a little on those occasions, but you just got tired sometimes.”

The image of the ship comes from Admiral Lord Nelson.

“My father and his father believed the best definition of courage was Admiral Lord Nelson’s advice: ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.’ It was the creed shared by most of their navy peers, the men they admired most. My grandfather’s friend and commander, the rash and brave warrior Bull Halsey, called it his constant guide. ‘All problem, personal, national, or combat, become smaller if you don’t dodge them. Touch a thistle timidly and it pricks you; grasp it boldly and its spines crumble. Carry the battle to the enemy. Lay your ship alongside his.’”

The book, co-authored by Mark Salter, tells not only of McCain’s dramatic accounts in Vietnam but also other courageous stories from Mitchel Red Cloud, Roy Benavidez, Hannah Senesh, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi was an American charge d’affaires in Burma when McCain first met her.

“I saw her perched on the edge of a sofa, smiling at me, so slight and diminutive that were it not for her arresting beauty, she would hardly be noticed in a crowd. Dressed in a Burmese sarong, a flower in her hair, composed perfectly in an upright posture, her hands folded in front of her, she presented an image I have never forgotten: a first and lasting impression of serenity and beauty. I was captivated instantly and remained so throughout our brief encounter.”

Suu Kyi is a freedom fighter against an oppressive regime in Burma.

She took a quote by Lord Acton who said “The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” … and added a twist … “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

In contrast to Suu Kyi’s “serenity and beauty” - McCain describes himself this way:

“I’m a blunt man. My manners can be rough. Although I try to refrain from being intentionally discourteous, I am demonstrative in showing my displeasure. I am often impatient and can speak and act abruptly.”

McCain said the idea for Why Courage Matters came from Jon Karp, a creative editor with Random House, NY.

“He thought I might have something useful to say in an essay on courage. The concept began to germinate in his imagination in the weeks after September 11 when people were afraid to ride elevators to the higher floors of tall buildings or get on airplanes, when many thought their entire sense of well-being had been permanently compromised. He thought I could encourage people to find the fortitude to get on with their lives by writing a manual of courage, so to speak. Several talk show hosts in the weeks just after September 11 also thought I might possess such insights. They’re wrong. I’m not trained in psychoanalysis. I don’t know what to tell people to quiet those kinds of anxieties. Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?”

Although he claims not to be trained in psychoanalysis, a therapist might do well to consider these words from McCain.

“FEAR: All right, so you’re afraid of flying and of tall buildings. It doesn’t matter that you comprehend the improbability of the threat you fear. The fear is irrational, but no less real and affecting to you than were the threat truly imminent. Accept it. Accept the sensation of fear that our enemies have sought to provoke in you. Experience it. Imagine living like that all the time, how awful that would be. Dread it more than the thing you fear, and act. Put one foot in front of the other and move toward the thing that scares you. You might tremble, perspire, feel you anxiety like a fever, the fear rising from your chest, constricting your throat, and swarming into your mind. I’ve felt it. Everyone has. … If you do the things you think you cannot do, you’ll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity, and your courage grow stronger every time you prove it.”

In my reading, McCain gives the most salient answer to the question Why Courage Matters as a legacy for the coming generations.

“How greater must be the misery to know that you loved so little that the example of your cowardice has weakened the hearts of your children, made their courage harder to find, their love poorer, their happiness more elusive? What other success could we achieve in our lives to overcome the guilt of such a failure? Nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever matter more. Our children love us. They love us and want to be sure of our love. So they desire to emulate us. They may first desire our virtue for the love of us. If we are true enough, they will come to love us for our virtue. They’ll remember us when we’re gone, when they prove their own virtue, when they have learned to love virtue and fear the loss of it. That fear can prove stronger than the fear of embarrassment, or the fear of misfortune, or the fear of pain, or even the fear of existential threats. It’s the fear that gives us courage. Fearing a loss of virtue, for me, anyway, is more a fear of the inevitable remorse that follows. You can live with pain. You can live with disappointment. You can live with embarrassment. Remorse is an awful companion. And whatever the unwelcome consequences of courage, they are unlikely to be worse than the discovery that you are less a man than you pretend to be.”

Hamlet’s soliloquy comes to mind:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

Shakespeare reminds us not to “… lose the name of action.”

Fortunately, the act of courage does not have to be a lonely one. McCain spoke of the support he received from fellow prisoners.

“For a brief period, I lived in a cell next to one of our senior-ranking officers, a fierce resister, maybe the bravest of us all. The stories of what he would do to resist, to confront his enemies, were legends in the camp. This man greatly strengthened our morals and courage. Many times when I was brought back to my cell after an extended and physically challenging interrogation, the first thing I would do is tap on the wall to my neighbor, not just to communicate my most recent experience, but to show I could still defy our enemy.”

As in MKP, there were valued principles that united the men.

“Fortunately, I shared my circumstances with hundreds of brave men who insisted on a communal code of conduct – we would all return with honor. Each man’s suffering was our shared concern, each man’s resistance our shared responsibility. Each man was expected to resist to the best of his ability. We relied on one another to strengthen our ability, to encourage us when we felt used up, to assure us that there was no dishonor in trying but falling short of how we perceived our duty in one instance, if we recovered and tried again. Had each of us been kept in separate prisons, unable to communicate with one another, to share one another’s experiences, to depend on one another, had we been forced to rely on our individual pride and strength, many more of us would have lost our courage and our honor.”

McCain offered three quotes about courage.

“Do your nearest duty.” - Goethe

“It’s always darkest just before it’s totally black.” - Chairman Mao

“This is courage in a man, to bear unflinchingly what heaven sends.” - Euripides

The Senator was unabashed in his conviction that courage was a virtue based on a principled code of conduct.

He quoted Martin Luther King: “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

McCain said “He [Martin Luther King] is rightly held up as an exemplar of moral courage. He was a believer in nonviolence who had the courage of conscience, the courage to resist repression, to live his moral code.”

McCain told me he was honored to know John Lewis, one of Dr. King’s “bravest disciples” elected to Congress from Georgia’s fifth district.

“Lewis still speaks out in opposition to those who envision an America divided by race,” McCain added.

A moral code of conduct must be developed by the individual, the author continued.

“Hopefully some sense of morality has come from his or her parents; if that didn’t happen, in many cases, then they have to have certain role models. That’s why in our book, we’re not sermonizing, but giving examples of all kinds of courage. But, all of them are based on what we’re born with, and that’s the capacity to love. If we love virtue, we will develop courage to love virtuously and pass on that courage. We tell our kids to stand up to the school bully because if they don’t stand up to him they’ll never stand up to an abusive boss. We have to show our children this kind of courage. Men can show other men how to be courageous.”

Although McCain was not familiar with The ManKind Project, he did laud its efforts. He spoke of the “Million Man March.”

“There’s a very good example of how we can join together to be better fathers, husbands, and citizens. Support groups are good. I think there’s no doubt our churches are very important factors in our society. What we’re really talking about with courage is a manifesting of Judeo-Christian principles found in our churches and volunteer organizations. The Boy Scouts of America is very important – Scouts have help make democracy strong. Also, there’s a lot of neighborhood and community efforts … even if it’s picking up trash, or being involved in a neighborhood block watch.”

McCain encouraged men to “take their kids with them” in their charitable work.

The difference between bravery and courage is “fundamental,” McCain noted.

“I am sure that Adolf Hitler in World War I was brave, but I don’t believe he was courageous. There are times when evil people have been brave, but courage encompasses this love of virtue … you can be brave but not courageous unless you have the fundamental principles and love of virtue that defines courage. We define it as a rare moment of conscience, fear, and actions. Conscience sparks our courage.”

The 9/11 tragedy was an opportunity to “spark our courage” as a nation, the Senator said.

“We should have seized on that opportunity in a better way to call on more Americans to serve their country,” he continued. “We may need to stand up again against our enemies. They are still out there. But as a people we’re still strong. Fear is not a reason for failure. Fear is no excuse for failure. Fear is a reason for courage. We should accept fear as a challenge. Be afraid, that’s fine – life is tough. Then we have an opportunity to live better lives and be happier than before we were tested.”

McCain talks tough, yet he seems to have a sense of balance with the issue of courage.

“If there’s another important lesson about courage, I think that it’s … all of us are human and can fail. We do fail from time to time. I have failed many times, and each time I try to do better. How we react is everything. There are men who react to failure or being in prison by going into deep depression. Some have never recovered. Others bounce back, with the help of others. These men went on to be more courageous and tougher the next time around. And even shame can be good. I know it hurts, but sometimes it is a useful wound, perhaps the most indispensable condition of a good life. Our self respect, our salvation, depends on it.”

I told McCain that I believed the essence of his book was “spiritual.”

“Well …”he answered, rather slowly, “…sometimes you begin to write for something, and it turns out to be larger that you expected.”

Returning to his theme of relating courage with virtue, the Senator said:

“Remember, we first must love the virtues that courage defends. If we love truth, honor, compassion, faithfulness, and other virtuous attributes … we will love them when they are challenged. We will care more about our principles than our material possession or our own security.”

After speaking with the Senator from Arizona, I believe even more that he is a man of integrity. And yes, I believe him to be a patriot, in the best sense of the word.

“Our country’s success doesn’t depend on universal heroism. Nor does our individual happiness depend upon proving ourselves heroic. But we do have to be worthy of the sacrifices made on our behalf. We have to value our freedom. We have to love it, not for the ease or material riches it provides, not just for the autonomy it guarantees us, but for the goodness it makes possible. And we have to love it so much that we will not let it be constrained by fear. It’s love, then, that makes courage necessary.”

© 2005 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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