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 hed 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 couldnt recover
the strength to put myself in need of it. I would
hear the guards keys jangling in his hand,
coming my way, and I didnt 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
The image of the ship comes from Admiral Lord
My father and his father believed the best
definition of courage was Admiral Lord
Nelsons 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
grandfathers 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
dont 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 McCains dramatic accounts in Vietnam
but also other courageous stories from Mitchel Red
Cloud, Roy Benavidez, Hannah Senesh, and Aung San
Aung San Suu Kyi was an American charge
daffaires in Burma when McCain first met
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
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 Kyis serenity and
beauty - McCain describes himself this
Im 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
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.
Theyre wrong. Im not trained in
psychoanalysis. I dont 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. Youre almost
certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely
event youre not, do you really want to spend
your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and
duct tape? Thats not a life worth living, is
Although he claims not to be trained in
psychoanalysis, a therapist might do well to
consider these words from McCain.
FEAR: All right, so youre afraid of
flying and of tall buildings. It doesnt
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. Ive felt it. Everyone has.
If you do the things you think you cannot do,
youll 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.
Theyll remember us when were 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. Its 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
Hamlets 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
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
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 mans suffering was our
shared concern, each mans 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 anothers 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
McCain offered three quotes about courage.
Do your nearest duty. - Goethe
Its always darkest just before
its totally black. - Chairman Mao
This is courage in a man, to bear
unflinchingly what heaven sends. -
The Senator was unabashed in his conviction that
courage was a virtue based on a principled code of
He quoted Martin Luther King: If a man
hasnt discovered something that he will die
for, he isnt 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
McCain told me he was honored to know John
Lewis, one of Dr. Kings bravest
disciples elected to Congress from
Georgias 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 didnt
happen, in many cases, then they have to have
certain role models. Thats why in our book,
were not sermonizing, but giving examples of
all kinds of courage. But, all of them are based on
what were born with, and thats 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 dont stand up to him
theyll 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.
Theres a very good example of how we
can join together to be better fathers, husbands,
and citizens. Support groups are good. I think
theres no doubt our churches are very
important factors in our society. What were
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, theres a lot of
neighborhood and community efforts
its 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 dont believe he was
courageous. There are times when evil people have
been brave, but courage encompasses this love of
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
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 were
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, thats 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 theres another important lesson
about courage, I think that its
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.
he answered, rather
sometimes you begin to write
for something, and it turns out to be larger that
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
we will love them when they are
challenged. We will care more about our principles
than our material possession or our own
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 countrys success doesnt
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.
Its love, then, that makes courage
© 2005 Reid Baer
* * *
The fame you earn has a different taste from the
fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria
Reid Baer, an
award-winning playwright for A Lyons
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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