Courage And Cowardice

Richard Macintosh

May 26, 2003


"What I learned growing up in a war-torn region is that a brave nation fights only because it must; a cowardly nation fights because it can."
--Ilana Mercer (1)

I remember T. Chadbourne Dunham, Professor Emeritus at Wesleyan University, saying that the Germans were "wonderful and horrible." Dunham had been in Germany as an American graduate student when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. He had great interest in "altphilologie," or the study of ancient cultures and civilizations. He had special interest in the work of Heinrich Schliemann, who pioneered excavation of Ancient Troy, hence his presence in Germany. During his stay, Dunham met Hannah Arendt, who introduced him to Hermann Broch and Thomas Mann. Following World War II, Dunham worked as a translator for Thomas Mann, while Mann was in the United States.

To Dunham, the Germans were "wonderful," because of their literature, music and scientific achievements. They were "horrible," because they allowed a gifted culture to descend into a pit of war, terror and murder through thoughtlessness. How do we reconcile such things? Can they be reconciled? Is this a German problem, or is this something that applies to all human cultures? Are we all "wonderful" and "horrible?"

There is better than a good chance of it.

We graduate students held Dunham in awe. Less so a few "select" undergraduates, who had little tolerance for things older than themselves and absolutely no layering of thoughts, attitudes and/or experience to build upon. Hence, there was no possibility of pentimento -- a rubbing through layers over time, in order to make meaning and test reality. As Ilana Mercer noted about nations, we noted about these young people. They had no bravery, for there was nothing in their lives to be brave about. They were intellectually slothful and cowardly, because they could do as they willed without risk. I was reminded of a statement attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in a film that I used to show in my high school classroom:

Some people deserve to be called little more than passages for food, for they affect nothing and they are without virtue.

Those undergraduate students, considered to be extremely bright by Wesleyan University, are now in their forties. Hopefully, there has been some layering of thought and experience in the interim and they have developed into something more than "passages for food."

Perhaps so. Hopefully so. But I also remember that the last evil in Pandora's box was "Hope." My hope is that the undergraduate students have become brave enough to do what is best for America. Otherwise, they will merely do what is easy -- "what they can."

What is my fear? Why would I question whether Americans are "wonderful," or "horrible?" Are we not the most powerful nation the world has ever known?

Yes, if one looks to military and financial might. Otherwise, not.

In this time of rapid sound bites and flashing images, there is little time for layering and reflection. By the time a thought is identified, the controlling media is off and running toward another image. The American public is caught somewhere between Seinfeld reruns and the next Super Bowl. It is little wonder that the recent war in Iraq was treated as a sport event, complete with ersatz heroines, such as Jessica Lynch -- and this is not to demean Lynch. She was a soldier doing her duty when she was captured. Her "rescue," however, was a photo-op, designed to have great propaganda value at home. The problem is, the American public, conditioned by decades of movies and television, could no longer tell the difference between a real event and a staged one.

The President's "Top Gun" photo-op aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was another example of a staged event. He used the Navy to glorify himself, announcing the end of the combat phase of the Iraq War. Actually, it was the opening of the 2004 Presidential race. He completely upstaged the Democrats, who were cluelessly debating each other in South Carolina. There is no doubt that Bush's photo-op was brilliant, considering the adolescent condition of the American mind and the poltroonish roll over by the Democratic Party, but it was an obvious fraud to those who still possessed the ability to think. To some members of the British press, the whole thing was a hoot. (2) The Brits couldn't stop laughing. To them, Bush's "Top Gun" antic was like something out of a Monty Python movie.

But Americans weren't laughing; they're adoring. For the most part, they "bought" the farce, seeing what their handlers want them to see, having long ago lost their ability to sift through the layers of experience. Professor Dunham once referred to such people as "layer upon layer of tabula rasa." He was right. For such individuals, reflection was too much work. They were impervious to thought. It rolled off of them like water off of a duck's back. Today, mentioning the many contradictions uttered by George W. Bush, or members of his cabal, is to invite a disconnect, evinced by a glassy stare, usually followed by a hostile comment. Thinking for the thoughtful is work. For the thoughtless, it is impossible.

Thinking is impossible for the thoughtless, because the layering and sifting of thought have been blocked either by design, or sloth. The former is due to a dumbing down of the educational curriculum. The latter is due to intellectual laziness. Without pre-digested viewpoints, such as those provided by CNN or Fox News, the thoughtless person has nowhere to go. Thus, their minds are "layer upon layer of tabula rasa" -- willing sponges, waiting to soak up whatever their handlers decree.

In America, there has been a transition from the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am," to "I feel, therefore it is." This does not bode well for the future.

Yet, there is much that is brave and wonderful about America.

America is a technological wonder. Are we going to use our technology for the betterment of mankind or use it in an attempt to subjugate the world?

American liberty has been a beacon to the oppressed of the world. Will we continue to be that or will we turn down our beacon at home, thus shutting off the world from its light?

America pioneered the thought that all peoples have the right to self-determination. Will we honor that ideal, or will we impose limitations that serve our own self-interest?

America pretends -- at least -- to be a democracy, where ordinary people have a say in their government.

On the other hand, there is cause for worry.

Threatening the world with preemptive war and terror is not the way to peace. If our might is used against those who cannot protect themselves, are we not "horrible?" Is such terror and murder not cowardly? Is it not a war crime?

Has America become so small-minded and insecure that a musical group, such as the "Dixie Chicks," can be ostracized for a single, negative comment about our President? A mature leader of a confident nation would ignore it.

Has America become so arrogant that our government can unilaterally abrogate treaties made in good faith with foreign nations?

Has America become so insecure that our government may threaten to "punish" nations that do not choose to follow our lead? Are we to punish France for not obeying us? Did we not help liberate France in 1945 so the French would be free from foreign domination? Does anyone "get it?"

Has America become a police state? Does not our Patriot Act mirror the National Socialist (Nazi) "Enabling Act?" Is no one in the government paying attention?

Can the President of the United States of America cause a person to be locked up without official charges being filed and without the right to legal counsel? If so, is this not like the Lettre de cachet that the French Kings used, where a man's name would be written on a piece of paper and he would then be arrested and locked up in the Bastille, without ever being charged with a crime?

Can the Attorney General of the United States of America strip citizenship from an American on his say so, alone, or that of the President?

Can the United States' military hold political prisoners indefinitely -- many of them children under the age of fifteen -- in defiance of the Geneva Convention? If so, is this not an American Gulag?

Can the leadership of the American government urge war crimes trials for its adversaries, while excluding Americans from any such trial, or investigation?

Can the leadership of the American government simply shrug off the lies used to justify war? Are they not aware that initiating war without a just cause is a war crime under international law?

Can the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America shrug off American war crimes with a flippant phrase, "Stuff happens?" (3)

Does the current leadership of the American government think that they can get away with threatening and deceiving the world?

Apparently so.

Yet, the world has a way of dealing with those bent on conquest and empire. Conquest and empire cost money, lots of it. It consumes resources that would be better used to improve the lives of ordinary people. People will eventually figure this out. But, leaders bloated by hubris and blinded by their own self-importance cannot know this, nor do they care to know it. An American voice from the recent past is apropos.

"If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.'"
--John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (4)

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References and Resources

1.  Mercer, Ilana; "Betraying Brave Boys," WorldNetDaily, March 26, 2003.  (back)

2.  Krugman, Paul; "Man on Horseback," The New York Times, May 6, 2003.  (back)

3.  Fleming, Thomas; "Stuff Happens in Iraq," ChroniclesMagazine.org, May 2, 2003.  (back)

4.  Covici, Pascal Jr., ed., The Portable Steinbeck, "The Grapes of Wrath," (1939) pp. 428-429.  (back)

Iraq on Swans


Richard Macintosh was a Public High School Teacher in California (1956-1989). Ed.D, Educational Leadership, BYU, 1996. MA, Liberal Studies, Wesleyan University, 1982. BA, history, Stanford University, 1956... Macintosh is currently a part-time consultant on Personnel/Team matters in Washington State.

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Published May 26, 2003
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