Man is born a coward (L’homme est né poltron). — Joseph Conrad
It was the end of my plebe year at Annapolis. Fresh off the blade edge of ten brutal months of military indoctrination and relentless hazing, I had volunteered for the Army’s Airborne School in Ft. Benning, Georgia. A hundred of us were going, out of a thousand in my Naval Academy class. We were young men and women of a similar ilk, I suppose. We reasoned that if we could muster the guts to throw ourselves out of a perfectly good airplane five times and earn the coveted silver jump wings—the first of many ribbons and wings that we all dreamed of wearing—we would have passed some midterm on manhood. (I say “manhood” here because that was how it was framed then. We paid only lip service to the language of gender equality, even as women trained by my side.) Jump school represented a shortcut in a way, a tangible though terrifying transition, a leap not just from the belly of a healthy airplane, but also a leap from innocence to experience. A warrior’s test, we were told. As long as you could get out that fucking door and the parachute opened.
This was how I found myself stuffed into the cargo hold of a C-130 Hercules. No part of my nineteen-year-old self wanted to risk my life, yet there I sat, rumbling across a taxiway, a parachute strapped to my back, sardine-canned in with seventy other wannabe heroes, none of us knowing what we were doing.
The pragmatic definition of courage comes late in Webster’s hierarchy, at least in the dictionary I use. The first entries are all listed as obsolete: courage, 1. The heart as the seat of intelligence or feeling; 2. Inclination, intention; 3. A proud and angry temper; high spirit. The contemporary usage, found fourth in this dictionary, defines courage as the mental or moral strength enabling one to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty firmly and resolutely.
Courage descends from the French word for heart, coeur. Even the modern usage of the word retains an echo of its French origins. Courage, after all, exists somewhere south of the intellect. You can’t think your way into bravery. “Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right,” Emerson tells us. And while courage may share some chromosomes with instinct, it dwells a few rungs higher up the evolutionary ladder than the primitive fight or flight response. Courage also evokes a certain sensibility, an ennobling quality, the ‘moral strength’ aspect of the dictionary definition. We wouldn’t, in most cases, ascribe courage to a brute criminal, even one persevering in the face of danger.
But is courage a destination? Is a person courageous the same way he is, say, smart or beautiful? Can it be attained? At nineteen, strapped into the back of that airplane, I certainly believed this to be so. I needed to believe in its attainment. The alternative made a whole lot of military training and the last year of my life, not to mention the next ten minutes of it, feel unnecessary and cruel.
There was always the question. Do you have what it takes?
It haunted, that question did. It scrutinized. It seemed the only question that mattered then. Even before Annapolis, I’d been steeped in the mythology of courage. I was a Right Stuff kind of kid, home-schooled on the narratives of courage, maybe even constructing them as I grew. The more valiant the better: Audie Murphy, George Patton, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn. Long before I’d entered the Naval Academy, a place where such tales of valor found an academic and cultural imprimatur, I idolized the lives of the brave. At the same time, I wrestled with my own courage. Do you have what it takes? Comparing my meager life to that of my heroes, I certainly didn’t think so. But I had convinced myself that I might find it, perhaps just on the other side of that C-130 cargo door.
At twelve-hundred feet, the jumpmaster opened the door on the fuselage. Instinctively, all heads turned toward the sudden burst of light. Alabama pine forests rushed by. Red clay roads and green fields blurred past. Through the open door, wind whooshed into the sweltering cargo hold. Some seventy of us were pinned there, nauseated, silent, sweating, packed so tight that even scratching was an impossibility. Sanity and self-preservation shrank into the space between our backs and the parachutes strapped to them, while fear settled into a background hum, far beneath the noise of the plane’s four propellers, beneath the rushing air. All that remained was the choice: to walk through that open door or to face the opprobrium of bond breaking.
I had convinced myself that courage involved standing up, attaching the static line to the metal cable stretched across the cabin of that C-130, a line which would rip my parachute free when my body tumbled out of the plane. I told myself that this test, this shuffling back toward the open door as that awful plane bounced along humid convective currents, was going to prove something. That if I could do it, if I could somehow get out the door, I’d have started down my fear, once and for all.
Do you have what it takes? What if the answer was, however, simply no? What if the test was failed? What then? Does looking at the antonym of courage shed a brighter light on it? Can the cowardly act reveal truth?
When the cruise ship Costa Concordia slammed into a reef off the Italian coast last month, killing fifteen passengers (17 are still missing), the Italian captain abandoned his ship, saving himself and ignoring his duty. The captain was universally excoriated and declared a coward. And while such judgments seem wholly fair given the circumstances, they are also simplistic and unexamined. This man, after all, had spent most of his life at sea. Didn’t such a career speak to some degree of courage?
Perhaps better to turn back a century for some attempt at an answer.
The fictional events in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim bear a striking resemblance to the wreck of the Costa Concordia. Conrad’s fictional steamship, the Patna, is loaded with Arab pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Late one night on the open ocean, the Patna strikes an object and begins to take on water. Though the crowded ship appears to be sinking, no alarm is sounded. The unknowing pilgrims, many of them asleep on the open decks, are left to die. The captain and crew climb into a lifeboat and begin to lower it. The principal character in Conrad’s novel, a young mate named Jim, hesitates on deck. He knows that abandoning the passengers is reprehensible. He knows he has a choice. He can either leap into the lifeboat with the others or die an honorable death onboard the sinking ship. “Eight hundred people and seven boats—and no time. Just think of it,” Jim says. Through Marlow, the narrator (though not technically the point of view character in the novel), the reader experiences the excruciating details of the cowardly act.
The lifeboat is almost down to the sea’s surface. The crew shouts to Jim. “Jump! Oh, jump!” And, almost in spite of himself, Jim jumps into the boat saving himself from certain death, but also condemning himself to a life of inescapable shame.
After they are rescued, the other members of the crew invent a story about the ship’s sinking, though no one actually witnessed it go down. Jim remains silent, neither confirming the story nor denying it. All would be forgotten, the act erased, since no witnesses remain. But to the crew’s great dismay, the Patna has not sunk. When it is towed into port, with the bewildered and angry passengers on deck, a private shame suddenly becomes a public scandal. The rest of the crew scatters, but Jim insists on standing trial. He alone is prepared to face up to what he did.
Where Conrad’s interrogation of the idea of courage begins, however, is not inside these fictional courts and maritime communities. (Conrad’s imagined world is fully contemporary, mirroring our own hero-worship/scandal mongering media. Just ask Captain Schettino.) The real exploration goes on inside Jim’s mind. For what Conrad creates is at once a terrific yarn of a shipwreck and a meditation on courage.
We learn that Jim has spent a lifetime inventing his heroic double, a mythological version that has projected itself into great adventures, always resolute in the face of peril. But when the call comes, when the question is asked, Do you have what it takes? Jim fails. It’s in the aftermath of that failure where the story takes place. What follows Jim is as much a judgment on that spilt inside himself—between the starkly real person and the self-created but defeated mythological hero—as it is about any guilt he feels over abandoning a boatload of Arab pilgrims. For Jim, the cowardly act is more a betrayal of self than of some code or convention.
“Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character,” Emerson says. “Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war; and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong.”
Jim’s true battle, his ‘last defiance of falsehood and wrong’, is a battle fought over imaginary heroism. What shatters is Jim’s heroic self-image. In this sense, Lord Jim tells the tale of the universal struggle for courage. For we all imagine ourselves as heroes on the stages of our own lives. We are all courageous unto ourselves, ready and waiting to answer that call. It is only when freed from that burdensome ideal of our created heroism, often through a shocking failure, like Jim‘s, that we can begin to grow in stature and strength. The stains on our character, Conrad seems to be telling us, are actually the strengths of it. We are our weaknesses. The courage to embrace that fact is perhaps the only lasting one we will find.
Cowardly Jim will go on in the course of the second half of the novel to become Lord Jim, ruler, hero and to no small extent, a brave man. Though always the heart of the coward remains beating below. Do you have what it takes? For Jim, no less for most of us, the question fuels the journey far more than any answer could.
Inside the plane that day, the unbearable heat and humidity added texture to terror. Beneath thick layers of camouflage uniforms and forty pounds of gear, my back dripped with sweat. As the first ‘stick’ of jumpers was given the order to “Stand Up!” a young soldier nearest the open door vomited into his lap. Suddenly mixed into the sweltering air along with jet fuel, parachute nylon and body odor was this new aroma, the acrid contents of Fear’s half-digested breakfast.
The first stick stood. Even the emetic one managed to stand. I watched him brush off his soiled uniform and hook up. The first jumpers stood crouched against the open door. A green light came on and the jumpmaster shouted. The first members of our Airborne class shuffled away and disappeared.
If I have witnessed a more uncanny sight than that of bodies falling out of an airplane in flight I don’t know what it is. One moment, a familiar face stands ten feet away inside the cargo hold and the next, he disappears out the door. It was the Rapture reversed, God’s chosen called not up toward paradise but sucked down toward hell.
Again and again, the cargo plane circled the drop zone. The next stick of jumpers stood, shuffled and was gone. After two more four-minute cycles, the number of warm bodies between me and that door had decreased by half.
When my turn came, on the fourth pass if memory serves, I stood on legs that nearly faltered. The command was bellowed, “Hook Up!” I attached my static line to the braided steel cable above my head. I checked my equipment and ran my gloved fingers across the parachute lines of the jumper ahead of me, checking for snares and tangles. I prayed that someone behind me was likewise checking the lines on my back. Another stick of jumpers went out that door as we stood there checking. They disappeared from the dimly lit cabin into the bright Alabama sky, a sight still eerie, but gradually becoming more familiar. By then, the plane was emptying fast.
For Jim, the journey toward some reckoning, toward a salvation of the lost hero, came on the distant island of Patsuan. There, his redeemed courage and romantic ideals of heroism would elevate him to the status of Tuan, or Lord. Jim is given another chance, as most of us are. “One does not die of it,” the character called the Frenchman tells Marlow. One does not die of fear. But when Emerson speaks of “the soul at war” it seems to me that the battleground often lies in the spaces between fear and courage. It is that tension, that pulling apart of the two sides, the imagined hero within and the fearful self. Courage, if it exists, must exist there, in accepting the flawed real over the idealized mythic.
I jumped that day. My chute opened and I landed intact in the drop zone. I threw myself out that door with little more than a second thought on the sanctity of my own life or on the consequences of risking it. Something else stands out: Everyone jumped that day. And the next, and the next. I know of not a single person who didn’t go out the door. In our entire class, not a single one of us refused the simple command to “Go!” That’s all it took, one simple word. A stranger shouting “Go!” and we went. We threw ourselves out that door. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
I thought wearing silver jump wings on my uniform would proclaim courage. I thought those wings would enable courage to become a steadier partner in my life. But it did not, of course, any more than a lack of wings proclaimed cowardice. Most of us who graduated from jump school probably felt this way, though we rarely betrayed such confidence, even with each other. Gallantry is not a destination. Courage is, at its best, most tenuous. One does not become courageous, anymore than one becomes loving. That question, Do you have what it takes? can never be finally answered. The interrogation remains ongoing. “Yes! Yes! One talks, one talks,” says the Frenchman to Marlow. “This is all very fine; but at the end of reckoning one is no cleverer than the next man—and no more brave.”
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has published at Hunger Mountain and Numéro Cinq. He has a story forthcoming in the A Year in Ink anthology and his essay, “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.
You really are publishing quality stuff, Doug. So proud to know you, as always.
Thank you, Nina. Stay in touch. 🙂
Rich, what a powerful essay, in my mind, the best kind. You could have stopped with your personal story, a gripping read in itself, but you moved beyond it to the larger culture. And through your reading of Lord Jim, your essays also stands as a testament to the value of literature. Thanks for adding to that storehouse.
Diane, Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I do appreciate your kind words.
Fascinating essay, crammed with the sights sounds — and smells! — of an event most of us would do anything to avoid. In the great short story “On the Rainy River”, Tim O’Brien decides that in his case,answering his draft notice, joining the Army and, going to war were acts of cowardice. The true bravery would have involved turning his back on the expectations, forsaking the respect, of his family and friends, and following his conscience across the river and into Canada. It’s interesting that everyone jumped; but in that circumstance,packed together , with the full weight of social and institutional expectation pressing down … as you put it:”All that remained was the choice: to walk through that open door or to face the opprobrium of bond breaking.” … against all that, there would have been a perverse, stubborn courage in refusing to jump.
I would have ended up admiring you, no matter which way the story played out.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that there would have been a significant courage in NOT jumping. I do wonder if the non-jumper would have recognizned his or her courage then. I hope that the non-jumpers out there (all of us, at one time or another) realize the significance of their choices.
Rich, really great piece. My heart sat in my throat through the whole thing. I jumped out of a plane. Once. Tops my list of scariest things I’ve done. I admire and find you and your entire class admirable, and most definitely courageous.
Bringing Conrad’s Jim and the Italian ship’s captain in were smart. It’s truly not such an easy decision “to jump” under any circumstances. So the allegory holds for many, not just jumpers.
Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the note. I will say that the fifth jump was a whole lot scarier than the first for me. I think that had to do with me realizing that I would never have to do it again…or the fact that a thunderstorm was blowing through the drop zone. The most elated moment for me came after I landed on the 5th jump, and my head smashed into the ground and the chute dragged me about fifty yards because the friggin’ wind was howling. I was lying there, thinking, okay, I think I can move my legs..I think I’m alive…I will never do this again in my entire life! 🙂
Thanks for sharing on facebook, too, Amy. Us 619 writers have to stick together.
Just wanted to say again (with more space than twitter would allow) how much I enjoyed reading this.
The way you tangled together personal experience, recent news and literary reference was wonderful – really added a depth to my understanding of the experience, the events on the Concordia and my appreciation of Lord Jim (in a thoughtful rather than a sensational way). It’s also quite rare to find writing (especially essay writing) of this quality on the web.
And as a final note – isn’t Conrad great!
Thanks for the nice comment. And yes, Conrad is terrific. I would love to have met him in a pub somewhere, a few pints…a foggy night would have been preferable. Can you imagine those hours?
You are a great at what you do! Great story.
Thanks Jennifer Engebretson, whoever you are. (Mom appreciates your comments…I’ve forbidden her from writing!) 🙂
Powerful words Sensei Rich. Your essay brings a connection and meaning to the page that’s deeply personal and universal at the same time. I found myself thinking about what makes us afraid, brave, or crumble. I just told my son last night, “you’re only brave if you do something you are afraid to do.” Now you’ve got me wondering, if you’re not afraid before your jump, are you still brave? Comparing the Concordia and Conrad’s novel was insightful. Makes we want to go back and read Lord Jim, and hope for Captain Schettino’s redemption in the future.
Thanks, Wendy. If we parents only had a few of the answers! 🙂 As for the Concordia/Conrad connection, I owe a debt of insight to the master himself. I came up with Conrad on my own, but a certain Canadian writer suggested I tie-in the contemporary shipwreck.
You inspire me to jump! Great essay and great use of “Lord Jim.” Thanks for writing this!
Thanks for reading, Meg! Hope we see something of yours up here soon.
Terrific work Rich! I’m enjoying your latest career.
Great “Mom” comment too. – sorry you won’t let her contribute.
Rosemary! Nice to see you visiting our site. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
thoughtful and compelling….I think Ambrose Redmoon said it best – “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”…..a fine work…good luck..JT
Dear Mr Farrell,
BLUF #1: I came across what you wrote randomly, and now feel a little random for even submitting a comment.
BLUF #2: I appreciate how you wrote that neither having the jump wings, or the absence of wings symbolized how much courage someone had. I’ve often thought of myself as a lesser person because I’m not brave enough to go to jump school.
BLUF #3: Have you ever thought about writing something along the lines of how burdensome symbols of (in this case) courage can become? I recall reading about a MOH recepient who said he thought it was odd he’d been given the medal as a symbol of the worst day of his life. He’d thought that plenty of other men he’d served with were braver then he, and now he had the medal that symbolized “hero” to everyone…what a mixed blessing/burden.
BLUF #4: I went to Vermont College too….for one year before I went to Norwich University. I’m an Army Nurse now stationed in Helmand Province. If you ever need interesting stories of bravery or plain quirky stories about how F’ed up this place is…let me know.
Victoria Ragan MAJ/AN
Bastion Hosptial, Helmand Afghanistan
Victoria (pardon the informality…it’s a requirement here at NC!),
Thanks so much for commenting. Clearly you are in a position to know a hell of a lot more about courage than I am, so I appreciate you even taking the time to read this essay.
I certainly think the symbols of courage must be burdnesome. Certainly they are. As a young Naval officer, I once needed heroes and symbols to make sense of the world I was trying to enter. (I was a student pilot before it was discovered I had epilepsy…I wrote about that as well. Here’s the link if you are interested.( http://www.hungermtn.org/accidental-pugilism/ ) I think once those symbols are acheived, the burden must be intense. How to walk around and be thought of as a hero? I truly can’t imagine it.
I would guess that in your world, a lot of courageous acts often go unnoticed. That maybe the real heroes go quietly through their days without attention. I really have no basis to speak of this, though. I was fortunate to have never served in combat. I can only imagine the stories you have, the things you’ve witnessed. Hopefully you are writing down some of those stories, in a journal or online. They’ll be invaluable some day, once you get home
Stay safe over there and may the days pass quickly for you.. Again, thanks so much for reading and commenting.
So grateful that my daughter Danielle talked about you (for years) and this particular writing of yours. I was glued to the computer screen – it was a “how does he know what I am experiencing” moment” – so completely personal. I recently was at “the” door – split second before hearing the “GO”. I jumped and my life has once again been changed for the remaining years I have here but this time I am not looking back. Thank you for helping me clarify blue sky from muddy waters. Chris
Thanks for this nice comment and for reading. Any friend (relative, mother) of Danielle’s is a friend of mine. I’m happy that you found something useful in this essay.
Rich, I came to your web essay looking for an image keyworded by “relentless indoctrination”. What I found was a good writer looking deeply into the human condition. Thanks!
That’s the beauty of the global brain, the planetary connector, the Internet.
I, too, am a vet. Vietnam ’66/’67. And since then, I suppose I’ve been radicalized. I’d love to know your reactions to my latest expression of how I view our country:
It’s a 20 minute video that may shake you.
Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I just finished watching the video. Derrick Jensen’s book, Endgame, comes to mind. That book began a reversal in terms of my thinking, this was several years ago now. And yet in your video, no less than in Jensen’s book, the question remains one of locating a voice and a message which can ring the alarm of conscience and consciousness while staying true to the medium and methodology of who we are as people. As I’ve drifted towards some semblance of a writing community, I find my ‘radical’ ideas are far from radical or even novel. I suppose I’ve come to put my ‘faith’ in the quiet action of reading, experiencing and (maybe someday) creating things worthy of being called literature. The marginalization of good writers and good writing in this country speaks to the repressive nature of yet another system, but the work is out there and the voices appear to be gathering strength. (One wonders, though, if anyone is listening. I spent all summer walking around watching 9/10 people with a book in their hand reading the same book.)
The process of de-mythification is not only a gruelling one (both personally and socially) but a terrifying one. I have children and do still hope for their future. But more and more I recognize my own complicity in the machinery. How to be both inside and outside at once? How to retain some sense of self when that pre-packaged image starts to fall away? How to be more than just a voice calling out in the wilderness?
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about watching your video (and posting a reply to it) is the twinge of fear I have in composing a response. It’s a hell of a lot easier to drink the medicine and remain asleep. And yet I write “On Courage” to ask myselves these questions. We all jumped.
Again, thanks for the note. I hope you keep following us here at Numero Cinq.
Though our pieces appeared in the same issue of Numero Cinq, I’m just now coming to your wonderful meditation on courage. When I was in the army back in the 1960s, I wanted to go to jump school after basic. The colonel I was speaking to looked at my medical records (really screwed-up knees), congratulated me on my “courage,” but suggested I should have my head examined.
Since you quote Emerson several times, I thought you might be interested in this rather graphic comment on courage. Though it occurred in an address Emerson gave to the 1845 graduating class at Middlebury College, it went unpublished until 2001:
Is there only one courage, and one warfare? I cannot manage sword and rifle; can I not therefore be brave? I thought there were as many courages as men. Is an armed man the only hero? Is a man only the breech of a gun, or the hasp of a bowie knife? Men of thought fail in fighting down malignity because they wear other armour than their own….It seems to me that the thoughtful man needs no other armour but this one–concentration. One thing is for him settled, that he is to come to his ends. He is not there to defend himself, but to deliver his message; if his voice is clear, then clearly; if husky, then huskily; if broken, he can at least scream; gag him, he can still write it; bruise, mutilate him, cut off his hands and his feet, he can still crawl toward his object on his stumps.
Emerson reaches a crescendo that’s moving, funny, and admirable, all at the same time. Though nothing if not physical, the passage celebrates what Emerson calls in the next paragraph “power in the mind.” In an unpublished lecture of his own, and employing the same device (the rhetorical question), W. B. Yeats once asked, “Why should we honour those that die on the field of battle; a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.”
But of course the two forms of courage are not mutually exclusive.
Thanks again for a terrific essay, one that raises so many crucial issues.
“It seems to me that the thoughtful man needs no other armour but this one–concentration. One thing is for him settled, that he is to come to his ends. He is not there to defend himself, but to deliver his message;”
Thanks so much for your words, both here on this essay on an NC as a contributor.
I’ve always had a fondness for Emerson. He was an important teacher in my life at a time when I was somewhat rudderless and adrift.
I recall hearing (or reading) a description of T.S. Eliot addressing an audience in London in the early part of the WWII and refusing to acknowledge the war. (I wish I could remember the source of this.) But the person discussing the Eliot address said that this omission was utterly intentional, as if to remind his audience that even the awful bloodshed and violence only distracted. The war would pass, and humankind would be required to think and feel and carry the culture forward. His silence pointed to things larger than the war. It certainly took courage to even arrive at that mode of thought.
And you say it well, that the two forms of courage are not mutually exclusive, though it often seems to be so. The indoctrination part of military training often emphasized the physical courage over the mental. Perhaps for obvious reasons. And yet I find myself drawn to writers who can transcend that culture: Thom Jones, James Salter, Robert Stone, even John Fowles (who, if I recall, was a royal Marine right after WWII ended.) I’d say Tim O’Brien too, but he gets enough attention already! Maybe it’s the passing through the ritualized brutality, the enduring it, that gives the transcendence something extra.
Well, again, thanks so much for writing and for the Emerson quote. It’s a real privilege and quite humbling to share space with you on Numero Cinq.
I think I already responded, but it didn’t seem to register. I’m glad the Emerson passage spurred this follow-up from you. And thanks for the compliment. I feel the same. Pat.
Rich–Came across your remarks again. That Eliot anecdote doesn’t register. On the other hand, Yeats once said (not his finest moment) that we shouldn’t “attribute much reality” to the horrors of WW I. And he notoriously omitted Wilfred Owen from his (rather idiosyncratic) Oxford Book of Modern Poetry on the grotesque grounds that “the pity of war” was not a promising subject of poetry. He changed his tune when he was faced with the Irish Civil War. Whatever Eliot had to say about the First World War, he was (of course) caught up in the Second. He was a fire warden duting thr bombing of London, exeriences that helped shape the greatest section of the final poem of Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.”–Pat