One of the overdue lessons of 9/11 is that we can’t afford to sneer
at physical courage any more. The willingness of New York firemen,
Special Forces troops in Afghanistan, and the passengers of Flight 93
to put their lives on the line has given us most of the bright spots
we’ve had in the war against terror. We are learning, once again,
that all that stands between us and the night of barbarism is the
willingness of men to both risk their lives and take the awful
responsibility of using lethal force in our defense.
(And, usually, it is men who do the risking. I mean no disrespect
to our sisters; the kind of courage I am talking about is not an
exclusive male monopoly. But it has been predominently the job of
men in every human culture since Olduvai Gorge, and still is today.
I’ll return to this point later in the essay.)
The rediscovery of courage visibly upsets a large class of bien
pensants in our culture. Many of the elite molders of opinion in
the U.S and Europe do not like or trust physical courage in men. They
have spent decades training us to consider it regressive, consigning
it to fantasy, sneering at it — trying to persuade us all that
it’s at best an adolescent or brute virtue, perhaps even a vice.
If this seems too strong an indictment, consider carefully all the
connotations of the phrase “testosterone poisoning”. Ask yourself
when you first heard it, and where, and from whom. Then ask yourself
if you have slid into the habit of writing off as bluster any man’s
declaration that he is willing to risk his life, willing to fight for
what he believes in. When some ordinary man says he is willing to
take on the likes of the 9/11 hijackers or the D.C. sniper — or
even ordinary criminals — them, do you praise his determination
or consign him, too, to the category of blowhard or barbarian?
Like all virtues, courage thrives on social support. If we mock
our would-be warriors, writing them off as brutes or rednecks or
simpletons, we’ll find courage in short supply when we need it. If we
make the more subtle error of sponsoring courage only in uniformed men
— cops, soldiers, firemen — we’ll find that we have
trouble growing the quantity or quality we need in a crisis. Worse:
our brave men could come to see themselves apart from us, distrusted
and despised by the very people for whom they risk their lives, and
entitled to take their due when it is not freely given. More than one
culture that made that mistake has fallen to its own guardians.
Before 9/11, we were in serious danger of forgetting that courage
is a functional virtue in ordinary men. But Todd Beamer reminded us of
that — and now, awkwardly, we are rediscovering some of the
forms that humans have always used to nurture and reward male courage.
Remember that rash of news stories from New York about Upper-East-Side
socialites cruising firemen’s bars? Biology tells; medals and
tickertape parades and bounties have their place, but the hero’s most
natural and strongest reward is willing women.
Manifestations like this absolutely appall and disgust the sort of
people who think that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a
judgment on American sins; — the multiculturalists, the
postmodernists, the transnational progressives, radical feminists, the
academic political-correctness brigades, the Bush-is-a-moron elitists,
and the plain old-fashioned loony left. By and large these people
never liked or trusted physical courage, and it’s worth taking a hard
look at why that is.
Feminists distrust physical courage because it’s a male virtue.
Women can and do have it, but it is gender-linked to masculinity just
as surely as nurturance is to femininity. This has always been
understood even in cultures like the Scythians, Teutons, Japanese, and
modern Israelis that successfully made places for women warriors. If
one’s world-view is organized around distrusting or despising men and
maleness, male courage is threatening and social support for it is
For multi-culti and po-mo types, male physical courage is suspect
because it’s psychologically linked to moral certitude — and
moral certitude is a bad thing, nigh-indistinguishable from
intolerance and bigotry. Men who believe in anything enough to fight
for it are automatically suspect of would-be imperialism &mdash,
unless, of course, they’re tribesmen or Third Worlders, in which
fanaticism is a praiseworthy sign of authenticity.
Elite opinions about male physical courage have also had more
than a touch of class warfare about them. Every upper crust
that is not directly a military caste — including our own
— tends to dismiss physical courage as a trait of peasants
and proles and the lesser orders, acceptable only when they
know their place is to be guided by their betters.
For transnational progressives and the left in general, male
physical courage is a problem in the lesser orders because it’s an
individualizing virtue, one that leads to wrong-think about
autonomy and the proper limits of social power. A man who develops in
himself the grit that it takes to face death and stare it down is less
likely to behave meekly towards bureacrats, meddlers, and taxmen who
have not passed that same test. Brave men who have learned to fight
for their own concept of virtue — independently of
social approval or the party line — are especially threatening
to any sort of collectivist.
The multiculturalist’s and the collectivist’s suspicions are
backhanded tributes to an important fact. There is a continuity among
self-respect, physical courage and ethical/moral courage. These virtues are
the soil of individualism, and are found at their strongest only in
individualists. They do not flourish in isolation from one another.
They reinforce each other, and the social measures we take to reward
any of them tend to increase all of them.
After 1945 we tried to separate these virtues. We tried to teach
boys moral steadfastness while also telling them that civilized men
are expected to avoid confrontation and leave coping with danger to
specialists. We preached the virtue of `self-esteem’ to adolescents
while gradually abolishing almost all the challenges and ordeals that
might have enabled them to acquire genuine self-respect. Meanwhile,
our entertainments increasingly turned on anti-heros or celebrated
physical bravery of a completely mindless and morally vacuous kind.
We taught individualism without responsibility, denying the unpleasant
truth that freedom has to be earned and kept with struggle and blood.
And we denied the legitimacy of self-defense.
Rudyard Kipling would have known better, and Robert Heinlein did.
But they were written off as reactionaries — and many of us were
foolish enough to be surprised when the new thinking produced a bumper
crop of brutes, narcissists, overgrown boys, and bewildered hollow men
apt to fold under pressure. We became, in Jeffrey Snyder’s famous
diagnosis, a nation
of cowards; the cost could be measured in the explosion in crime
rates after 1960, a phenomenon primarily of males between 15 and 35.
But this was a cost which, during the long chill of the Cold War,
we could afford. Such conflicts as there were stayed far away from
the home country, warfare was a game between nations, and nuclear
weapons seemed to make individual bravery irrelevant. So it remained
until al-Qaeda and the men of Flight 93 reminded us otherwise.
Now we have need of courage. Al-Qaeda’s war has come to us. There
is a geopolitical aspect to it, and one of the fronts we must pursue
is to smash state sponsors of terrorism. But this war is not
primarily a chess-game between nations — it’s a street-level
brawl in which the attackers are individuals and small terrorist cells
often having no connection to the leadership of groups like al-Qaeda
other than by sympathy of ideas.
Defense against this kind of war will have to be decentralized and
citizen-centered, because the military and police simply cannot be
everywhere that terrorists might strike. John F. Kennedy said this during
the Cold War, but it is far truer now:
“Today, we need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to
take arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as the basic
purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and
sacrifice for that freedom.”
The linked virtues of physical courage, moral courage, and
self-respect are even more essential to a Minuteman’s readiness than
his weapons. So the next time you see a man claim the role
of defender, don’t sneer — cheer. Don’t write him off with some
pseudo-profound crack about macho idiocy, support him. He’s trying to
tool up for the job two million years of evolution designed him for,
fighting off predators so the women and children can sleep safe.
Whether he’s in uniform or not, young or old, fit or flabby
— we need that courage now.