Moral courage: doing what we can, where we can, when we can to serve others

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
In Elmer Bedniner's book, The Fall of Fortresses, he describes a particular B-17 bombing run over the German city of Kassel in World War II. The crew of this particular bomber, The Tondelayo, found itself barraged by heavy flak from Nazi antiaircraft guns. This was not particularly unusual for a daylight bombing mission over enemy territory, but on this occasion an enemy round hit one of the plane's internal fuel tanks. 

Miraculously, the 20-millimeter incendiary shell failed to explode. Capt. Bohn Fawkes and his crew were dumbfounded, quietly thankful for this seeming miracle. But after returning to their airbase, they soon found out there was more to the story. 

Upon landing, the crew assessed the damage to their heavily scarred aircraft, marveling at the workmanship that enabled this flying machine to withstand such an incredible amount of damage while maintaining its ability to fly. In particular, Captain Fawkes was interested in retrieving the unexploded shell that had hit the fuel tank and failed to explode -- a souvenir of unbelievable luck. Imagine his surprise when he discovered not just one shell in the gas tank, but 11; 11 unexploded shells with enough potential explosive power to destroy several aircraft. The captain and his crew were awestruck, unsure of how something like this could occur. Something that seemingly defied all odds ... until he heard the next words out of the crew chief's mouth, "Sir, the shells that hit your aircraft had no explosive charges. They were clean as a whistle and completely harmless. Empty." 

All but one, that is. 

For one of the 11 shells contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it, scrawled in Czech, were the words, "This is all we can do for you now."
Somewhere, in an armament factory behind enemy lines, at least one person had chosen to step up and do what he could, where he could, to contribute to saving another's life. Risking his own safety, he chose to make these shells inert so they would be unable to cause the death and destruction they were designed to deliver. In effect, he exercised the moral courage to do what he believed was right, instead of doing what was safe or what was easy. 

What is moral courage? 

Moral courage is defined as "the quality of mind and spirit that enables someone to face the ethical dilemmas and moral wrongdoings firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating," according to Rushworth Kidder and Martha Bracy of the Institute for Global Ethics. 

Unlike physical courage, moral courage is not about facing physical challenges that could injure the body. It's about facing mental challenges that could harm one's reputation, emotional well-being or self-esteem. 

These challenges, as the term implies, are deeply connected to what we routinely call our moral values or convictions. This is why moral courage is often characterized as "the courage of your convictions." It's the kind of courage required to address problems "head-on," squarely and with determination. It is the courage to act firmly and persistently, even when it means going against the grain, acting contrary to the accepted norm with little to no promise we will ever be able to master the challenges before us. But mastering these challenges is not the point. You see, exercising moral courage is ultimately about being able to face up to the ethical challenges in our daily lives, to remain faithful to sacred oaths, and, in the words of former Marine General Chuck Krulak, "to have a reservoir of strength from which to draw in times of great stress, such as the heat of battle." 

For a Soldier, moral courage is perhaps the single most important element required in today's complex battle space. In a world where the lines of warfare have been redrawn from large standing armies with well-defined combatants to engagements involving suicide bombers still too young to shave, the "fog of war" is undeniably thick. Yet, it is moral courage that gives us the ability to act rightly in a world that is, in itself, not right. It is moral courage that enables us to act humanely in the midst of inhumanity. 

In sum, it is moral courage that enables true warriors to persist against frustration, take responsibility for their actions, remain humble, stay dedicated to duty and, above all, do what they can, where they can, when they can to promote what's right instead of settling for what's easy ... regardless of the cost to self. 

A daring and dangerous plan 

Claus von Stauffenberg was the epitome of a successful military leader. Born of German military roots that included a host of generals, marshals and knights, his family name was synonymous with personal and professional excellence. From his first days of service with the 17th Bamberg Calvary Regiment, to his performance on the Eastern and African fronts in World War II, he distinguished himself at all he undertook. 

However, as the second World War progressed, Major Stauffenberg grew increasingly disenchanted with the Nazi war machine's senseless persecution of innocent civilians as well as its leaders' selfish pursuit of their misguided agendas. So, with the war effort at a critical juncture, he chose to secretly join the German resistance, committing to do all he could to weaken the Nazi leadership's grip on the nation. 

In short order, Stauffenberg amassed an impressive network of influential figures within the German military staff who were also disenchanted with the Nazi leadership's handling of the war. And together, they set forth a daring but extremely dangerous plan -- eliminate Germany's leader, Adolph Hitler. 

It was a plan whose most dangerous component Maj. Claus von Stauffenberg's convictions insist he carry out himself. 

Over the course of the next several months, Stauffenberg and the other conspirators put into place a comprehensive strategy to wrest Germany from the Nazis in a single day following Hitler's demise. And, almost a year after the plan's original conception, and following two previously aborted attempts, the day they had long awaited, finally arrived.
On July 20, 1944, at a morning meeting attended by Hitler and a host of the Nazi leader's most influential advisors, Stauffenberg gently set his dynamite-laden briefcase beneath a large oak map table in the fabled Wolf's Lair, one of Hitler's favorite meeting places.
Quietly, with pulse pounding and heart racing, the young German major carefully slid from the building. Moments later, the room erupted with a violent explosion. The flames from the detonation were said to be so hot that they warmed Stauffenberg's face as he waited to confirm the impact of the blast more than 150-feet away. 

Convinced the Fuhrer had breathed his last, he stepped into a waiting car to press on with the plan to reclaim their beloved country. 

A new day was dawning over Germany -- or so the German major thought.

As history reveals, Hitler was wounded, but did not die in the explosion. By some sad twist of fate, the heavy oak table had shielded him from the intensity of the blast. He would indeed live to fight another day.

Within hours of the attempted assassination, Stauffenberg was seized and placed before a firing squad, just yards away from the very office where he had spent months hammering out his plan. Most of Stauffenberg's co-conspirators were also quickly hunted down and killed, while others chose to abandon their convictions and reaffirm their allegiance to the supreme Nazi leader, instead of giving their lives for a cause they had privately agreed to support.

With the sun setting, the guns fired one final time and Stauffenberg fell dead -- his plan a failure, but his courage an inspiration to others for generations to come.

Leadership and courage lived out in a very real way 

Admittedly, real world tales of great personal sacrifice like those of Claus von Stauffenberg and the unknown workers in the Czechoslovakian Armament factory are rare. In a world where it's much easier to succumb to following the crowd rather than risking everything to do what you can, where you can, when you can to pursue what you know to be right and true, willfully exercising moral courage in the daily decisions of life, big and small alike is no easy task. Namely, because it calls us to accept the very real probability we may never see the fruits of our efforts, but that's ok. 

While some reading this may still think this type of courage is easier to muster than physical courage, I would offer the opposite is quite true. For moral courage reflects our deepest beliefs about what we hold dear; the kind of courage equally refined on the field of adversity in our homes, workplaces, worship spaces and communities as it is by our Soldiers serving in the dangerous streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. And perhaps most importantly, because it's a choice we can make about how we will respond to situations or circumstances our convictions tell us aren't right. It's the kind of courage that can be practiced by anyone regardless of age, gender, physical ability, social status, position, bank account balance, zip code or nationality. 

Thus, exercising moral courage in the daily decisions of life has less to do with brawn than it does backbone. It's a powerful choice that allows us to discover that living a courageous life has little to do with the circumstances occurring around us and everything to do with mustering that which is best within us. That is, choosing to respond to opportunities to do all we can in the here and now to selflessly serve others so we can make a positive difference in their lives. No matter the cost to self. 

Need a little more convincing? 

Today, the name Adolph Hitler is almost universally met with scorn and disdain. His memory serving as a sad reminder of the pain and suffering selfish, misguided leadership can have on the world around them. Conversely, cities across the world today bare streets with the name, Stauffenberg. A testimony to the mark this one man, whose moral convictions compelled him to do what he could, when he could, where he could to make life better for others, left on the world around him. 

And the building where Stauffenberg was executed? It now holds the German Resistance Memorial Center in honor of Claus von Stauffenberg and the other selfless patriots who gave their lives for a cause they knew was just. Men and women who willfully exercised the moral courage to pursue selflessness instead of surrender to a spirit of selfishness. 

Not because they had to, but because they chose to. 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.