What Is Courage?

When I tell the story of the fall of Saigon, listeners come up to me afterwards and accuse me of having courage. I plead not guilty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courage is facing danger without fear. Believe me, I was scared the whole time.

Men and women I’ve talked to who are, by my standards, heroes for their acts of bravery, often say something similar: all they did was what was required by the circumstances at the time. And I remember reading somewhere long ago a description of a man standing in front of a mirror and watching himself tremble with fear after carrying out an act of bravery and thinking wryly to himself: “This is the portrait of a hero.”

What the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, does at the end of the book could be described as courageous. But he clearly doesn’t see it that way. He’d use words from his friend, Ike: “You do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Looking back on the last days in Saigon, what I remember most vividly is my determination to get all my men and their families out of Saigon safely before the attack on the city started. It took every scrap of strength I had; I didn’t have time to dwell on my fear that I might not make it out. Toward the end, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of ours back in the states and told her to deliver that letter to my wife if I didn’t make it. At the time, I really didn’t see how I was going to get out of Saigon alive. That letter was another thing I had to do, whatever it took. When I made it back to the world alive, the marriage collapsed. I burned the letter unread.

So what is courage? I honestly don’t know. What Chuck and I had doesn’t fit the description. Maybe what drives people to risk their lives is more like determination or focus on a goal of overwhelming importance. Maybe some things are more important staying alive.

If any of the readers of this blog can enlighten me and others, please leave a comment.

4 thoughts on “What Is Courage?”

  1. One definition of courage could be performing your duty despite the metallic taste in your mouth, the dripping sweat soaking your clothes and the bile ripping apart your stomach, knowing full well the consequences of your best efforts may result in total failure…and no one, not your wife, your children, your brothers and sisters or your friends will ever know what you did that day.

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    1. The last two lines of your comment speak to me, Bruce. No one in my family, none of my friends knew what had happened and mostly didn’t care. The indifference of my wife to my physical illness and emotional wreckage led to the breakup of the marriage. But, as I am now learning thanks to this blog, the men working for me and their families did know. Their courage in the face of disaster moves me. I have always admired the men who worked for me in Saigon. Now their bravery humbles me..

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  2. In your mind you may have thought you did not have courage, but believe me, I saw a man that was fighting an Ambassador tooth and nail. I saw a man that his only concern was to get the dependents out of Saigon, I saw a man that had deep concern for those in his charge and he must do what ever to protect their safety. Maybe not courage, but one hell of an intestinal fortitude and determination. May not be courage but in my book it’s there.

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    1. Thank you, Don. I had no idea at the time that any of you knew all the terrifying details. I was trying hard to keep all that from you—you had enough to worry about. Turns out most of you, maybe all 43 of you, knew everything that was going on. I was impressed at the time with the courage all of you showed. I’m humbled now that I learn that you knew all the terrible roadblocks we faced and remained calm, resolute, and brave.

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