When I first started this blog several years ago, I pondered the question of what courage is. Here’s what I wrote:
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 [as we referred to the U.S.] 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.