Friday, February 25, 2011

Defining Courage

Some of the greatest minds in history have tried to define courage.

Ernest Hemingway said, "Courage is grace under pressure." That is an excellent description of the courage of Captain Chesney Sullenberger, who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River Runway in January 2009. Hemingway was seriously wounded driving an ambulance in the First World War and hunted Nazi subs off the coast of Cuba in a fishing boat in the Second, so he has a notion of physical courage.

But with all due respect to Sully, there is an element missing in his act of heroism. Heroism of the highest order requires putting yourself in harm's way*, but Sullenberger was already on the plane. There was at least an element of self-preservation in his act.

Socrates argued that courage is the ability to distiguish between real and perceived threats, to know which threats should be acted upon and which safely ignored. Socrates, by all accounts, fought bravely in the Peloponnesian War, so we should take him seriously. And far be it from me to disagree with one of the greatest thinkers in history. But still, that seems more like a definition of wisdom than courage.

The Wizard of Oz thought the Cowardly Lion, like Socrates, confused wisdom with courage. "You, my friend, are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage," Oz told the King of the Forest. "But you are confusing courage with wisdom...There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid." Hmm, now we're getting somewhere.

And I once had a conversation with my buddy Lucky, a former Marine who served a tour in the First Gulf War. The day of our conversation, a man was being hailed as a hero in New York because he had chased and tackled some maniac who had pushed a bystander in front of a subway train. "It was a brave act", Lucky said, "but he's not a hero." Lucky contended that for him to be a true hero, he would have had to try and save the bystander, not just catch the bad guy.

The Chopper Save
I bring all this up because my friend, Detective Chris Condon of the NYPD, was very much in the news this weekend. The feat of bravery performed by him and his unit in the early morning hours of February 21st was on the front page of the New York Daily News and in newspapers around the world. Chris and his unit mates were interviewed several times on television and were honored at City Hall.

You can find the full story here (and in many other places) but the short version is this:

Two West Point cadets got themselves stranded on the face of Storm King Mountain, clinging to a tree while standing on an 18 inch ledge. The NYPD Aviation Unit was called because they had the equipment and personnel to pull off a daring save. Pilot Steve Browning hovered his helicopter alongside a sheer cliff, 500 feet above the Hudson in 50 knot winds, the rotors perilously close to the cliff face. Chris Condon was lowered on a line, spinning around, onto the ledge. One at a time they rescued the two Cadets, who were by now suffering from hypothermia and returned them to West Point.

Condon, Browning, and the rest of the Aviation Unit met every criteria of heroism imaginable. One, they put themselves in harm's way to save others; and not just any others, but complete strangers. Two, they showed Hemingway's grace under presure (see this Post story on Chris cracking jokes on the ledge). Three, they met the Socratic standard of courage; their knowledge and training made them acutely aware of the risk they were taking, and aware that if they didn't act those boys might not survive the night. And four, they met Lucky's standard; the cadets are safe and sound, even if they are being relentlessly teased at the Point for having to call in the NYPD to save their bacon.

Finally, like Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the Medal of Honor winner, they have accepted the honors given them with humility and grace.

A toast to these genuine heroes. And Chris, dinner on Mike and I next month so you can clear up any of the details I got wrong in here.

*Lest you think I don't have enough respect for the Captain, I am very aware that he entered the Naval Academy in 1969, the height of the Vietnam War, to become a fighter pilot. Nearly 3,000 American aircraft were shot down in the Vietnam War, so Captain Sullenberger knows quite a bit about putting yourself in harm's way.

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