My Courage Matters. Reflections on a vietnam POW

By Paul Coughlin,
Oregon author of No More Christian Nice Guy

In the months after 9/11, Senator John McCain, Vietnam veteran and perhaps America’s most well-known prisoner of war, was asked to explain to the nation why courage matters as part of America’s response to our worst domestic terrorist attack on American soil.

Courage is a subject few know more intimately than McCain (at least among those who have lived to tell their story).  In 1967, McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk was shot down by an antiaircraft missile, landing in Truc Bach Lake.  He’d broken both arms and a leg after ejecting, and after he regained consciousness, a mob gathered around him and tore his clothing off.  He was tortured by Vietnamese soldiers, who bayoneted his left foot and groin and crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt.  He was transported to the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.

McCain was placed in a cell and interrogated daily.  When he refused to provide any information to his captors, he was beaten until he lost consciousness.  When the North Vietnamese discovered his father was commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, McCain was offered a chance to return home.  Seeing it as a public relations stunt by his captors, he refused.

McCain signed an anti-American propaganda message (something he most regrets of his time as a POW), written in Vietnamese, as a result of rigorous and brutal torture that rendered him incapable of raising his arms above his head.  When the Vietnamese decided they couldn’t use the statement, they tried to force him to sign a second, and this time he refused.  He received two to three beatings per week because of his ongoing refusal.

He was held as a POW for five-and-a-half years, almost five years longer than if he’d accepted the earlier offer of release.  During his military career, he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Compare McCain’s courage with that of the pampered celebrity who talks about her “courageous battle” with losing twenty pounds (when I heard one talk about the “courage” required to get breast implants, I had to go for a walk), and you see just how far our understanding of courage has slipped.  McCain explains:

We have attributed courage to all manner of actions that may indeed be admirable but hardly compare to the conscious self-sacrifice on behalf of something greater than self-interest that once defined courage.  We have come to identify one or more of the elements of courage—fortitude, discipline, daring, or righteousness, for example—as the entire virtue.

Courage, writes McCain, is

That rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us strikes the flint of love, of honor, of duty….It is an acute awareness of danger, the sensation of fear it produces, and the will to act in spite of it.  I think it is the highest quality of life attainable by human beings….I think God meant us to be courageous so that we could know better how to live, how to love what, and as, He commands us to love.

It is not enough to be honest and just and demand that we be treated honestly and justly by others.  We must learn to love honesty and justice for themselves, not just for their effect on our personal circumstances, but for their effect on the world, on the whole of human experience.

McCain says there is one state of mind “that must always be present for courage to exist: fear.  You must be afraid to have courage.”  But one of our largest misunderstandings about courage is that it’s synonymous with suffering.  Suffering “is not by itself, courage; fearing what we choose to suffer, is.”  Enduring an inescapable fate stoically is admirable, but it’s not the same as courage.  “Suffering stoically a terrible fate that you could have escaped, but that your convictions, your sense of honor, compelled you to accept is.”  In this way, courage enters the moral realm and is more than mental toughness or “grace under pressure,” as Hemingway’s peculiar phrase defined it.  The 50th Anniversary edition of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage records the definition of courage by Profile-in-Courage-Award-recipient Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) for his civil rights leadership:

Courage is a reflection of the heart.  It is a reflection of something deep within the man or woman or even a child who must resist and must defy an authority that is morally wrong.  Courage makes us march on despite fear and doubt on the road toward justice….Courage is not rooted in reason but rather courage comes from a divine purpose to make things right.

When you stand up to injustice, when you refuse to let brute force crush you, when you love the man who spits on you or calls you names or puts a lighted cigarette in your hair, you come to believe that righteousness will always prevail.  Just hold on.

What’s more, anyone can do it!  “I’ve known any number of physically fit cowards.  I’ve known any number of self-assured cowards.  And I’ve known quite a few humble, physically delicate people who had a lion’s courage when they needed it.

Just as there are different degrees or manifestations of love, McCain explains that courage has variant forms as well.  “The defensive kind of courage, the capacity to suffer with dignity, without losing hope, is a virtue that can be possessed by the physically strong and weak alike….It must be voluntary, however, to be courage.”

We parents must grasp this vital distinction.  Forcing a kid to do the right thing is not the same as building courage in her, which in turn builds other qualities (like respect).  In order for behavior to cultivate the young soil of courage in our children, it must be voluntary, not coercive.  They must first want to do the right thing, then receive encouragement to stay upon this gallant course, which means helping them handle fear.

Face the experience with quiet assurance or with a look that reflects stark terror, screaming in anguish all the while.  It doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that you faced it, lived it, and did so because your conscience compelled you to act.  That is what gives courage its grandeur.  Even Christ on the cross, my faith’s most exalted example of courage, cried out in desperation, “Father, Father, why have You forsaken me?”  Is it not Christ’s reticence in a moment of agony that we worship?  It is because he accepted his duty to love, a love incarnate—God become man to redeem humanity by love—and the awful suffering his duty demanded that we exalt the singular courage of his sacrifice.

If someone doesn’t love, then she will not be very courageous.  Love motivates courage as bold service to others.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.

McCain, like many younger men, thought courage would be there and be sustained when he need it—all he had to do was call it forth.  While imprisoned in Vietnam, though, “I would use my anger to prime the pump of my courage and provoke confrontations with the enemy.  But many times, when I was weary and somewhat forlorn, I just couldn’t recover the strength to put myself in need of it.”  What bolstered his courage then, and what can bolster ours and our children’s now?  Being among others who feed courage.  “Many times when I was brought back to my cell after an extended and physically challenging interrogation, the first thing I would do is tap on the wall to my neighbor.  The responses lifted his spirits.  We and our children need brothers and sisters in courage too.

Some argue that fear, not hatred or apathy, is the exact opposite of love.  No matter the technicalities, we need to let our children know that while fear is a major enemy of love, it’s always present when we’re given the opportunity to grow courage or cowardice.  Fear here is normal, and the fear isn’t usually as apparent to others as we think.  McCain’s advice?

Just move along quickly and things will likely turn out fine….Don’t let the sensation in your ear convince you that you’re too weak to have courage.  Fear is the opportunity for courage, not proof of cowardice.  No one is born a coward.  We were meant to love.  And we were meant to have the courage for it.  So be brave.  The rest is easy.

To give courage a chance to grow, we need to expose our children to the concept of honor, which is concerned with more than one’s own dignity, important as that is.  Honor is connected to other virtues, such as justice, loyalty, and fidelity.  Honor values others and truth so much that it motivates a person to protect their value and worth.  Honor, properly applied, says McCain, is “concerned with the rights of others.”

In order for kids to embrace honor, we need to help them cultivate dignity.  This doesn’t mean we encourage them to fight every force that threatens their dignity.  It does mean they recognize that when their value is or has been under attack, sometimes wisdom dictates overlooking the offense, and sometimes wisdom signals responding in defense.  This is a proactive self-worth, and living this way means our children are also more likely to both consider and defend the dignity and worth of others.  My children know that when they have conflict with other kids, they need to ensure that they let their opponent retain his dignity.  Not only does this often turn away an assailant’s wrath, it likewise tends to keep children from making unnecessarily long-term foes.

With regard to their peer relationships and social status, to the factors of popularity and stability and being well-liked, the maverick senator says,

The child who rebukes a friend for cruelty to another might soon find the consequences were really not so terrible after all.  On the contrary, other peers, not to mention the victimized child, might recognize the virtuousness of the act and be attracted to it and to its author.  It should make it easier to take the risk of exercising virtue the next time….

[We parents] have to believe that there really is no great significance to being popular.  We have to believe that we love and are loved by our family, by our true friends, and from that love we become good.

Additionally, we must help our children understand the distinction between outrage and anger, a distinction I’ve often missed.  Anger might stimulate impetuous courage, but of all degrees of courage this is the least effective.  Outrage, in this context, means to take moral offense at something.  Outrage is tied closely to our understanding of indignation, which, as we have said, in the Greek is rendered to mean “much grief.”  To possess righteous indignation, our children need to see us grieve the pain and suffering of others.  People’s trials and troubles begin to take actual shape and form, then, for our kids, and this helps other people appear on their psychological radar screen as they build thoughtfulness, compassion, empathy, love, and courage in their hearts and minds.

This kind of growth takes practice, and it requires the freedom to make mistakes as they grow.  Don’t be too quick to point out that your son or daughter is getting too upset about something—listen to them, learn from them.  If needed, do point out, lovingly, when your child is failing to express indignation over unrighteousness and injustice.  We want our children to become more passionate, not less!

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.

Visit Paul’s websites at:, and

Visit Sandy’s website for reluctant entertainers at:

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