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Courage leads the way

  • Published
  • By Col. Don Adams
  • 90th Maintenance Group commander
At 8:20 a.m. 18 April 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led 16 B-25s and 80 Airmen from the 17th Bomb Group off the deck of the USS Hornet on a mission to attack the Japanese homeland. Although the attack would inflict little damage to Japan, it would prove to be a big morale boost for the American public still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor just four months before. An interesting side note -- the 17th Bomb Group was later reassigned to Barksdale Army Airfield, now home to Air Force Global Strike Command. This attack was just one of many examples of courage displayed by our military during World War II. Although the Doolittle Raid is a great example of physical courage, there are two other types of courage I also want to discuss in this article: intellectual courage and moral courage.

Webster's Dictionary defines courage as "the quality or state of mind or spirit enabling one to face danger or hardship with confidence and resolution." While I am not as smart as Mr. Webster, I would disagree slightly. Adams' Dictionary would define courage as "the quality or state of mind or spirit enabling one to face danger or hardship." I think facing danger or hardship without confidence or resolution is even harder to do. I know of many people who took courageous actions when they were not at all confident or resolute. Even though they were scared to death or not sure they were right, they did what had to be done anyway. In the Doolittle example for instance, those 80 men had no way of knowing their attack would have any impact whatsoever on the war effort. And I am sure they were scared beyond belief at the thought of flying a multi-engine bomber for the first time off of the deck of an aircraft carrier that was made for small single-engine aircraft, yet they did it anyway.

When we think of courage, we most often think of physical courage. The Doolittle Raiders put their lives at risk knowing at the time of their takeoff, they would not be able to make it to friendly territory. Seven of those brave Airmen never made it home. One died while bailing out of his plane, two drowned after crash landing in the ocean, one died in captivity and three were executed by the Japanese. Today, many of our brother and sister Airmen are displaying that same physical courage as they fight evil around the world. They put their lives on the line fighting terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head. To paraphrase country music singer Toby Keith, they "don't do it for the glory, they just do it anyway!"

While physical courage is often easy to spot and grabs the news headlines, moral and intellectual courage are often overlooked. What do I mean by these? Let me give an example or two. In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a group of men to write a document declaring the colonies' independence from England. Those men were John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. Some 235 years later, this document known as The Declaration of Independence is arguably the most important piece of literature in our nation's history. But what was the climate in 1776? By authoring this document, they put themselves in danger physically and financially. By publicly breaking with the British government, displaying a tremendous amount of moral courage, they opened themselves to the possibility of having their homes and other property taken by the British or worse, being executed as traitors, yet they did it anyway.

A great example of intellectual courage occurred in 1989. Then Maj. Mark Clodfelter wrote a book entitled The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. Conventional wisdom in the United States Air Force had been (and in many circles continues to be) that if the United States had conducted Operation Linebacker II in 1965 rather than waiting until 1972, we would have saved countless lives and ended the Vietnam conflict seven years earlier. Major Clodfelter's book argued that airpower alone could not have had the same affect in 1965 as it did in 1972 and makes a very compelling argument. I will leave it to you to read the book. The point is, this young major dared to challenge the Air Force's assertion that if it had been allowed to do as it wished, it could have won in Vietnam and done so much sooner. He saw it differently and had the courage to say so. To quote now Dr. Clodfelter, "There were some guys wearing blue suits and stars who disagreed with my conclusions -- and tried to prevent me (and my message) from reaching a broader audience." Today, that book is used in many forms of Air Force professional military education and has been on the Chief of Staff's reading list. He did not know what type of reception his argument would get form the Air Force but he wrote the book anyway.

Courage is important in small things as well as large. Maybe you will be asked to be the den leader for your son's cub scout den or the coach for your daughter's softball team. Do you have the courage? If you have never run an organization or feel you are not organized enough, these challenges could be quite scary. However, if you face your fears, you might just find that you are more than qualified. Also, you will broaden your experience base and more importantly, build a relationship with your child that will pay dividends for many years to come. If you are asked to do something that you feel is wrong, do you stand up and say no, or do you do it and complain later? Are you willing to risk your career or a friendship in order to do what is right? Sometimes it may be tough to do the right thing ... you guessed it ... do it anyway!