News A History of Courage
In the case of Ehren Watada’s refusal to go to the war in Iraq, because it is an illegal war and a war that was made possible by obvious lies, it is common for his denouncers to call him a coward.
The men and women who are risking their lives in Iraq are called courageous; whereas Watada is called a coward. The problem with Watada’s denouncers, however, is that they have not read Aristotle’s book on ethics. Much of their confusion would clear up if they understood exactly what military courage meant to the ancient Greeks, and should still mean to 21st century Americans. Courage, according to Aristotle, is, true, expressed on the battlefield; but courage also doesn’t mean running into battle for the sake of showing courage, charging into battle without thinking about why you are charging into battle. Courage is about knowing when to use that virtue, which stands at the middle of two extremes: cowardice and brashness. To thoughtlessly go into any old battle is not being courageous; that’s being foolish. Courage is something that requires intelligent activation; a good soldier (good in Aristotle’s sense, which is the substance of any ethic), knows when not to fight as well as he knows when to fight. Those who have led young soldiers to their deaths in Iraq are not virtuous but vicious; and those who are dying in Iraq are not courageous but foolish.