Friday, December 24, 2010

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

One of the most memorable moments in Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels, is a passage describing the Confederate assault in July, 1863 at Gettysburg. The Union forces have seized the high ground. They are dug in behind a low wall that shields them. They have a clear view of the Rebels as they climb up the hill into enemy fire.

The front line Confederate forces, like the men trying to cross Omaha Beach on D-Day,, had little chance of surviving. Nevertheless, they marched on, sometimes stepping on their own. They simply closed ranks, filling in the gap created by the fallen soldier, somehow summoning the courage to march on, to do their duty as ordered by Generals Lee and Longstreet.

Shaara’s portrait of men who fought even though they must have known they were beaten before they even began, touched me. These men and boys, children really, stepped in blood and body parts. They must have been nearly deaf from the sounds of gun and cannon fire. The ones in front knew that they were the shield for the ones in the rear, the ones who would actually climb over the wall to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

I cannot put myself in their shoes. I cannot imagine facing such danger and walking on (even though I might have found the courage if I had been called upon to serve). Certainly, I’ve been brave, and I’ve seen through to the end many tasks that I wish I could have refused. Still the sacrifice of these soldiers inspires me. I am humble in the face of their courage. A modern soldier makes me feel the same way.

Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, just twenty-two years old when he faced insurgents in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, is the first living Medal of Honor recipient of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fired upon, knocked back, and spared by his protective chest gear, Giunta rallied to rush into danger and help a fellow soldier. Giunta then ran deeper into enemy fire to “to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands” (White House statement).

What impresses me as much as his courage is his humility. When interviewed for 60 Minutes, ( Giunta said he is not at peace with the knowledge that he is the single recipient of the most distinguished military honor. He does not consider himself to be extraordinary, only mediocre and average, a soldier who simply did what any other soldier would have done in the same circumstances. Giunta paid tribute to all the other soldiers with whom he has served, and he testified to the courage of each one.

Giunta is right. Courage is doing the work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Courage is recognizing the merits and strengths of others.