What is courage? In Valor, his book of the tales of grace under pressure that have been ignored, suppressed and largely omitted from the recognized history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a press that prefers to focus on traitors and victims, Washington lawyer Mark Lee Greenblatt hits on a number of things: an innate or learned ability to be calm under fire; the impact of training, which builds in some responses until some reactions become automatic; and a sense of attachment to cause and to comrades that crowds out all concerns for the self.
"If you reflect on the anecdotes of anyone who has faced death and lived to tell you about it, there is almost a universal response," a psychiatrist told Greenblatt. "They did what they had to do. They never felt it was heroic, and never even felt it was a choice." When Marine Corps infantryman James Hassell volunteered to carry a wounded man in full battle gear — a 260-pound burden — to a medevac 100 yards down a narrow street with snipers firing from the windows above him, there were no second thoughts: "I had a choice: … You can stay here ... and you’ll probably live … but would I even want to live if I could just sit here and watch a Marine die without even trying? What kind of life would I have?"
Army Pvt. Steven Sanford gave CPR to a friend who was bleeding to death under enemy fire. "He knew bullets were hitting him," but “it was completely disregarded” … he was trying to save Chris’ life, and everything else … was secondary. "'I’ve got better things to do than worry about pieces of metal sticking out of my vest."'
"At the end of the day you are doing it because of the camaraderie," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Buck Doyle. "[I]f you individually excel … you will be able to contribute to a four-to-six-man team and be unstoppable. … It’s hard to define it, it’s hard to explain … but it’s phenomenal. It’s a high like no other. I tell my wife … if there wasn’t a certain need from a woman, I would probably just stay in the Marines with a bunch of guys."
Love of this sort also binds sons and mothers, whom Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris explore in Unbreakable Bonds, about the most gravely wounded in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the parents who help them survive. As with poison gas, the IED in the war against Islamic jihad has produced a new breed of war-wounded, for whom trauma is massive, convalescence permanent, and recuperation a war without end. "They are double, triple, or quadruple amputees who are at extreme risk all the time," one mother put it. "There are wounds that have to be dressed sand washed, delicate skin that has to heal, and therapy sessions that have to be attended. All of these items need to be cared for, and will never go away."
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae "lost both legs above the knee and his left arm ... his right eye was destroyed and his left was severely damaged. Because of the brain trauma he suffered — bits of shrapnel and bone were blown into his brain" doctors prepared his kin for the worst, "that I may be a one-limbed vegetable forever," Tom said. Two years later, in a t-shirt that read "I had a blast in Afghanistan," he was on track to leave for a "smart home" in North Carolina, a process overseen each step of the way by his mother, a perfect example of the "outward orientation and self-abrogation" Greenblatt had seen in his battlefield heroes. Courage is only devotion in action. Courage is love.Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."