“The Indispensability of Courage—Military Service and the Christian”
[An excerpt from the above referenced section in On Faith: Lessons from an
American Believer (2019), authored by Justice Antonin Scalia.]
I believe that military service is not only appropriate for Christians, it is conducive to Christian virtue. I know of no other profession where one commits to laying down his life for his friends. I have nine children, whom I have sent to many different colleges. . . . I can say in all honesty that the school which took most seriously, which made a large part of each day’s instruction, the task of moral formation—of developing character, and instilling fidelity to duty, honor, country—was West Point. And training oneself to be a soldier, preparing oneself to make that sacrifice if needed, is not just one more interchangeable way for a Christian to develop good character. Let no one demean it. It is good training indeed. . . .
. . . . On New Year’s Eve, 1964, Marine Captain Donald Cook was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong—and remained their prisoner until his death. For his conduct as a prisoner of war, Cook was posthumously promoted to colonel and awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation for conspicuous gallantry reads in part:
Despite the fact that by doing so he would bring about harsher treatment for himself, [Cook] established himself as the senior prisoner, even though in actuality he was not. Repeatedly assuming more than his share of [responsibility for] their health, Colonel Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interests of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life. Giving more needy men his medicine and drug allowance while constantly nursing them, he risked infection from contagious diseases while in a rapidly deteriorating state of health. This unselfish and exemplary conduct, coupled with his refusal to stray even the slightest from the Code of Conduct, earned him the deepest respect from not only his fellow prisoners, but his captors as well. Rather than negotiate for his own release or better treatment, he steadfastly frustrated attempts by the Viet Cong to break his indomitable spirit and passed this same resolve on to the men with whose well-being he so closely associated himself. Knowing his refusals would prevent his release prior to the end of the war, and also knowing his chances for prolonged survival would be small in the event of continued refusal, he chose nevertheless to adhere to a Code of Conduct far above that which could be expected. His personal valor and exceptional spirit of loyalty in the face of almost certain death reflected the highest credit upon Colonel Cook, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.
It also reflected great credit on the Regiment. . . . [C. S. Lewis’] Screwtape warns Wormwood that a war can be dangerous for their satanic cause, because it awakens men from their moral stupor. He says:
This, indeed, is probably one of the enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honest, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.
The indispensability of courage is easier for the soldier to appreciate, whose very life may depend upon the courage of his comrades. Its value is harder to appreciate in the layman’s endless days of peace, where the type of courage that is called for is rarely the physical courage to risk one’s life. But for most of us, that is the long fight we are in for—courageously setting things right in the world God has created, starting with ourselves. The bait of courage is not acquired by study; it is forged by practice. And there is not better practice than the Regiment. By demanding obedience to duty, manly honor and discipline, frank and forthright acknowledgment of error, respect for ranks above and solicitude for ranks below, assumption of responsibility including the responsibility of command, willingness to sacrifice for the good of the corps—by demanding all those difficult things the Regiment develops moral courage, which, in the Last Accounting we must give, is the kind that matters. That is why military training is not, and never will be, just one more interchangeable way for young Christians to develop good character or learn to serve others. It is one of the noblest ways, and never let anyone tell you otherwise. (71-74)