Is America the 'home of the brave?'

“The brave man braves nothing, nor knows he of his bravery.”

Henry David Thoreau

It’s hard for the mighty United States to ‘own’ bravery, an attitude more associated with underdogs. Yet the USA is among a small club that likes to define its people in terms of bravery. Other members include genuine minnows like Scotland (‘the brave’), Afghan and Chechen fighters, New Zealand’s huka-chanting Maoris, and the blowgun-toting Huaorani tribe from the Ecuadorian Amazon. But is this yet more national anthem pablum? While bald eagle America has no monopoly on bravery, there’s plenty to suggest that it is a genuine national value.

The Evidence
  • The United States scores bravery points for having its story begin in victorious liberation from the mighty Brits.
  • Cleverly, American mythology co-opted the warrior personality of native American Indian ‘Braves’ - after first massacring them on the Plains.
  • The bravery cult gets a boost from having a few heroic and highly symbolic failures during independence struggles. Remember the Alamo.
  • Finally, frequent conquests involving the military create plenty of opportunities to re-supply the legend. In this regard, modern trigger-happy America is unmatched.

Against the grain
But bravery defined only by soldiers is not enough to make a nation truly brave. After all, it’s a soldier’s job to stand and fight. Iraqi soldiers did little fighting against the invading Americans in 2003, but we don’t think of them as cowards. Rather, they had no legitimate cause for which to fight (and feeble weaponry). So genuine bravery means knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way in support of a great cause.

That’s why John Glenn and the other trail-blazing astronauts are brave people. Among more down-to-earth callings, firefighters are the poster-boys of bravery. America has over a million of them and three quarters are plucky volunteers, almost all in rural communities. This is a massive number, the most visible echo of America’s brave pioneer soul. The great prestige of America’s fire service also hints at the stock placed in its values.

Bravery, at its simplest, is an attitude. Non-conformists, people who go against the grain - these are brave folk. Soviet-era writers and dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov spring to mind. Churchill and Gandhi faced lonely odds and never wavered. America’s finest recent example may be Martin Luther King, or for that matter, Rosa Parks who sat down in the bus. All of these heroes had the triple-play of long odds, personal harm and a great cause.

Twenty-first century America still likes the idea of free-thinking, but we live in cautious times. When controversial television host Bill Maher agreed with a guest that the 9/11 airborne terrorists were not cowards but in fact brave, the furore led ABC to cancel his program, ‘Politically Incorrect.’ Arguably Mr. Maher was being glib, ill-timed, even idiotic. But his out-on-a-limb quip serves to remind us how fine is the line between bravery and stupidity.

The United States does have a great cause: to bring freedom to people living under tyranny. If it could pursue this long-term ambition without bias from its near-term urges to prop up friendly regimes and safeguard fuel supplies, perhaps bravery would be more than just a national logo. In reality, America will continue to strike compromises, indulge certain dictators and ignore the bad it’s ill-equipped to fix. That’s not brave. But “Home of the Sensible” lacks resonance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The United States scores bravery points for having its story begin in victorious liberation from the mighty Brits."

True, but only after getting help from the French, without which the story might have been vastly different. Study your history.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

World War 1 we're even World War II they owe us

8:02 PM  

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