False Courage and True Courage

An unnamed prisoner of war confronts Heinrich Himmler at Shirokaya Street POW Camp in Minsk, USSR, August 1941.
An unnamed prisoner of war confronts Heinrich Himmler at Shirokaya Street POW Camp in Minsk, USSR, August 1941. (photo: By Heinrich Hoffmann Collection, Foreign Records Seized, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a curious and creepy fact I have noticed. It runs through things like Heinrich Himmler’s secret address given in October 1943 to SS troops carrying out the mass murder of Jews:

I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly.

It should be discussed amongst us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public.

Just as we did not hesitate on June 30 to carry out our duty, as ordered, and stand comrades who had failed against the wall and shoot them.

About which we have never spoken, and never will speak.

That was, thank God, a kind of tact natural to us, a foregone conclusion of that tact, that we have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it, everyone shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again, if it were commanded and necessary.

I am talking about the "Jewish evacuation": the extermination of the Jewish people.

It is one of those things that is easily said. "The Jewish people is being exterminated," every Party member will tell you, "perfectly clear, it's part of our plans, we're eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter."

And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.

And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1000. And to have seen this through, and -- with the exception of human weaknesses -- to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.

Or P.Z. Myers’ "brave" defense of abortion:

[T]he standard bullying tactics of waving bloody fetuses might cow the squeamish, but I'm a biologist. I've guillotined rats. I've held eyeballs in my hand and peeled them apart with a pair of scissors. I've used a wet-vac to clean up a lake of half-clotted blood from an exsanguinated dog. I've opened bodies and watched the intestines do their slow writhing dance, I've been elbow deep in blood, I've split open cats and stabbed them in the heart with a perfusion needle. I've extracted the brains of mice…with a pair of pliers. I've scooped brains out of buckets, I've counted dendrites in slices cut from the brains of dead babies.

You want to make me back down by trying to inspire revulsion with dead baby pictures? I look at them unflinchingly and see meat. And meat does not frighten me.

Or this story from a Croatian named Vladko Macek, who witnessed the horrors of the Jasenovac death camp as one of the inmates there. In his memoirs, he tells us:

The camp had previously been a brick-yard and was situated on the embankment of the Sava River. In the middle of the camp stood a two storey house, originally erected for the offices of the enterprise . . . The screams and wails of despair and extreme suffering, the tortured outcries of the victims, broken by intermittent shooting, accompanied all my waking hours and followed me into sleep at night.

Macek noted that one of the guards assigned to watch him round the clock crossed himself each night before going to sleep. Macek pointed out

. . . the monstrosity of his actions. I asked if he was not afraid of the punishment of God. "Don't talk to me about that," he said, "for I am perfectly aware what is in store for me. For my past present and future deeds I shall burn in hell, but at least I shall burn for Croatia."

Or the rhetoric of those who champion the incineration of thousands of civilians for the Greater Good:

If nuking these cities was a major U.S. war crime, illicit under international law and Church teaching, then we are put in the position of demanding a higher price in blood to salve our consciences. There are times in real life when one must commit a wrong in order to avoid an even greater wrong. These instances arise frequently in wartime. Another example: the terrorist who must be “tortured" in order to find out where the bombs are.

Jimmy, you’re right when you say that we were participating formally in evil when we dropped the bomb. Unfortunately, our participation in evil began almost four years earlier when we entered the war. This is the nature of war. There is much, much evil in it, and we do ourselves a disservice when through our well-meaning but futile efforts to mitigate its evil we prolong it and make it even worse.

What ties each of these stories together is perverted courage. For instance, note the sick logic at work in Himmler’s remarks: the willingness to commit murder is transmuted, in Himmler’s diabolical imagination, into a brave act of self-sacrifice. He consoles the SS soldiers by telling them they are tough men willing to do the dirty work of war. They don’t moralistically refuse to do acts that risk hell but bravely undertake the work of sinning gravely for a higher cause. They have the guts softer men lack to butcher thousands of innocent Jews and are willing to endure this hardship—the psychological trauma that goes with doing monstrous evil—for the sake of the love of country without looking for any loopholes.

Myers uses the same curious rhetoric of bravery to undergird his stirring defense of his Kermit Gosnell view of life – which also turns out to be a stirring defense of the Dr. Josef Mengele view of life. These men, like Myers, were "unafraid" to reduce millions of other, slightly older, human beings to "pieces of meat". Once again, the language of “courage" and “bravery" is deployed to describe the embrace of grave evil.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Croatian butcher likewise speaks of his monstrous evils in tones indistinguishable from Milton’s Satan. As though the filthy charnelhouse he helped to staff was an act of noble rebellion against an unjust God whom he had no choice but to defy, what with His simplistic ideas of “just war" that get in the way of what Needs to Be Done to Win. He speaks of his participation in slaughter as a beautiful act of patriotism that none but the bravest could undertake. Sure, he’ll go to hell for it. God is unjust! But our brave soul will spend his eternity in Hell secure in the notion that He Did the Right Thing.

This is much of a muchness with our last quotation from an American who argues (like ever so many Americans) that God asks far too much when he imposes Just War criteria on us and seriously expects us to believe that not even we can directly intend the mass slaughter of innocent human life. This reader doesn’t mess around with pretenses that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t violations of Just War teaching. Instead he simply declares that God is wrong, we are right, and we have to have the courage to just go ahead and do monstrous evil because it’s the Right Thing to Do and God is a fool to say otherwise. You must “commit a wrong in order to avoid an even greater wrong."

In every one of these passages, what stands out is the loudly trumpeted note of courage. The one advocating evil is, in his own eyes anyway, a veritable icon of bravery, standing toe to toe with an unjust and arbitrary Heaven whose foolish rules stand in the way of the War Effort, or Science, or Patriotism—the Greater Good. The one advocating monstrous evil is not a coward and a traitor to the Kingdom of God, but the Hard New Man, bravely doing what the pantywaist and the pious are too cowardly or self-righteous or behind the times to do.

If one is not in the grip of the mania firing the advocate of evil, it typically can be seen instantly that he is obviously in the wrong. So we snort at Himmler’s fears of a Jewish fifth column and his grotesque attempts to give man hugs to the self-pitying brutes engaged in the work of slaughtering. But when one is in the grip of the mania oneself, it can often feel as though the people saying monstrous things are indeed brave: bucking the tide of bourgeois opinion to do the difficult thing that needs to be done so that (as Orwell fittingly did not say despite the fact that it is constantly attributed to him), “We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf." This whole “You can’t handle the truth!" bravado which mistakes brutality for courage is where the devil slips in, telling us that the feeling of disgust about crimes against innocent human life is the certain sign that we are doing the Difficult but Right thing as we sin boldly.

And, to be sure, God does ask hard things of us sometimes, things that may even feel wrong, yet are not. Peter learned this when he attempted to challenge Jesus on the matter of his impending crucifixion;

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men." Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:21-25)

In short, both false and true courage can feel like the same thing: much as fornication and the joys of the wedding night can feel very similar to one in the grip of rationalization. False courage, like true courage, feels as though it is calling us to do something high and difficult. And it can creep into the very holiest of social circles. C.S. Lewis, for instance notes in his Four Loves:

[I[t is no doubt easy enough to love the fellow-creature less and to imagine that this is happening because we are learning to love God more, when the real reason may be quite different. We may be only "mistaking the decays of nature for the increase of Grace." Many people do not find it really difficult to hate their wives or mothers. M. Mauriac, in a fine scene, pictures the other disciples stunned and bewildered by this strange command, but not Judas. He laps it up easily.

Similarly, many a radically selfish person has managed to convince himself he was a soul dedicated to the Good of Mankind or the Love of God even as he was about the business of doing some miserable piece of self-serving filth and telling himself throughout the whole affair that the gag reflex he felt was what truly courageous people must muscle down as they defy God and conscience for the Greater Good.

If that is so, then how do we make the distinction between a radically good and radically evil act? How do we tell that one is advocating radical evil and another is advocating radical Christian charity?

I think the answer is the cross. What marks out Jesus’ radical act of courage is that he is brave in offering his own life, not some other innocent person. Conversely, if somebody is “courageously" willing to make some innocent person suffer or die, that’s your first clue that they are not courageous for the things of God.

And so, for instance, Himmler is very brave with the lives of innocent people and singularly protective of his own. Likewise, Myers does not volunteer his own body to be reduced to a piece of meat for the sake of Science, much less for the sake of a baby. He demonstrates a congenital inability to distinguish brutality from courage and regards himself as brave for, among other things, being unmoved by the thought of stabbing a defenseless baby to death with scissors. The distinction between that act and interposing one's body between the baby and a fiend like himself is lost on a moral monster like Myers, as it is on Himmler. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, he is "unafraid" to reduce persons to meat. (And, oddly, nobody frets about his "incivility" or the effect he might have on some Jared Loughner in his class.)

In the same way, the Croatian guard is “brave" enough to slaughter innocents, but not enough to slaughter his nationalism on the cross of Christ.

And the poor confused defender of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cited above sacrifices the very possibility of justice in war on the altar of evil by simply abandoning any possibility of Just War whatsoever, while still insisting on fighting that war. He writes, not that bad things happen even in a just war, but that it doesn’t matter if we deliberately slaughter civilians in their beds since “our participation in evil began almost four years earlier when we entered the war. This is the nature of war."

Now a morally sane person can subscribe (like the Church) to the doctrine that a war is just. A morally sane person can subscribe to the doctrine that a war is unjust. A morally sane person can subscribe to the doctrine that a just war (ius ad bellum) is being fought by just or unjust means (ius in bello). But no morally sane person can subscribe to the doctrine that an unjust war being fought with unjust means is a war one is morally bound to fight and that we must do grave evil that good will come of it. Yet this is what this reader attempts to argue by declaring any and all wars to be a “participation in evil" as though there is no such thing as Just War at all. And once again the language of courage (“There are times in real life when one must commit a wrong") is deployed to send the signal that, when the chips are down, no matter what silly rules our God gives us through his Church, the truly moral and good thing is to do evil that good may come of it.

Against all such self-serving sophistry only the cross of Christ stands, defending not only the innocent victim of violence, but the truly courageous saint (and soldier) who lays his life on the line, not merely that the strong may survive in a naked struggle for power, but that Justice may be done. It is not, as Peter found, an easy cross to bear, but is the only alternative to the false courage which steels us to do grave evil to the innocent by hardening our hearts against the plain teaching of Christ our Lord.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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While some of these changes are not that dramatic or noticeable in English, introducing inclusive wording in languages such as Spanish, where nouns are either grammatically masculine or feminine, becomes quite obvious due to the novel alteration of noun endings.