A deficit of courage

Col. Lee Ellis Former Prisoner of War
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At the heart of the impending “fiscal cliff” is a problem more challenging than reaching whatever mix of revenue increases and spending cuts will be needed to bring America’s massive debt under control.

From the halls of government to corporate boardrooms and the corridors of America’s great universities, America seems gripped by fear.

Administration and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle appear immobilized by their own dread of constituents’ reactions to higher tax rates or austerity measures — or both.

Business leaders, knowing the need for realignment in a changing marketplace, nevertheless stand motionless because of the unknowns of new taxes and regulations and the fear of the reactions of shareholders and analysts.

On the campus of Penn State, it was fear that caused university administrators to sweep the horrendous crimes of an experienced coach under the rug.

The costs of our collective lack of courage are incalculable. In the case of the ongoing debt negotiations, Washington’s reluctance is jeopardizing both our economic wellbeing and our national security. Failure to act will mean tax hikes for virtually every American, upheaval in programs that help the most vulnerable, a further downgrade in our credit standing and drastic cuts in our national defense that Secretary Leon Panetta says will devastate the military.

The greatest danger is that fearful Washington policymakers will simply kick the fiscal can down the road, as they did a year ago, when they pushed the hard decisions into the election cycle and established the “cliff” as a backstop against further procrastination. Yet now, with just weeks on the clock, commentators are heard protesting the use of the phrase “fiscal cliff” and minimizing its consequences. Neither side, it seems, is yet willing to muster the courage to alienate their respective bases of support.

In every walk of life, presidents and parents alike yield to the temptation to look for the easy, non-threatening way out.

Instead of dealing with hard issues, we try to side-step them, and instead of owning up to mistakes, we cover them up; rather than face our fears, we skulk back into the shadows and hope that the crisis — whatever it is — will somehow blow over. Worse, we resort to lies and deception to cover up the truth.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It is said of General George Washington at the Battle of Monongahela during the French and Indian Wars that he “ran to the sound of the guns.” He and his British counterpart, General Edward Braddock, both threw themselves into the heat of battle, even as four separate mounts were shot out from under Washington and Braddock himself was killed, along with virtually every one of Braddock’s senior officers. It should come as no surprise that in a nation gripped by fear, few Americans today even know the battle took place, much less of the courage of the man who would later become our first president.

We certainly don’t have to go back to 1755 to see examples of enormous personal courage in our military.

As a young prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, I got to see daily acts of bravery by some of the most courageous men I have ever known.

I watched seemingly ordinary men face brutal torture rather than recant their loyalty and take part in North Vietnamese anti-war propaganda efforts. I saw senior leaders like Robbie Risner, Jim Stockdale, Jerry Denton and Larry Guarino face years of solitary confinement because they understood the importance of serving honorably.

The valor continues: even as I write this, brave American men and women in uniform all over the world face fears and dangers the rest of us can only imagine.

Somehow, we tend to expect courage from our military, from first responders, from those we regard as “heroic.” Experience has taught us, perhaps, to expect (and accept) cowardice in our politicians — and, even more regrettably, in ourselves.

The solution begins with each of us making an individual commitment to confront our worst fears and do what we know to be the right thing — regardless of the consequences. Courage, we must remember, is not the absence of fear, but a willingness to act in spite of it.

Only when each of us makes an individual commitment to lean into the pain of our fear and confront our doubts can we demand the same from our elected officials. Only then can we remind one another, our children and our leaders that there can be no honor without courage.

Col. Lee Ellis, USAF (Ret.), is an author and lecturer on the subject of leadership whose most recent book is “Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” For 1,953 days, he was a prisoner of war in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison in North Vietnam, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”