02/18/2013 02:08 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

Redefining Courage

When a friend spoke recently about doing one's duty and quoted Kipling, I was a bit jolted by the tone. I know the poem and believe in being dutiful, but I would not have spoken of myself as being called by a sense of duty. His reflections caused reflection on my part and eventually I concluded that my initial reaction was wrong. The call to do one's duty and the call to be courageous had been a constant during my growing up years.

I grew up on the edge of World War II and that war shaped my generation. We were not the "Greatest Generation," but we were their children and drank deeply of their expectations. The challenge was always, if we were called upon would we be dutiful and courageous? The answer was yes. I grew up expecting at any moment to see the enemy however defined, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Chinese coming over the sea wall in Santa Monica.

You cannot live forever in that kind of perpetual conflict and I think that the decline of the willingness to be forever ready to do battle fueled the tensions that marked our country during the Vietnam era. On the one hand we had to look at what was happening in Southeast Asia, the French had been defeated, but we had also to deal with our own exhaustion from having continually to be ready to mount the barricades. We had to mute the voices that called us to act with courage and we offered a more nuanced response. Some would call it a reactionary response.

Tennyson captured the moment when you recognize that your leaders are flawed but you are called to respond:

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred

So what do you do when duty calls and you know someone blundered? A generation said: "Hell No, we won't go" and we have been working out the implications ever since. It is ironic that a voice of the anti-war movement, John Kerry, is now Secretary of State. But it is also clear that for my generation, we were called to embody courage, but what it means to be courageous was being redefined.

Recently behind the hype of the Super Bowl there was another celebration that is appropriate for us to remember and it embodied the images I was taught to honor. Sunday, Feb. 3, was Four Chaplains Day. It is a day worth remembering. Seventy years ago off Newfoundland, the troop ship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine. There were 904 men aboard the ship and only 230 survived. The ship was carrying nearly twice the number it was designed to carry and many were below deck when the torpedo hit. The chaplains on board took charge, restored a sort of calm and directed folk to their lifeboats. The chaplains were all First Lieutenants, recently graduated from the Chaplain's School at Harvard and on their way to their first assignment.

George L. Fox lied about his age to enlist in the Army during WWI where he was awarded several medals, including the Purple Heart. He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1934, and reentered the Army as a Chaplain in 1942.

Alexander D. Goode was a Jewish Rabbi and the son of a Rabbi. He was educated at Hebrew Union College and earned the PhD at Johns Hopkins. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered as an Army Chaplain.

Clark V. Poling was the son of a Baptist minister. Educated at Yale Divinity School, he volunteered as an Army Chaplain because he wanted to face the same dangers other men were facing.

John P. Washington, a Catholic priest, was educated at Seton Hall and Immaculate Conception Seminary.

When life jackets ran out, they each took theirs off and gave then away. When last seen they had linked arms and were saying their prayers and singing hymns. They received the Purple Heart posthumously and it was determined that they could not receive the Medal of Honor because their service had not taken place under enemy fire.

The Charge of the Light Brigade and such stories as this were part of a shared generational mythology. I can still see Errol Flynn in the movie that enshrined the brigade. And there are a set of other movies that fall in that category including Four Feathers, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers and Gunga Din that taught you what to do when you were afraid or called upon to step forward. Out of the same milieu came the feminine model in the story of Clara Barton who went to the Crimea to care for the wounded and later founded the American Red Cross. There was heroism enough to go around.

In my family we were expected to do what was asked of us and it was understood that your life was to be lived in the context of the poetry of the 23rd Psalm. The words are familiar:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

Held in the hand of God, cared for by divine presence, the future stretched out before us. Life since has been lived in the ying and yang of expectation and context. Sometimes we feel cared for and sometimes we feel alone but we move always forward.

I still take comfort in those images of larger than life heroes and regret that grade B movies now have less noble stories to tell. Django Unchained has aspirations and Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that the call to courageous action with all its contradictions is still part of our national story. The take away is that the context is not simply individual heroics, but the shared mythology of a community that understands our interconnectedness and our accountability to one another. It is not simply the enemy coming over the walls but it is also four men of different religious traditions linking arms and stepping forward as models for us all.