Undaunted Cowardice

“Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the head of cowards as quickly as of heroes. Any fool can be brave on a battlefield when it’s be brave or else be killed. I’m talking of something else. And my kind of cowardice is infinitely worse than if I had run the first time I heard a cannon fired.”

~ Ashley Wilkes, Gone With the Wind

Republicans hardly needed to waste champagne in New York last week. America’s many bubbles had already gone to their heads. They looked out with crossed eyes and saw a nation of heroes, every one of them getting rich.

Celebrating "A Nation of Courage,” the Grand Ol Party might as well have hosted a swimsuit “beauty pageant” at an old folks home. At best, the advertising for the event was mere fantasy. At worst, it was a lie. Viewers and participants alike smiled and pretended. But a man with his wits about him felt a little queasy.

If there was a single courageous fellow at the Republican National Convention, he must have been kept in the basement. Not a single delegate wondered about even the most important questions a republic can face: war…debt…taxes. Instead, all seemed happy to congratulate each other…and not ask any questions.

Republicans must have no respect for courage. They think they can hand it out like cheap bumper stickers or toss it about like campaign promises. They believe it can be sponsored by a collection of timorous precinct volunteers pussyfooting around with funny hats in front of TV cameras.

Even in the best of circumstances, courage is hard to come by and — like investment profits — almost never seen in the midst of a crowd. Instead, it is fleeting… fragile…extraordinary…and lonely. What makes courage worth celebrating is that it is as rare and as delightful as a liquor store that still makes home deliveries. It is uncommon…and persists only until stamped out by regulators, legislators or a bullet to the head. The idea of a whole nation of it is preposterous. It sucks the meaning right out of the word, leaving it as hollow as a convention delegate’s head…as if we could be a whole nation of geniuses or a whole classroom of A-students, all graded on a curve.

Men are born one by one. They die one by one. And if they are lucky, somewhere along the way they find a brief moment of grace and courage…and walk among the gods.

Von Choltitz, the German general who refused to blow up Paris…Cpl. Bauman, who refused to murder Jews in Poland…the unknown prison guard who refused to allow a boy to die without the comfort of a sympathetic hand — even when the boy was Louis XVII, son of the decapitated king.

Instances of real courage are infrequent…and most often involve people who refuse to go along with the winds of popular opinion. Often, they are small acts of kindness that never make the papers. But for every one of them, there must be 10 million sorry souls whimpering empty slogans in some dark corner of hell.

We read recently about a man in California who had crashed on an airfield during World War II. He was pulled from the burning plane by a black airman. Both went to the hospital with severe burns, went on to their respective battles and never saw each other again — for 40 years. Then, again in a local hospital, the man spotted his savior in a wheelchair.

The black man was dying of cancer. The other man asked if there was anything he could do to help.

It turned out, there was. The dying man had an unmarried daughter with a small son that he took care of. Who would look after them when he was gone? So the man took mother and child into his home…and has been a grandfather to the boy ever since.

The man will get no medals for this. But he deserves at least a wink and a nod.

But the Republicans weren’t praising private acts of kindness. They were celebrating a long series of public acts…mostly of dereliction, cowardice, shirking, malingering and bogus patriotism.

“If any one of the hundreds of thousands of CIA, Pentagon, USIA and other security professionals on the public payroll had the cojones to get close to bin Laden’s group…they never would have been able to pull off that 9/11 attack,” a retired spook commented after the Twin Towers came down. “No one wants that kind of job anymore. It’s too dangerous. Besides, you could get diarrhea.”

But instead of handing each of the security chiefs a loaded revolver, along with a strong hint that they should point it towards their own heads, a whole new bureaucracy, with hundreds of thousands more security personnel, has been set up. Bin Laden is still at large.

In Congress, of course, attacks of courage are as rare as rabies. The U.S. Constitution clearly gives Congress the responsibility to decide whether or not the country goes to war…and to raise the money for it. Instead, the politicos did neither. By a vote of 98-0 in the Senate…and 420-1 in the House, the people’s representatives decided to pass the buck to the White House.

Even the Democratic candidate for president — who earned three purple hearts in hot action in Vietnam — couldn’t find the heart or courage to stand up to the post-9/11 war fever.

Mr. Kerry turned against the war in Vietnam when the currents of opinion were at his back. The justification for the War in Iraq is now the same — "better to fight them there than in our own backyard" — but Kerry judges the wind to be blowing in the other direction. According to the Democrats’ campaign literature, their man has done almost nothing since the 1960s except vote for more spending…and he appears to be unable to say or do anything different now.

Sometimes it takes courage to go to war. Sometimes it takes courage not to. But it takes a lot of thinking to figure out the difference. Dying is easier than thinking, for most people. And for most people, probably preferable. But a real coward doesn’t bother to think…and lets someone else die. As near as we can tell, almost no one in either party has had a single serious thought about the war. And none has had the courage to ask: What’s the war really about? Why is it worth dying for? What do we hope to gain from it? When will it be over? At what cost? Who will pay for it? How?

After 9/11, any elected politician, coach or scoutmaster could have whipped the yahoos into a mood for war; but it would have taken courage…and thought…to resist.

Likewise, it would take courage to face up to America’s worsening financial situation.

Sayeth the governor of California:

“There is another way you can tell you’re a Republican. You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people…and faith in the U.S. economy. To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don’t be economic girlie men!”

This year, both parties have shown a real genius for propaganda. If you dare to face up to the realities of the U.S. financial system…you are an “economic girlie man.” Real men just take it as an article of faith that the "resourcefulness of the American people" will somehow override the laws of economics…

Except for a few cranks and Don Quixotes such as Pete Peterson, Ron Paul and Laurence Kotlikoff, no one in Congress, academia, the administration, the Republican or Democratic parties, nor in the Federal Reserve has the courage to face up to any of America’s looming debacles.

Americans get poorer by $2 billion per day. Who even mentions it?

The American government has run up $44 trillion worth of obligations — with no way to pay for them. Who cares?

Americans now absorb as much as 80% of the entire world’s savings — not to build a profit-making economy, but merely to maintain current levels of consumption against a backdrop of slipping real incomes. Who warns them?

American workers now face stiff competition from 3 billion foreigners who will work harder, longer and for a fraction of the pay. Unless he tightens his belt, saves furiously, and learns to produce higher quality goods and services…the average American is going to lose ground in the years ahead. Who has the guts to tell him?

U.S. householders owe more money to more people than ever before in history. A financial collapse will not just affect rich speculators…instead, like the hyperinflation in Germany in the early ’20s, it will reach down to the bedrock of American householders…and upset it badly.

Germany was so unsettled by the financial calamities of the ’20s it welcomed a whole new team of scoundrels. Italy welcomed Mussolini largely because the nation was bankrupt. The Argentine generals launched the Falklands war in order to divert the public from its financial catastrophes.

And now, the "Nation of Courage" itself…lumbers toward its own wussy ruin…

“I don’t see how anyone with an IQ over 70 can be anything but utterly pessimistic about the long-term outlook for the U.S. economy…” writes Marty Whitman of Third Avenue Funds. “Everybody’s — and I mean everybody’s — emphasis is on the short-term outlook. Nobody, but nobody is focused on solving real structural problems, organic structural problems that exist.”

No. That would take courage, the one thing the nation most needs and most hasn’t got.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.