Tom Palaima: Courage when it counts

[Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.]

The strange thing about history - not just ancient history, but the history of our own times - is that it teaches us that virtue can be forgotten. Virtue also can be so absent from our lives that we may not know what it is.

You might have read recently on the front page of the American-Statesman that I am leading a one-man campaign at the University of Texas at Austin against the negative effects of big-time sports on the university's academic mission. This is not quite true.

Over the past six years, I have written about a dozen columns concerning UT's athletics programs when they did something ethically questionable that made the news. This is not part of a campaign. Nor is my using the Faculty Council's standard procedure for asking questions well in advance of scheduled meetings. This gives our president and other administrative officers time to think and present informative answers for the public record.

My name has been associated with courage for speaking about these issues. A colleague wrote that I had guts. It is sad that honest questions are rare, and straightforward answers are rarer, at the pinnacle of education in our state.

The Faculty Council meets in the venerable Main Building, the UT Tower. On its front are big carved letters, "YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE." Yet a senior colleague in the hard sciences tells me that he is reluctant to voice his concern about how stadium construction projects have caused many years of delays in building safe and useful laboratories. He reports that like-minded colleagues are also hesitant. Why? They fear that speaking up will harm their careers.

Courage is a virtue. For the early Greeks, it was the supreme virtue. Men needed courage to fight for the safety and well-being of their homes, families and city-states. And they fought almost constantly. Using courage to describe me and my questions shows how trivial our values have become.

My friend and former student, Col. Ted Westhusing, was courageous. Ted voluntarily left his wife, his three young children and his position as an academy professor at West Point in January 2005 to help direct the training of Iraqi and contract security forces on the ground in Iraq. That took courage and a deep sense of honor. It also took devotion to his mission as a teacher. Ted knew he had to serve his country in war so that he could teach future officers with the authority that comes from experience.

In Iraq, Ted was courageous when he spoke up almost presciently about corruption among U.S. contractors, and when he declared that the police and security forces he was training, who should have been protecting people, were instead brutalizing and killing them. Ted remained courageous and faithful to his honor until his death in a noncombat situation on June 5th of last year.

Another lone voice who possessed the virtue of courage was the late U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse. I wish I could say that at 12 years old I already recognized his courage. I didn't then, but I do now. You can see his image and hear his words in the HBO documentary "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam."

In early August 1964, events were orchestrated so that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara could tell American citizens and members of Congress that there was "unequivocal evidence" of unprovoked attacks on U.S. ships off the coast of Vietnam. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.

Morse was one of the nay votes. He declared that he was "unalterably opposed" to handing over to the president and the military a blank check to be paid in tax money and the lives of young soldiers. He, too, was prescient. He told all those who were not listening, "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."

Before you use words like courage in a trivial way, think of Westhusing and Morse. And read my esteemed colleague Rolando Hinojosa Smith's "Korean Love Songs" about his experiences as an artillery officer during the Korean War.

My Plan II freshmen read his poems last month and heard his own accounts afterwards. If they speak of courage trivially after that, either I have failed as a teacher, or we Americans are too far gone to know virtue when we see and hear it - or when it is right in the room with us.

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