The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps: No greater friend, no worse enemy.1 That’s what I think when I see a bird’s eye view of a naval fleet. A powerful aircraft carrier gliding on the water, smaller vessels surrounding it, and jets flying above. Or when I see a video of a homecoming celebration, where the sailors’ pride is almost tangible. Or when Fleet Week comes around, and glittering gold bars and stunning dress white uniforms take over a city.
But then there’s the other side. A newspaper with the headline “Four Former Navy Officers Convicted in ‘Fat Leonard’ Bribery Trial.”1 Video of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) ablaze at the pier, fully equipped with firefighting equipment. Such failures have been too common over the past few years. They don’t just threaten the romanticized view of the Navy. They threaten the Navy’s legacy.
When an incident is investigated, it often becomes clear someone’s actions did not line up with the Navy’s core values. Someone lacked the moral integrity to do their job. They lacked courage—the cornerstone of the Sea Services.
Unlike weapons and platforms, courage is not tangible. But it is equally critical to our strength as a fighting force. From James Lawrence on the USS Chesapeake, whose dying words were “Do not give up the ship,” to the outnumbered Marines who fought to the death at Chosin Reservoir, courage is our foundation. It wasn’t built by a single person or mission. It was built one sailor at a time, one Marine at a time, one battle at a time.
Many recognize that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in spite of fear. This is true, but that also defines bravery. Courage is separate from bravery. Bravery does not require a moral component, while acts of courage do. Someone who dives off a cliff when challenged to do so by a friend may be brave but not necessarily courageous.
Courage also is easily confused with honor or integrity. These values certainly align and also are vital to our strength as a fighting force. After all, the Navy’s core values are honor, courage, and commitment. But they are not the same.
Courage and integrity are related because both require adherence to a set of unchanging principles. They demand morality. Immoral or unethical people cannot be people of integrity, nor can they be people of courage. Courage and integrity work together in that acts of integrity require courage—the ability to do the right thing, no matter how difficult or how severe the consequences. In the same way, acts of courage require integrity. Confronting a violation of a moral principle, no matter how minor or major, requires an understanding of right and wrong and a commitment to the ethical side.
Courage begins with a strong foundation of moral principles, but it requires action. Action requires both initial confidence and continuing resilience, because the consequences of courageous acts can be severe. Those with courage fight for causes that not everyone believes in, understands, or even knows about. They get back up each time they are threatened, warned, or scared. They are immovable even in the face of danger—physical or otherwise.
There are many types of courage: physical, emotional, social, intellectual, moral, spiritual. Physical courage is closely associated with bravery, acting despite fear or the risk of physical harm. Intellectual courage requires constant learning and relearning, and social courage is a commitment to being a sincere version of yourself, whether or not it is popular. Spiritual and emotional courage require us to face pain with dignity and strength. These are all aspects of courage, but it is moral courage—standing up for what is right—that wins wars. That means not only standing up against human rights violations or acts of terrorism, but also standing up for doing your job the right way, every time.
This requires discipline. It means going above and beyond in every task, no matter how small, mundane, or useless it might seem. It’s a spirit of excellence. Many sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen can envision being courageous in a combat situation, but if they are not courageous enough to do their jobs to the best of their ability, with the best attitude, will they suddenly garner the courage when necessary to save lives? Courage is like anything else in the military: it requires training.
When military personnel lack this moral courage, the losses are innumerable. Take, for example, the collision involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62). Investigations uncovered “numerous, almost routine, violations of the CO’s standing orders.” One junior officer described a near collision in which “a watch team finishing their shift failed to identify a vessel that was closing on them and wasn’t being tracked.” Individuals were “overseen by a dysfunctional chiefs mess; and dogged by a bruising tempo of operations . . . that left exhausted sailors with little time to train or complete critical certifications.” As part of the investigation, investigators gave Fitzgerald officers a pop quiz on the “rules of the road.” The average grade was 59 percent.2
There may be individual jobs in the Navy, but there are no individual missions. That 59 percent score suggests not everyone on the destroyer understood that. Everyone thought someone else would know; someone else would do it; someone else would make up for their weaknesses. They did not advocate for themselves or take pride in their work when they accepted that they lacked certifications or critical knowledge. Their leaders either were not involved enough to be aware of the low morale and negligent culture, or they knew but failed to act to change it.
The crew forgot about teamwork and accountability. They failed to realize there are no small jobs in the Navy and Marine Corps. There are no unimportant tasks. There are no insignificant titles. When you understand the importance of the mission, and the privilege it is to play a role in it, you look at your job differently. Courage is knowing your job inside and out, doing it the right way, every day, and not settling for anything less. Imagine if every sailor on the Fitzgerald had this kind of courage. Advocating for more training, reporting incidents to the commanding officer, and questioning patterns of unprofessional conduct would not have been popular—but it would have been right.
When courageous people see problems, they also see potential solutions. They recognize the risks and potential consequences of their action, but their discipline and integrity do not allow them to view inaction as an option. They have the resolve to work through anything. Courage is the foundation that personal success, and the success of the Navy and Marine Corps, is built on.
Courage is an extraordinary quality that is made of ordinary character traits. Everyone has the ability to develop courage. The goal of all military leaders should be to set examples of courage and instill it in their teams. Develop confidence by compiling victories: setting goals, no matter how small, and achieving them. Celebrate every win. Seek challenges, and learn to see pressure as a positive force. Complete acts of courage, every day, in small ways. A person who cannot be trusted with a little cannot be trusted with a lot. A person who does not stand up for others in daily life will not suddenly summon the courage to jump on a grenade or run into a burning building.
Semper paratus, semper fidelis. Always ready, always faithful. Not sometimes. Not only when it’s convenient or easy or popular. Not for recognition or accolades.
Courage lives in the “even if.” Even if I don’t get an award. Even if I’m not popular. Even if it’s hard. Even if it hurts. I still see the most powerful Navy and Marine Corps in the world, protecting Americans from all threats, foreign and domestic. I understand the principles of honor, courage, commitment. I will live with courage, in everything I do, because I am a sailor or a Marine, and there is no greater friend and no worse enemy.
1. Associated Press, “Four Former Navy Officers Convicted in ‘Fat Leonard’ Bribery Trial,” Military Times, 29 June 2022.
2. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “Worse Than You Thought: Inside the Secret Fitzgerald Probe the Navy Doesn’t Want You to Read,” Navy Times, 19 August 2022.