Mark Twain and Terence O’Brien on Courage

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave; it is merely a loose application of the word. Consider the flea! – incomparably the bravest of all the creatures of God, if ignorance of fear were courage.
– Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson“, chapter 12 (1894)

I didn’t know that quote until I saw it posted on the internet by someone whose work I respect. It reminded me of this:

It was not unusual to come across staff officers who were quite unaware how sensitive pilots could be to any comment which insinuated a lack of courage. I never heard anyone in our a squadron ever speak seriously about fear of death. They joked about the subject, laughed when they said: “I was shit scared when I saw the stuff they were pumping at us,” downgrading their own acts of courage so as not to admit the fear that made them so valuable. But when you are striving to control the delicate balance between excitement at danger and fear of death, you become extremely sensitive to any suggestion that fear was in control. Some senior officers would assume that your angry reaction was a gratuitous impertinence. It was not. It was an act of self-defence. [Emphasis added by me.]
– Terence O’Brien in “Chasing After Danger” (first published 1990), page 124

Terence O’Brien was born in Australia, and was working on a plantation in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific in September 1939 when World War 2 started. (From a European perspective: in “The War of the World” Niall Ferguson writes that World War 2 really began on 7 July 1937 when full war broke out between Japan and China.) He made his way to Australia, then England, because he wanted to be a pilot in the war. He joined the Royal Air Force for training in December 1939, and started active service as an RAF pilot in March 1941.

His first tour of duty of thirty operations was mainly very dangerous night attacks on German warships in ports on the French Atlantic coast, which he completed in May 1941. Later in 1941 he did a second tour of anti-submarine patrols. (Much to his annoyance: he wanted to continue with more active – and more dangerous – operations.) He then went to Singapore, flying operations against the Japanese forces; became second in command of a training establishment in India; became an RAF liason officer with the army behind enemy lines in Burma in early 1944; and finished the war as the commander of a squadron performing special operations flying supplies and delivering agents to forces behind enemy lines in South-East Asia.

During the war he made notes about his life, as and when he was motivated. Nearly forty years later he was persuaded to type these up. The result was a series of three books between 1984 and 1990:
* “Out of the Blue” – on his experiences with the army behind enemy lines;
* “The Moonlight War” – on his time flying special operations in South-East Asia;
* “Chasing After Danger” – the third to be published, but dealing with his first periods of war service.

O’Brien is insistent that these books are not historical studies, but are personal memoirs, moreover ones which record only what interested him sufficiently at the time. But they are important documents for several reasons:
* from his record he is a person whose opinions on courage and military matters have to be taken very seriously;
* he is clearly a very intelligent person, and he writes well;
* what he has to say is interesting and thoughtful and funny;
* he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and can be quite dismissive of his own efforts – this isn’t false modesty, because he gives examples of things he did which he is rightly proud of;
* he is angry about pompous self-important fools in positions of power, but is very compassionate and understanding about those whose courage failed sooner than would his own, or who are trying to make their best of a difficult job.

As an example, in – I think – “Out of the Blue”, he describes how at one point in World War 2 he was in Burma with a small group of (I think) Gurkha soldiers – with a British officer, I think “Tiny” Langford – who had to make their way through territory where there was a serious danger of ambush by the enemy (Japanese troops), and the way to deal with this was for the group to move in single file with one man, who was rotated, leading the group, and therefore most at risk of being killed. The soldiers were, entirely understandably, very nervous, and progress was very slow, which led “Tiny” Langford to say to Terence O’Brien that they needed to move faster and that the only way for this to happen was if he and O’Brien took it in turns to be the first man in the group (half-an-hour as the leading man, then half-an-hour not leading), adding that he’d go first as the leading man. Terence O’Brien wasn’t exactly keen on this idea (also entirely understandable), but couldn’t see an alternative, so that’s what they did. O’Brien writes that he was grateful that “Tiny” Langford seemed to be leading for more than half-an-hour each time, and replacing O’Brien somewhat before O’Brien’s half-an-hour in the lead was fully up, for which O’Brien was grateful. In the event they weren’t ambushed, with the implication that there were not, in fact, any Japanese troops in the vicinity, and O’Brien adds that, despite that (which he didn’t know at the time), this was one of the bravest things he (O’Brien) had done.

The first book I read was “The Moonlight War“, simply because I noticed it in a bookshop, and it looked interesting. I quickly realised that it was a quite out of the ordinary memoir (but to call it simply a memoir is to devalue it), and re-read it several times. I subsequently tracked down copies of his other books: those I have also re-read several times.

All three books are now out of print, but second-hand copies can be found with some effort (for example, on the internet), an effort which is very well worth making.


* After the war Terence O’Brien’s career was as varied as during it: he ran a hotel in the Canary Islands, worked as a freelance journalist, a schoolteacher, and finally was the director of a tile-importing company. There is an obituary here.

* As another example of someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and who writes well, I recommend the first chapters of Ulysses S Grant’s autobiography, dealing with his time as a very junior officer in the United States Army, before the Civil War. (I especially recommend reading Grant’s very funny (and self-deprecating) account of his time handling mules.)

Extracts from a wikipedia article: Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

With regard to the U.S.-Mexican War, Grant recorded his belief that it had been waged unjustly: Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

Mark Twain’s opinion: “I had been comparing the memoirs with Caesar’s Commentaries… I was able to say in all Apologetic forms that the same high merits distinguished both books – clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech. General Grant was just a man, just a human being, just an author…The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that General Grant’s book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece. There is no higher literature than these modest, simple Memoirs. Their style is at least flawless, and no man can improve upon it.”

* Two other quotes apparently by Mark Twain (I couldn’t find citations of the sources):

It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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