Courage and Cowardice: The Deciding Factor

Categories: Slaughterhouse Five

As seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, it was the courage and cowardice of men in their actions, morals, and values that determined the events and aftermath of the two World Wars. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines courage as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty” (Webster). Courage of man, as it pertains to war, can have multiple definitions. Courage can be both physical and moral, but the courage of personal conviction is oftentimes what marks the difference between a man of courage, and one experiencing a single moment of bravery.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, has personal courage. Billy spends the novel asking what events he can change, and what events must he have the courage to let go. The answer comes in the form of the Serenity Prayer, located on a plaque in Billy’s office, and on Montana Wildhack’s locket “containing a photograph of her alcoholic mother… and engraved on the outside of the locket [was the prayer]” (Vonnegut 208).

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The Serenity Prayer is as follows: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference” (Vonnegut 209). The Tralfamadorians (the aliens who kidnap Billy), believe that everything in life is predetermined; therefore, none of us has any control over any part of our lives and even the decisions we make were already made for us.

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Billy’s courage comes from his willingness to acknowledge and accept that.

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself [Billy] hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes” ‘(Vonnegut 27). The Tralfamadorians can choose what they experience but that is unreal. Life is about accepting the fact that we can only live one moment at a time, and we must have the courage to face that moment head on, whether we like what we see. This reflects upon the courage of the men fighting in WWI and WWII.

Having the strength to face daily horrors highlights the courage some of these men had which ultimately may have prevented them from giving the ultimate sacrifice- their lives. Just as some men have courage, some men are cowards. Those who were too cowardly to face the war were killed, escaped out of the country, or cost other people their lives. Billy Pilgrim spends most of the novel travelling through time trying to figure out moments he can no longer change, and he struggles to find the courage to tell the difference between those and current and future moments which he still can affect. Had he recognized this difference he may have been lodged back in time.

The novel depicts Billy Pilgrim, a weak university student, as a soldier in the army during WWII. Although Billy struggles to find courage to separate moments he can control from moments in the past (evident from his ‘time traveling’), there are many times during the novel where Billy shows that he has courage. In Chapter 4, “The terrific acceleration of the saucer as it left Earth twisted Billy’s slumbering body, distorted his face, dislodged him in time, and sent him back to the war” (Vonnegut 77). Billy experiences both the Tralfamadorians and being stuck in a boxcar with the other soldiers in miserable conditions. In neither situation does he complain about his lot, aside from the singular comment to the aliens, “Why me?” (Vonnegut 76), to which they replied “Why you, why us, why anything? Because this moment simply is… [We are] trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why” (Vonnegut 77). Courage, is accepting this fact, and having the mental and moral moxie to endure.

Billy’s courage is most visible when contrasted with Roland Weary. Weary “had every present he’d received from home: helmet, wool cap, scarf, gloves, [etc]…” (Vonnegut 40). Billy “was so weak he shouldn’t have even been in the army. He didn’t have a gun or a knife. He didn’t have a helmet or a cap…” (Vonnegut 42). Roland had everything and was comfortable, yet he caused the deaths of his entire gunner detail when he fired a shot, which told the Germans where they were located. Roland talks brave and looks down upon Billy, but Billy is the one with courage. He suffers through Roland’s beating, is stuffed in a boxcar full of putrid smell and unsanitary, cruel conditions, disgraced by the other soldiers in the boxcar, and experiences the humiliation of wearing a much too small jacket in front of the German and English soldiers. Through all this, Billy survives and never gives up. That is true courage.

The summation of Billy’s courage is shown in Chapter 3, where the Serenity Prayer is introduced. “Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too” (Vonnegut 60). The courage to hold on to life once the will to live has left is unmatchable, because “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 60). Courage is accepting this fact and continuing nonetheless.

Siegfried Sassoon’s courage is clear due to his decision to speak out against WWI, despite his military achievements and prowess in Pat Barker’s Regeneration. The best example of this is when Sassoon throws away the MC (Military Cross) ribbon that is awarded to him for “gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches” (Barker 8). Graves, a poet, soldier, and Sassoon’s friend, “told them last year when he [Sassoon] took a German trench single-handed and got recommended for the VC (Victorian Cross). Everybody who I’ve spoken to who was there thinks he should have gotten the VC for that” (Barker 22). It is clear that many people, friends, subordinates, and colleagues, revere Sassoon with the highest respect and acknowledge his courage. “He’s the best platoon commander I’ve ever known. The men worship him…” (Barker 21).

This novel begins with a copy of the letter Sassoon wrote to his Commanding Officer stating that he “is making a statement of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it” (Barker 3). This demonstrates the courage of personal conviction. Personal conviction is a strong opinion or belief. Sassoon exemplifies the main theme in Barker’s novel: the importance of valuing personal conviction. Acting in support of his beliefs results in the questioning of his mental stability, and a possible stint in prison for disobeying orders; however, it allows him to voice an opinion disdained by the military and government, that the war is wrong.

The throwing away of the medal and the report on character from Sassoon’s men are examples of courage valued by the military and the members in it. Barker, however, values courage of personal conviction more (Dorsch). Sassoon risks his position in the military, and his freedom when he chooses to voice his thoughts on the war. He does it regardless because those are his beliefs. When Sassoon states in his letter to his CO: “I am protesting against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed” (Barker 3), he explains his action of discarding his MC medal. He has the courage to maintain his strong political views despite the possible repercussions, and through his actions of throwing out the ribbon. He surprises Rivers, who cannot understand that a man “could… be ashamed of a medal awarded for saving life” (Barker 8). For Sassoon, that medal did not symbolize the saving of life; it symbolized the wastefulness of the superior military members who sacrifice the lives of young men unnecessarily.

Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny explores the contrast between Captain Queeg, a cowardly and paranoid captain of the USS Caine, and LT Maryk, the courageous and heroic Executive Officer. Maryk is straightforward, fair, and a good officer. He allows Keefer to influence his feelings towards Queeg, leading him to keep a medical record of all of Queeg’s oddities, and guiding him towards relieving Queeg as captain of the ship, possibly falsely convinced of Queeg’s insanity. The officers and enlisted aboard the ship admire Maryk and his disposition. Even Queeg gives him a superb fitness report: “This officer has if anything improved in his performance of duty since the last fitness report. He is consistently loyal, unflagging, thorough, courageous, and efficient” (Wouk 474). Maryk is fair to his sailors, and loyal to his captain for the majority of the novel. When the officers make fun of Queeg in the wardroom, Maryk has the courage to remove himself from it, risking popularity. In contrast, how Queeg acts is anything but courageous. After Maryk relieves Queeg during the typhoon, they have a meeting in his office where Queeg “begged and pleaded and even wept to get him to agree to erase those few pencil lines, in return for which you promised to hush up the incident completely and make no report” (Wouk 461).

Queeg “received a hundred ten dollars from LTJG Keith [because] the crate Keith lost contained liquor” and he “refused to sign his [Keith’s] leave papers until he paid for the loss of the crate into the ocean” (Wouk 464-65). Queeg “steamed over his own towline and cut it” (Wouk 465), and on the first morning of the invasion of Kwajalein he “ran a mile ahead of the attack boats, dropped [his] marker, and retired at high speed, leaving the boats to grope to the line of departure as best they could” (Wouk 468). Queeg made it practice to, during invasions, to station himself on the side of the bridge that was sheltered from the beach” (Wouk 470). These are actions of cowardice, not courage, and they risked the lives and well-being of not only Queeg’s ship and men, but the other ships and men they were tasked to help, and the mission at large.

Similarly, to Queeg, Keefer is an example of cowardice in relation to Maryk as well. When Maryk shows him his medical log, he responds by saying, “It’s a clinical picture of a paranoiac, a full case history, not a doubt in the world of it. You’ve got him, Steve” (Wouk 336). However, when Maryk asks Keefer to come with him to alert the Admiral of their suspicions about Queeg’s sanity, Keefer is suddenly hesitant. Later, when they are on the deck of the New Jersey, Keefer retreats, explaining to Maryk that he will not go with him. He says, “I’m scared” (Wouk 343). This is cowardice. Keefer insults Queeg incessantly, but when the moment to have an impact arises, Keefer does not have the courage that Maryk has to stand up for his beliefs and the safety of the ship and the crew.

Courage can be as simple as letting go of the past, as seen in Slaughterhouse-Five, as dangerous as risking your life, career, and freedom, as seen in Regeneration, or as simple as being brave enough to do the right thing, as seen in The Caine Mutiny. It was both the courage and the cowardice of men that determined the outcomes of the two World Wars, but they also had a great effect on the well-being of the men who participated in said wars. The act of persevering through danger, fear, and difficulty

took a toll on the soldier and sailors of WWI and WWII. It is unremarkable then, as to why many of the men, some who may parallel the characters in these three novels, find themselves struggling to make sense of their past, present, and future. The strength necessary to combat cowardice and act courageously, takes a special sort of person, and can have an incomparable effect on the outcomes of events and the mental endurance of all those involved.

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Courage and Cowardice: The Deciding Factor. (2021, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Courage and Cowardice: The Deciding Factor

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