Audacity of Hope vs. Audacity of Courage

They swoon, they faint, they genuflect, they take pictures, scribble notes, cheer until their voices sound like Darth Vader with a cold, and clap until their fingers explode from their hands like short bursts from an assault rifle. And those are just the reporters. Alright, maybe reporters don’t act that way at a Barack Obama rally—of course, who knows what they’re thinking. In the meantime, the rest of the crowd bellows its enthusiasm for change.

Problem is, during this 2008 primary season the utter vacuity of the term change, unattended by at least a few meaty predicates, has been expatiated on to the point of parody. Americans can only take so much of a political aphrodisiac until the throbbing headache of morning-after sanity sets in, reminding one of the consequences of last night’s campaign binge. The mature response is, of course, sober recognition of meretricious slogans; one moves on. But, to what?

Hope. Or, more specifically, the audacity of hope, which is the title of Obama’s book-length campaign vehicle. If change is now recognized as an empty vessel, certainly hope may come in to rescue the day. After all, isn’t hope audacious, as Senator Obama claims? In fact, it is not; although the audacity of hope may sound better, this phrase is more vacuous than the Orwellian Animal Farm two-legs-bad-four-legs-good chants for change. The “audacity of hope” is disingenuous, because those who are truly audacious realize that these words simply do not go together. At best, hope may lead to perseverance, which can be either good or bad, depending on the circumstances, but it hardly springs from audacity.

In the final analysis, hope reduces to wishful thinking. Anyone can hope; fools can hope and wise men, too, though wisdom receives nourishment from other sources; cowards can hope, the hopeless can hope. But the mature, the brave, the grown-ups understand that audacity does not inspire hope. Rather, courage propels audacity, and hope has nothing to do with either. Indeed, courageous actions are bereft of hope. Brave men and women shun it; or rather, the concept never occurs to them because when duty calls, only courage matters.

Among countless examples that can be adduced to demonstrate this point, let us draw from the deep well of heroic actions undertaken by American soldiers during wartime, specifically, World War II. On October 25, 1944, an element of the Seventh Fleet, nicknamed Taffy Three, had a chance encounter with a Japanese fleet that made General Custer’s adversaries at his last stand seem like pushovers. Admiral Kurita commanded a group that included four battleships, including the mammoth Yamato, the largest warship ever built, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Against this armada, Admiral Clifton A. “Ziggy” Sprague countered with seven destroyers and destroyer escorts, and six escort carriers.

Destroyers are small, fast, but poorly armed, with torpedoes and small guns mounted in single turrets, fore and aft. A well-placed round from the Yamato or any of the cruisers would obliterate a destroyer in a flash. Destroyer escorts were even slower and more thin-skinned, able to challenge only another destroyer, at best. Perhaps worst of all, the escort carriers—dubbed CVE’s in naval jargon—were the most vulnerable, as indicated by the unflattering nicknames sailors gave them: Kaiser coffins, tomato cans, wind wagons, or perhaps worst of all, Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable (CVE). Yet this force was the only thing that stood between the mighty Japanese fleet and American troops who had landed on Leyte; if Kurita got through, the slaughter on the beaches would be unimaginable. Ziggy’s situation was without hope; his fleet would be annihilated.

Yet, Taffy Three won the engagement. Using comparatively puny weapons, this pathetically weak menagerie of ships fought with such audacity that Admiral Kurita mistakenly concluded he had encountered a much more powerful element of the Seventh Fleet, so he decided to withdraw. Audacity propelled by raw courage in a hopeless situation had won the battle and saved tens of thousands of lives.

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly, from Valley Forge to the sands of the Middle East, and they all point to the same conclusion: audacity is a special word, not to be used flippantly. In fact, for the truly audacious, there is something morally repulsive about this word’s abuse. But for many in a generation accustomed to basking in recognition not earned by accomplishment, this is a difficult idea to grasp. Will this situation ever change?

We can only hope.