In conversations about US wars I often encounter puzzlement when raising the issue of the widespread lack of moral courage among US troops and their officers in failing to refuse to carry out, prevent, or punish some unethical action or failing to refuse, for example, to participate in an unjust, undeclared war initiated on false pretenses.
People seem to tend to equate courage in a military context with physical courage—the willingness to hazard life and limb in battle or some other dangerous situation. I've encountered this reaction among life-long civilians and veterans. When I was on active duty, I found it among other military personnel who seemed to think that contractual obligation, obedience, or—to put it generously—duty trumped the requirements of moral consideration.
I recently read something by Ulysses S. Grant invoking the concept. Grant is speaking, circa 1879, about "moral courage" in a military context decades before the formulation of, for example, the Nüremberg principles. Here is what he said:
I know the struggle with my conscience during the Mexican War. I have never altogether forgiven myself for going into that. I had very strong opinions on the subject. I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign. I had taken an oath to serve eight years, unless sooner discharged, and I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was ... in the conduct of our government in declaring war. ... We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.*Grant served as a junior officer in the war and was twice promoted in recognition of his bravery in battle. He cites his oath of service and devotion to "duty" in explanation of his failure to resign rather than help wage an unjust war. Despite this, Grant clearly laments and faults himself for having insufficient "moral courage".
The Mexican American War, along with his opposition to slavery, inspired Henry David Thoreau to pen his famous essay "Civil Disobedience". Grant and Thoreau both remind us that civil obedience is, perhaps, a greater threat to life and liberty than civil disobedience.
*Quoted in John Russell Young. Around the World with General Grant. Vol. II. (New York: American News Co., 1879) pp. 447-448.