On Civil Courage and Its Punishments

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

By Daniel Ellsberg

Editor’s Note: The late Daniel Ellsberg’s article, “On Civil Courage and its Punishments,” was originally published in Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times, edited by Mickey Huff, Andy Lee Roth, and Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 208-13. The article was based in part on an interview with Project Censored’s Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips on KPFA, Pacifica Free Speech Radio, The Project Censored Show, April 3, 2013.

Both civil and battlefield risk-taking for the benefit of others involves real courage; but one is far more rare than the other. Why?

Battlefield courage is expected to (and does) lead to the respect and thanks of those closest to you, your team and your superiors, immediately. (As we’ll discuss below, courage off the battlefield commonly does the opposite). The respect is from some of the people you most respect, and whose respect you most value. It’s good for your career, though that’s not ordinarily a consideration in the immediate circumstances. And it’s not only immediate—it can be ongoing.

To the very common extent that it involves saving the lives of others, those others are your teammates—“us,” known to you, some of them friends—who could be expected to risk their own lives to save yours in comparable circumstances. And the saving of their lives is immediate and often visible to others; they are under imminent risk. Parallels in civilian life include rescuing a child who has wandered into traffic, or dangerously swerving a car in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian or animal.

Both the risk and the benefit are immediate and usually visible—i.e., likely to evoke thanks or praise. You will not only feel you have done the right thing, but your community, your “we” group will agree, applaud, thank you, and perhaps even reward you.

Thus, it is not only possible—and universally done—but also relatively easy to train ordinary people, chosen at random (for example, by draft) to behave bravely on the battlefield: to inculcate a spirit of team loyalty in them, and (in military circumstances) to impress obedience to orders and to a “mission.” Extreme physical courage becomes almost routine. As Admiral Chester Nimitz said of the Marines on Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Civil courage is almost the opposite in all these respects. Especially whistleblowing, which involves the exposure to outsiders of wrongdoing or reckless behavior by one’s own team, superiors, organization—thus exposing one’s own team members, superiors, and organization to risk of sanctions. For this you should expect not only a lack of thanks from your superiors and teammates but condemnation, contempt, ostracism, lost chances of promotion, risk of firing, and denial of respect from those you most respect and from whom you want respect.

And all this is not only from those whose misguided, dangerous behavior or wrongdoing has been exposed, but from their—and your—teammates and superiors, who feel you have endangered or stigmatized their prized organization and shown “disloyalty” (to it and to them), even when they are not personally involved in the behavior you have exposed. (Some of them may have strongly opposed it themselves, inside the group or organization—no “airing of dirty laundry” to outsiders—usually to no effect, but such internal critiques seldom result in either sanctions or, more importantly, changes in the wrongful behavior.)

In all cases, you may have acted to save lives, physically, or to safeguard indirectly the welfare of others. But while in the battlefield case, the lives you have saved (at the risk of your own) are your friends, your teammates, “us,” in the civil case, the lives are likely to be those of “outsiders” and “others”—who may well be foreign, distant, or personally unknown to you and your group. Nothing is more human than to value, or to show concern for and readiness to take personal risks for, the lives or welfare of “others” who are “not-’us’” much less “one of us.”

Moreover, the dangers (perhaps from “us,” or some of us) from which these others have been saved may or may not be immediate or easily traceable to their cause. These harms are “conjectural,” “speculative,” or “uncertain.” They may appear to be highly likely or virtually certain to the risk-taking whistleblower—who may possess special knowledge of these dangers. That knowledge may be widely known to other insiders, who take no action on it. But to other members of your group or organization, the alleged danger to these outsiders, especially in the future and especially from “us,” may be irrelevant, invisible, or nonexistent.

For this latter group, the future (or immediate) danger to the lives or physical well-being of these “others” weighs less, in effect, than the immediate harm (from protecting those “others”) to the careers and reputations of one’s in-group. Such priorities of concern—for “us” rather than “them” (even when “they” are not enemies)—are virtually universal, and perhaps an attribute of humanity in general.

If whistleblowing involves holding one’s own team, superiors, or organization accountable for causing harm to others on the battlefield, these others will typically be foreigners and are likely to be understood as “the enemy” who threatens the lives or well-being of your own “side.” In the civil case, where the stakes of whistleblowing are more likely to involve damage to prestige, career, budget, and promotion, rather than life or death, you are seen as harming “your own friends,” “us,” those to whom you are expected (or even pledged) to show “loyalty.” Loyalty may encompass the hiding of wrongdoing from outsiders, as is true not only in the mafia, but in all collectivities that establish unyielding boundaries to distinguish “we” from “them.”

Battlefield courage ensures continued membership in a highly valued group admired by society: “battlefield brothers,” and “our brave soldiers, our best.” Civil courage commonly risks—and almost ensures—ostracism, not only from an immediate group but also from one’s own society.

In these terms, is there much uncertainty left as to why battlefield bravery (while not universal) is so common, whereas civil courage is so very rare?

Battlefield courage is not only trained for but also generally rewarded (if the risk-taker lives). By contrast, civil courage is often punished: Whistleblowers and others who display civil courage do not necessarily risk their lives, but often their actions entail sacrifice of their freedom for years or life in prison! Moreover, those who display civil courage are sanctioned in terms that many regard as “worse than death”: exclusion and ostracism.

Thus the answer to what may seem paradoxical: the same individuals who have risked their bodies and lives in combat prove unwilling, in civilian life—see: General Colin Powell—to take any significant risk of their clearances, their access to power, their job or career, even when vast numbers of lives (of “others”) are at stake! Even Socrates chose death over exile, even when he regarded either punishment as unjust.

Where does this leave us? Might we train people for civil courage, as we do for battlefield courage?

Current training, in schools and on the job, encourages conformity and obedience: training for obedience to authority, loyalty to the group, adherence to promises (in particular, of secrecy, silence, and obedience)—even when these endanger many others outside one’s group. Whether explicitly or not, such training produces a mindset along the lines of the unofficial congressional motto, “to get along, go along”—in other words, the very opposite of standing at odds from the crowd, dissenting from the organization’s policies or a superior’s directive, or warning against and exposing misconduct within one’s own group.

Could both the training and the expectations be changed, or at least added to? Might we realistically change people’s expectations regarding the consequences of their actions in the eyes of those they respect? In this sense, any award for whistleblowing or other types of civil courage demonstrates that such actions do not necessarily lead to the loss of all social respect. (Think, for example, John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage, which featured a number of congressional “representatives” who went against the desires or beliefs of their constituents.)

One challenge for anyone who faces ostracism for displaying civil courage is that newly earned and demonstrated respect may come from groups that the individual has long been taught to despise and disregard. You lose (perhaps all) your old friends, but you do gain new ones, whose values you discover correspond to those that came to separate you from your former relationships. For example, Sibel Edmonds found that Federal Bureau of Investigation whistleblowers (including, initially, herself) were extremely uneasy at being applauded by, or even associated with, members of the American Civil Liberties Union. General Lee Butler, who denounced the nuclear weapons that he had previously been in charge of, found that he couldn’t lunch any more with other generals, but was acclaimed by antiwar and antinuclear crowds, whom he had previously found, at best, simplistic, wrongheaded, or unpatriotic. (He backed away from his public stand, though he didn’t repudiate it.)

Still, the Ridenhour Prizes for journalistic courage and whistleblowing (presented by the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute) and Yoko Ono’s recent Courage Award to Julian Assange, are steps in the direction of honoring civil courage. They make potential whistleblowers or other insider dissenters aware, at least, that while they lose membership and respect from groups they have long belonged to and valued (and this sense of loss, including the loss of multiple personal friendships, may be long felt and never fully compensated for), they will not be outcasts from the larger society, and will even earn extreme respect from groups they themselves come to respect and value. In addition to high-profile awards, organizations like Edmonds’s National Security Whistleblowers Coalition and Ray McGovern’s Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity provide valuable reassurance of this.

Observers have noted that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have provided us with virtually no nationally known heroes for battlefield courage, though a number have earned high decorations. But [Chelsea] Manning is a war hero from those conflicts whose name will ring for a long time—even, and perhaps especially, if [she] spends [her] life in prison.

Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023), who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of government decision-making during the Vietnam War, to the New York Times and other newspapers, was the author of three books: Papers on the War (1971), Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002), and Risk, Ambiguity and Decision (2001). Since the end of the Vietnam War, he was a lecturer, writer, and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful US interventions, and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing. In 2006, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation awarded Ellsberg its prize, known as the “Alternative Nobel,” for “putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to inspiring others to follow his example.”