Courage and Cowardice Lessons from the Movie K-19: The Widowmaker and General Conference

Bravery and Cowardice Lessons from K-19:The Widowmaker and General Conference Image via K-19: The Widowmaker. Kathryn Bigelow. Paramount Pictures (US), 2002. Film

An inspiring movie from 2002* is based on the story of the Soviet Union’s first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, K-19.  At one point in the movie, the crew is facing certain death because of failure of the reactor coolant system. The engineering crew is assigned to go into the reactor and repair it. They are to go in teams of two, and spend only 10 minutes working before being relieved by the next team. The hope was that this would reduce their exposure to the radiation, but as the first two teams stubble out, it is readily apparent that even 10 minutes resulted in severe illness. The men leaving the reactor were obviously very ill and in pain. They are stumbling and trembling; they had to be almost carried to the medical bay.

Such a sight was too much for Lieutenant Vadim Radtchenko to take, and he gives in to his fear. In an act of cowardice, he refuses to go next, and stands by as another man takes his place.

If someone has been a coward like Radtchenko, the memory can be haunting. In order for them to feel better and regain their feelings of self-worth, they need another opportunity to be brave. They need a chance to be a hero. Radtchenko did have occasion later in the movie to redeem himself…

The previous repairs to reactor started to give way, and it is Radtchenko who notices and alerts command. The submarine prepares to dive, quite likely for the last time. A lot of other men on the submarine displayed cowardice this time; one man deserts overboard and starts to swim to the Americans. Another man, trying to escape, accidentally starts a fire that endangers the whole ship. In all the chaos, Radtchenko must make a quick decision. There is no higher command there ordering him into the reactor this time. There is only the pressing urgency of the situation and the haunting memory of his own cowardice. This time he overcomes his fear!

If you now want to watch the whole movie, you can buy or rent it on Amazon. And don’t worry that you know the whole plot, because the submarine has many problems and crew faces dozens of complex challenges in the film; this isn’t even the primary conflict of the story.

Hopefully and in all likelihood, most of us will never have to prove our cowardice or bravery in such a dramatic way as in K-19: The Widowmaker. Many of the little cowardly moments of men and women are only between us and God. In our heroic moments when we overcome our fears, often only we and the Lord will see. But in the end, the Lord’s opinion of us is all that matters.

President Thomas S. Monson talked about courage and cowardice in April 2004 general conference:

Of course, we will face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval. Courage becomes a living and an attractive virtue when it is regarded not only as a willingness to die manfully, but also as a determination to live decently. A moral coward is one who is afraid to do what he thinks is right because others will disapprove or laugh. Remember that all men have their fears, but those who face their fears with dignity have courage as well.

From my personal chronology of courage, let me share with you an example from military service.

Entering the United States Navy in the closing months of World War II was a challenging experience for me. I learned of brave deeds, acts of valor, and examples of courage. One best remembered was the quiet courage of an 18-year-old seaman—not of our faith—who was not too proud to pray. Of 250 men in the company, he was the only one who each night knelt down by the side of his bunk, at times amidst the jeers of the curious, the jests of unbelievers, and, with bowed head, prayed to God. He never wavered. He never faltered. He had courage. (The Call for Courage).

President Marion G. Romney (1897-1988), who was an apostle, member of the First Presidency, and President of the Quorum of the Twelve, once said in general conference: “We all have a conscience, and a conscience is the root of moral courage. A truly brave person will always obey his conscience. To know what is right and not do it is cowardice.”

President Romney went on to tell a couple of experiences from his own youth that he wasn’t proud of, and counsel he received from President McKay:

Not all acts of courage bring … spectacular rewards. But all of them do bring peace and contentment; just as cowardice, in the end, always brings regret and remorse.

I know that from my own experience. I remember when I was a boy of 15 and we had been expelled from Mexico in the revolution. My folks went to Los Angeles from El Paso, Texas. I got a job there among a bunch of Mormon-haters, and I didn’t tell them that I was a Mormon. Sometime after that, President Joseph F. Smith came to Los Angeles and had dinner with my parents—a very humble dinner; I can remember that it was very scant. He put his hand on my head and said, “My boy, don’t ever be ashamed that you are a Mormon.”

You know, I have worried all my days that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to those ribald men.

I remember another occasion when I was in Australia on a mission. I went up to visit the Jenolan Caves—very wonderful, spectacular caves. And as we walked through them, the guide said, “If some of you will get out and stand on that rock over there and sing a song, it will demonstrate the capacity of this cave.”

Well, the Spirit said to me, “Go over there and sing ‘O, My Father.’ I hesitated, and the crowd walked on. I lost the opportunity. I never felt good about that. The only thing that ever made me feel the Lord had forgiven me was when I heard President McKay say, “I was inspired one time to do a certain thing when I was in the mission field, and I didn’t do it.” He said, “I have always been sorry since.” He said, “Never fail to respond to the whisperings of the Spirit. Live so you can receive it, and then have the courage to do as it instructs.”  (We Need Men of Courage).

President Henry B. Eyring expounded on the need for bravery during an April 2009 conference talk:

You will need bravery and you will need boldness because you are enlisted in the Lord’s army in the last dispensation. This is not a time of peace. That has been so since Satan arrayed his forces against our Heavenly Father’s plan in the premortal existence. We don’t know the details of the combat then. But we know one result. Satan and his followers were cast down into the earth. And since the creation of Adam and Eve, the conflict has continued. We have seen it intensify. And the scriptures suggest that the war will become more violent and the spiritual casualties on the Lord’s side will mount.

Almost all of us have seen a battlefield portrayed in a film or read the description in a story. Over the din of explosions and the shouts of soldiers, there comes a cry, “Man down!”

When that cry sounds, faithful fellow soldiers will move toward the sound. Another soldier or a medic will ignore danger and move to the injured comrade. And the man down will know that help will come. Whatever the risk, someone will run low or crawl to get there in time to protect and give aid. That is true in every band of men joined in a difficult and dangerous mission which they are determined to fulfill at any sacrifice. The histories of such groups are full of stories of those loyal men who were determined that no man would be left behind.

President Eyring went on to compare the battlefield of a physical war to the constant spiritual war that rages all around us. He spoke of how Priesthood leaders can help when they hear the Spirit whisper to them, “Man down!” Many of President Eyring’s words were geared toward home teachers and bishops, because it was the Priesthood session. But the heart of his sermon applies to all of us. He closed by saying, “I testify that you were called of God and you are sent to serve His children. He wants that no one be left behind. President Monson holds the keys of the priesthood in all the earth. God will give you inspiration and strength to meet your charge to help His children find their way to the happiness made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”(“Man Down!”)

So for all of you readers who are young, learn early as President Romney did that cowardice brings ‘regret and remorse’ while bravery brings ‘peace and contentment’. If you learn young, you can someday be like President Romney. He was 77 years old when he gave that talk, and he had to reach back well over 50 years to find a couple of personal stories of cowardice from his youth and mission. If you are young, and you’ve lacked bravery lately, don’t torture yourself over it, but DO learn from it. Someday you will be an old man or an old woman, and the memory of your moment of cowardice will be nothing more than wise story for your next Church talk.

President Marion G. Romney in 1975
President Marion G. Romney in 1975 as he spoke on courage in general conference.

If you’re not so young anymore (like me), and perhaps have some recent memories when you should have been brave but weren’t, take heart. If you are reading this, you are still alive. That means you still have chances to be brave, to overcome your fear, and to be the Lord’s loyal soldier that comes running at the shout of “Man down!”

You can be like Lieutenant Vadim Radtchenko in K-19, who in his cowardice refused to do his duty. He wasn’t just a coward, he was a blubbering coward! But when another chance presented itself, he seized the moment, faced his fears, and became a hero! Perhaps it was even the memory of his earlier epic failing that motivated him to give twice as much as other men and save the day.

It can be the same with any of us. Our moments of cowardice need not define us forever. We can decide here and now to be brave.

Some memes about courage
(These are from lds.org. You can find more of their inspirational picture quotes for sharing online in their media library)

Have faith in the Savior and fear not


*K-19: The Widowmaker. Kathryn Bigelow. Paramount Pictures (US), 2002. Film.


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