Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

At the Core

Issues of courage and cowardice have been on my mind a lot lately. In my reviews of '300' I mentioned that the disturbing thing about the bad reviews I've read isn't that they didn't like it, it's definitely not to everyone's taste, but that much of them seemed to be part of a reflexive dislike of any portrayal of physical courage.

In my post 'Virginia', I mentioned that the three responses to deadly danger in rough order of desirability are, 1) avoid it, 2) successfully run away from it, and 3) successfully fight back against it.

Any competent and ethical martial arts instructor knows that one of the difficult tasks of instructing boys and young men, is teaching when and how to escape and evade aggressors. Testosterone overload often makes men want to fight when they should run, or keep pounding on a downed foe longer than the law considers justified. (You could call that "losing by winning", when you consider the potential criminal charges and/or lawsuits.)

One thing I like to do is to pose the question, "What is the highest military command skill?" I didn't know the answer myself until it was pointed out to me.

Experts consider the highest command skill to be the ability to lead a retreat in good order.

Think about that for a minute. When in an untenable position, you may have to fall back to a one you are better able to defend. If it has to be done in the face of the enemy, it can all to easily turn into a rout - and then you're screwed.

Circumstances alter cases of course. For a Greek hoplite, when the day was clearly lost he could possibly save his life by abandoning his heavy armor and running. ("He who fights and runs away... etc.) But if just one man did it too soon he could cause the collapse of the line. (Hence the Spartan expression, "Come back with your shield or on it.") For a medieval pikeman facing cavalry, dropping his pike and running meant that the cavalry would likely run him down and take him from behind.

The point of all this is that running is not necessarily evidence of cowardice - it all depends on circumstances.

Americans proud of our preeminent position of power in the world, might do well to remember from time to time that our nation was populated largely by people who successfully used the strategy of running away.

Now if you'll bear with me a moment (I promise, it's actually heading for a point), I'd like to tell you about a science fiction story I read when I was in high school, lo these many years ago.

"At the Core" by Larry Niven, was part of his Known Space universe, set in the far future and involving his character Beowulf Schaeffer.

Beowulf Schaeffer is hired for a deep space exploration mission by the Puppeteers, an alien race described as looking like "a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets for heads."

Puppeteers have a certain outstanding characteristic - they are cowards. All of them.

Puppeteers have an inborn mortal fear of, basically everything even remotely dangerous. So for dangerous tasks such as exploration they hire humans, whom they regard as crazy - but lucky. (A brave Puppeteer is by definition psychotic.)

They hire Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot a new kind of spaceship to the galactic core and report back what he finds.

What he finds when he gets there is that the galactic core has exploded in a chain of supernovas. In 50,000 years the blast wave and radiation is going to reach our galactic neighborhood, rendering it uninhabitable. He reports this and returns.

When he gets back to Known Space, he finds that all of the Puppeteers have fled the Galaxy.

Let's break here and ask yourself what you'd do if your knew for certain that an unavoidable danger was going to wipe out all life on Earth and all of the nearer solar systems - in 50,000 years? Would you even lose any sleep over it?

Didn't think so, neither would I.

Beowulf Schaeffer muses on this and comes to the same conclusion. We'd do nothing until the sky started to glow.

He thinks further on it. No Puppeteer ever pretended danger didn't exist. He may have been looking for the best place to run, but he would never deny the necessity for running.

He concludes, "Maybe it's humans who are cowards, at the Core."

(Nice play on words there.)

To belabor the point just a little, it's not necessarily cowardly to run from danger. As I said, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes running can save your life, sometimes it gets you killed - or leaves those you love unprotected.

But to deny that danger exists?

I'll deal more with this later.


  • At 3:37 PM, Blogger Mark said…

    Larry Niven, eh? I'll have to look into him, now.

  • At 4:50 AM, Blogger Plateau said…

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  • At 7:05 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I can't argue with that - so I'll quibble. I'd call judgement an "attribute" as opposed to a skill.

    The difference is I think, that judgement is what you look for in recruiting people, skills are what you teach them.

    Of course, it's not quite so cut-and-dried. You look for people with certain qualities that can be developed by training.

  • At 4:09 PM, Blogger Plateau said…

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  • At 10:25 PM, Blogger Robohobo said…

    Yup. Same thing posed differently but based on this world.

    You see a man with a knife about 15 to 20 feet down the road from you. You have a pistol in a holster on your hip. The man with the knife turns towards you, yells he is going to cut you and makes to run in your direction. What do you do?

    A1: Turn and run.
    A2: Draw the pistol.

    The right answer is a bit more complicated than most allow. The answer is A1 while drawing the pistol. It takes the time that an adult male can cover ~22 feet to draw the pistol. That means the guy is carving on you while you are still drawing if you choose A2.

    Things are never as simple as they seem at first look.

    The Hobo

  • At 6:31 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

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  • At 6:33 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    You're a shrink who's done combat preparedness training sessions? I can see that we're going to have much to talk about...
    I'm making the focus of my much-delayed PhD work, bias and propaganda - and of course the military application in psyops.

    Yes, the 21 foot rule. In our monthly PTK Filipino Kali training we've been doing knife versus pistol scenarios lately - from both positions. You have the knife and attack the man with the pistol/ you have the pistol and must retain it in position to fire. It's very counterintuitive, but when you've got the pistol it's sometimes best to bring the left hand into play and use the pistol as a blunt instrument!

  • At 5:36 PM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    The 21 foot rule, huh? Interesting. I know people that carry pistols, and while they are well-concealed, and omnipresent, they're a bit hard to get at. It kinda worries me, because with many concealed holsters, it seems to assume that you'll have time and foreknowledge on your side. Enough at least to get your pistol out before the threat is able to strike.

    Even worse, most people I know don't even have a round in the chamber of the pistol. In theory, much safer, but there's a couple more seconds wasted.

    Partly in connection with all that, I'm thinking of getting back into martial arts. I studied a bit of Tae Kwan Do and a bit of Kung Fu, but want more. And more practical stuff, since I'm not as young and fit as I used to be. Either Wing Chun or Krav Maga, as I hear they're both excellent, though hard to find classes in.

  • At 8:04 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Wing Chun is an excellent close-range style. What makes it quite appropriate for modern times is that it trains the independent-but-coordinated use of two hands, i.e. one traps and the other strikes. This is a useful skill when an aggressor's hand dives into his clothing for something concealed...

    (Full disclosure, I'm a ranked instructor in a Wing Chun-derived style, Wu-wei Wing Chun Gung Fu, the Yip Man line through Joseph Cowles, but not traditional WC.)

    I like Krav Maga's training methods, fitness and scenario training. Nothing original about it (there probably isn't much original in the martial arts anyway), it's basically a combination of kickboxing and ju jitsu style he-does-this-so-you-do-this techniques.

    I'm going to get flack for this, but Tae Kwon Do as taught in America has almost completely abandoned its combat origins for a sport emphasis. If you can find a traditional teacher, great - but it's an art for the young and flexible. For those of us who ain't what we used to be in that department...

    These days I teach and train mostly in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, for reasons I may go into in a future post.

  • At 5:26 PM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    A martial arts expert who lived/taught in Poland and married a Paisana...

    You're my hero.

    I do agree with you about TKD- jumping up and doing a reverse spinning roundhouse kick to the face is a sport trick, not a fighting technique.

    I'm moving out to New Mexico soon. I hope to find an instructor there for either of the styles I mentioned, though from what I've seen it's pretty barren. Que sera sera.

  • At 2:16 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    gun-totin-wacko said...

    I'm moving out to New Mexico soon. I hope to find an instructor there for either of the styles I mentioned, though from what I've seen it's pretty barren. Que sera sera.

    I moved out here (Abq, NM) a couple years ago. Was hoping to find Wah Lum Kung Fu or Uechi-Ryu Karate. Yup, pretty slim.

    Still, in attacks, most law breakers are not expecting any other response then freezing up. Just keeping moving throws a lot of people off.

  • At 4:29 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    That should be "wspolkrajowsca" or something like that Wacko. Never mind, "paisana" is at least possible to pronounce...

    Back in Warsaw I made a joke among the expats, only it didn't work because everybody already knew the answer.

    "What do you call an average-looking Polish girl?"

    "#$%&ing gorgeous!"

    About the question of resisting or submitting, I've never forgotten a talk show panel I saw years ago. It was after a TV movie with Richard Crenna about a cop who got raped. The panel included Crenna, a real cop, some rape victims and a "former rapist".

    When they discussed he question, Crenna and the cop took the reasonable position of "If you survived, you did the right thing."

    But one young woman, a rape victim, burst out, "Fight back! If you don't you'll never feel good about yourself again."

    Hey, if you guys are in NM, I'm available for seminars - cheap. My Polish gal loves exotic New Mexico and would nag me to take her there just for the gas and a place to crash.

    OK, I'm off for some alone time in the mountains, meditating and getting rid of this spare tire...

  • At 4:29 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

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  • At 12:15 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    Hey, if you guys are in NM, I'm available for seminars - cheap. My Polish gal loves exotic New Mexico and would nag me to take her there just for the gas and a place to crash.

    We're just getting ready to build our house, up in the East Mountain area (20 miles from Abq.). Once we're settled in, will be able to entertain/have guests. Currently, we're living in my grandfather's 60 year old adobe house. Is kinda' wild; we have more computers than rooms in the place yet they didn't have electricity or running water until my Mom was 12. What a change a few decades make. Where we're building, my grandfather farmed corn and beans, with a horse drawn plow. When he died, 5 years ago, the world was totally different.

  • At 11:58 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    My wife and kids are currently visiting her grandma who lives in a farmhouse near a village called Chojnow (know to Napoleonic war buffs as Hainau), built around 1892.

    When I moved to Poland in 1991 I saw plenty of horse-drawn ploughs, and a man in our town who'd go around in a horse wagon with a plow in the back to do yards. He'd come up, unhitch the horse from the wagon and take down the plough.

    Now of course people can get rototillers - but they don't fertilze the land like a horse...

  • At 6:25 PM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…


    Gotta say, I don't know how long I'll be in NM, but I think that a get-together could be interesting.


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