Rants and Raves

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

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Musings on courage and cowardice, part 1

Response to my article on my experience at a journalism seminar (published below, and on The Atlasphere) has been heartening. Most letters to the editor urged me not to beat myself up over a momentary deer-in-the-headlights moment, and for that I thank all of you who responded.

But perhaps I overstated. I did not mean to accuse myself of being a coward, I was bemoaning what I felt was a momentary lapse of courage.

The nature of courage is such that a brave man is always aware that his courage could desert him at any moment.

I have been called comrade, by men whose courage has been tested in the fire. They honor me beyond my capacity to say. If I am capable of courage, it is due in large part to the desire to be worthy of the honor.

As the Arab proverb has it, "The courage of your friends gives you strength."

In my article Steven Vincent: A Profile in Courage http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/070920-browne-steven-vincent.php I mentioned that I have known many heroes.

This is hard to say, but I know a fair number of cowards as well, and I fear they are growing more common.

Perhaps I am being too harsh - and then again, perhaps I have been too charitable for too long. It is a terrible thing to accuse any man of cowardice. It wasn't that long ago that society considered it perfectly justified to invite the accuser to accompany one to a place from which only one would return.

I would much rather call it something like, "excessive fearfulness." It does seem to occur on a continuum from chronic anxiety to full-blown cowardice.

But then again, perhaps I'm just indulging in a euphemism to avoid thinking about an uncomfortable subject. Which would be a prime example of what I'm talking about!

What's odd and alarming is, these days I see the phenomenon largely among young men. That's not natural, the natural state of young men is idiot recklessness, not cowardice.

The conclusion I am forced into, is that their cowardice is learned not inborn.

Why this might be so, I'll deal with later. For now, I'll talk about what I think cowardice is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.

- Cowardice is not fear of death.

Fear of death is normal, natural and healthy response to danger that evolution equipped us with to help us avoid it.

Cowardice is fear of death more than anything else.

Philsopher Ayn Rand was once asked (in the Playboy interview), if there was anything or anyone she'd die for.

The question was a good one. Why would someone espousing a philosophy of egoism, who denied the existence of an afterlife, be willing to give up the only life she believed there is?

Rand didn't much care to deal with the question, and only addressed it twice in her works (that I'm aware of), but she did say that a man might die for people he loved, if the prospect of living with the knowledge he failed to act to save them, would make the rest of his life not worth living.

This is why armies strive to forge groups of men into bands of brothers. This is the truth behind the old adage, "The brave taste of death but once."

- Cowardice is not necessarily running from danger.

Recognizing danger and running from it in time, can be a sign of clear-eyed intellectual courage.

Who is the coward, the one who recognizes danger and runs? Or the one who denies there is any danger, until it is too late to run?

A professional military man will tell you, the highest command skill is to lead a retreat in good order. Without courage and a clear head, a retreat too easily becomes a rout.

What are some signs and symptoms of cowardice?

- Dogmatic certainty.

What do Marxism and religious fundamentalism have in common? I am scarsely the first to notice that Marxism and any brand of odious religious dogmatism you care to name, are all T.O.E.s - Theory of Everything. A single model that explains literally everything and leaves no room for uncertainty or ambiguity.

And here is the paradox, a coward might very well fear the shattering of his world-model more than death.

Though what usually happens in the rare instance a dogmatist is forced to give up his model, is he frantically grasps after another which he holds to with equal or greater certainty.

Every known scientific theory notes phenomena not explained by it. The difference between science and pseudo-science may be, pseudo science is an organized system of answers. Science is a method of generating meaningful questions.

- Moral relativism.

Having to make difficult ethical judgements exposes one to the possibility of being wrong, of having to deal with moral ambiguities, and worse - of having to choose a side and be prepared to fight for it.

- Rudeness.

Eric Hoffer noted, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."
Reflexive rudeness towards people who disagree with their cherished illusions about how the world works. Because the reality of how the world works - or mere uncertainty about how is works, is terrifying.

In an earlier time, men were conscious that rude behavior could earn them a challenge to a duel with weapons. Even in more civilized times, men continued to fight with their fists over slights and insults.

Now the internet gives anonymity and enough distance between people - and the capability of insulting anyone with impunity. The law has also grown far more harsh in its treatment of men who engage in "mutual combat." Which in practice means punishing the winner.

We see, and experience the results daily.

- Idealizing or excusing brutality.

Hoffer also noted the weak like to hint at their capacity for evil. I think it's the weakling's version of hairy-chested macho.

What are the Che and Castro lovers saying? Could it be, "I approve of this, fear me"?

- Victim blaming and identification with the aggressor.

Why are Israel condemned and Palestinian suicide-murderers idealized in some circles? Why was the U.S. condemned and the Soviet Union idealized? Multiply examples as you will.

Because one side believes in the right to say whatever you like about them - and the other would kill you for it.

Why do smart prosecutors try to keep women off juries in rape cases?

Because a significant number of women want to blame the victim, to distance themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them.

- Hostility towards self-defense.

Anyone who has ever had to defend themselves with physical force has probably experienced this. There are certain people who consider you to be a bad person, and condemn what you did, no matter what the circumstances.

I think the example of a man defending himself is a reproach to them.

- Love.

A coward can not love unreservadly, with a whole heart. Love is granting another the power to hurt you terribly, and a surrender of "hostages to fortune."

Steven Pressfield put the words in the mouth of the Spartan Dienikes, in his novel 'Gates of Fire.'

At the pass of Thermopylae, Dienikes found the answer to the question which had obsessed him all his life. What is the opposite of fear?

He knew it was not vainglory, and that courage was the result of something else.

Before he died at the Hot Gates, the answer was shown to him, "The opposite of fear, is love."

G.K. Chesterton put it, "The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is before him, but because he loves what is behind him."

P.S. See here: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/writing-what-i-should-have-written-so-many-years-ago-1437779.html

for the story of an Irish journalist's mea culpa for his time of cowardice decades ago - and the courage he is showing now.


  • At 8:05 AM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    Just kind of a random thought that popped into my head while reading this, but somewhat related I think...

    If a military unit establishes a deliberate defensive position, it will employ a method known as "interlocking fields of fire" whereby Soldiers in their fighting positions will not be oriented straight ahead to fire at enemy forces assaulting them. Instead, they are oriented in such a manner as to shoot enemy forces that are assaulting other positions along their unit's front. This is primarily for tactical expediency, since Soldiers can be shielded from attacking force's frontal direct fire and they can throw lead at the attacker from more angles. But LTC Grossman (Ret.) - the author of "On Killing" - pointed out that there is also another very valuable unintended consequence of this. Soldiers are more likely to pull the trigger if defending their comrades than if they are defending themselves.

    That was a problem prior to the formation of our all-volunteer military. A significantly large proportion of Soldiers in the Civil War failed to even fire their weapons. Some dead Soldiers were found with as many as 15 balls loaded into their muzzles, showing that they were going through the repetition of loading, readying, aiming... but not firing. Perhaps if their weapons were oriented across their own front, to shoot enemy Soldiers attacking their comrades, then they may have fired their weapons. In interlocking fields of fire, Soldiers are defending other Soldiers along the unit's front, rather than themselves. For some reason, the act of killing in defense of others is less unnatural.

  • At 5:28 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Which made a random thought pop into my head.

    Col. Grossman also pointed out how difficult it is to get a man to bayonet another, up close and personal, and mentioned that the effectiveness of the bayonet is all out of proportion to the number actually killed/wounded with it - because a lot of men have just flat run from a charge.

    Jump to the Battle of Culloden, in 1745. The last rising of the Higland Clans.

    The Hanoverian troops were confronted by clansmen whose tactic was to fire a volley, then charge armed with broadsword in right hand, and targe and/or dirk in left. Confronting a soldier with bayonet, a clansman would parry the thrust with his targe and cleave him with the broadsword.

    For the occasion, the English were taught to reverse the grip on their musket, ignore the man in front of them and thrust under the sword arm of the man to the right of them, and trust their mate on the left to do the same.

    I actually don't know if they got to try it out. I believe the clansmen were cut to pieces with artillery and volley fire before most of them could get in range.


  • At 11:08 AM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    "Col. Grossman also pointed out how difficult it is to get a man to bayonet another, up close and personal..."

    Makes you wonder how so many could be butchered with machetes in Africa.

  • At 11:53 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    It damn sure does!

    It also strongly argues that these reflexes are conditioned into civilized men by their upbringing - or that uncivilized cultures deliberately de-condition them out of young men.

    I tend to think the former. People have been hacking and stabbing animals and other men a lot longer than they've been shooting them.

  • At 6:21 AM, Blogger Black Sea said…

    Your reactions weren't a species of cowardice, but of politeness. Of course, that doesn't mean that you have no reason to regret having spoken out no more forcefully, but obviously your failure to do so was not grounded in fear.

    A couple of months ago, my wife and I had as guests in our home a couple whom we didn't really know. The husband, in his late 60s and with myriad health problems, managed to insult my family - my parents, I mean - whom he'd never even met. The nature of the insult doesn't really matter.

    I had nothing to gain from an alliance with this person, and nothing to fear from insulting him. I knew that I'd never see him again. I could easily have, and did contemplate, suggesting that he make his way to the door as quicky as his enfeebled body would allow. But I didn't. I was, all things considered, disgustingly polite. Why?

    Cognative dissonace, mostly. He and his wife were guests in our home. I felt sorry for him, and particularly sorry for his wife, who had engineered out of sheer lonliness an invitation to our home. Once my anger cooled, I realized that this creature was more pathetic than anything else, and it would have been all out of proportion to react to his foolish comments with anything other than quiet contempt. The world is, after all, made up of fools, and there's nothing we can do to change this.

    I realize that in your situation, the speaker in this public forum had made a comment that invited a challenge, and should have been challenged forcefully (to debate, of course, nothing more). But I suspect that you neglected to do so because you were, as people used to say, "brought up right."

    It's difficult to switch the metal gears so quickly, and thus, one's manners override one's emotions.

  • At 8:04 AM, Blogger dchamil said…

    Steve, for those lengthy URL's I recommend you use this html format: [a href="http://yourlinkhere"]text[/a] When you substitute angular brackets < > for the square brackets, the word "text" will be a highlighted link.

  • At 11:54 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Thanks! I'll try that.

    This site used to create a link when I cut and pasted a URL, then it stopped doing that.

    I haven't found a way of creating a link with text yet.


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