John Wright


I am thinking about such things as self-determination, loyalty, common sense and virtue, on behalf of examining that thing we call courage. Courage is informed bravery in the face of terrible danger. Anyone who tries to insert the notion that the "unknown" can be a valid part of an individualís consideration of whether or not to act in a courageous manner is misguided. The event, or even a long-term unpleasant situation, defines a very high goal with attendant high risk and low probability of success. Courage is entirely an individual commitment to risk personal wellbeing for a goal perceived as worthy of the risk of self-destruction. Such potential destruction need not be physical but must be potentially catastrophic to the later wellbeing of the individual taking the risk. Courage should not be confused with patience, stubbornness, strategy, anger and a host of other traits and behaviors that one might exhibit under stress.

Inherent in courage is the belief that success is at least possible, else we would be talking about hopeless suicide or self-destruction of one type or another. The distinction becomes clear when comparing activities of people like suicide bombers to selfless acts of those who have dived into raging waters to save helpless children from drowning. The suicide bomber is not a believer in oblivion but instead is foregoing life in the present for a promised afterlife. That is not courage as risk is irrelevant when success entails certain death.

The issue gets somewhat murky once we start looking at courage based on faith in a higher being, from the turn foreman to the Pope to vague descriptions of what is called God. The suicide bomber represents one end of the spectrum. That part is not murky at all for the suicide bomber is placing faith in the highest being, silly or not, that is supposed to result in the bomber being rewarded forever for sacrificing his/her life here in some "holy" war. As we progress along the continuum away from the suicide bomber considerations about courage become more difficult. Desire to prove oneself physically in death defying activities is not a manifestation of courage, as anticipation of reward is the driving force. But at what point does a dangerous or potentially destructive activity qualify to be called courageous?

Let me be very clear. Courage has its basis in our most fundamental beliefs about right and wrong and our sense of personal responsibility. If I believe in the "ultimate" rightness of some act or commitment to many acts, then I am hooked. That means I will do anything I believe or am convinced by others to believe is critical to the success of an unarguable higher goal. The essential question is: By what route did I make my value judgment, that of personal experience and knowledge or that of trusting the intent and wisdom of those who tell me what to do? Welcome to the world of brainwashing. Those who entrust their fate to others deserve their fate for the reason of abdicating responsibility for self. How, pray tell, did any other person ascend to the ranks of deities to be empowered to tell you how you should die? Can another personís motives define courage when you are the person at risk?

I suppose I am not a good candidate for induction into the military. Then again, I may have this all wrong Ö perhaps I should sacrifice myself because I may have no outstanding reason for existence beyond that defined for me by my supposed superiors, whose names I have difficulty remembering, let alone spelling. Okay, hey, I AM a man of faith! And donít you forget it! Therein lies the big problem, for what real choice do the weak-minded have in directing their destiny? Put simply, they attach to something, indeed almost anything, and for that weakness many perish while the remainder live out their lives with a different mediocrity than might otherwise have been. Is a poorly considered rash act courage even if the results are good?

As courage is informed bravery in the face of terrible risk, then we might also consider the ability of the individual to assess risk. In the case of two equivalent heroic acts by two individuals, is the one with the better understanding of the terrible risk more courageous? Or, alternatively, should the results alone determine the measure of courage or the balance between courage and intelligent choice? I submit the idea that many military conflict situations produce behaviors that are deemed courageous but are in fact embedded groupthink, combined with what I would call positive fatalism, i.e. I have survived this hell so far and I bet I can win this round too.

The last thought above is troubling as it promotes the idea that repetitive successes in terrible situations or even situations of moderate risk might lead to irrational assessment of ability to survive, which then can lead to taking stupid risks. Overconfidence is not courage. Failure leads to death, brief honorable mention and transfer into the past, otherwise known as the oblivion of those who were instead of those who are. Those who are no longer contributing members to the present are missed only by those who loved them before the fact of their demise, however that came about. Wrapping their death with proclamations of duty, self-sacrifice and courage, along with ribbons, medals and posthumous printed commendations changes nothing essential to the reality of death. George Washington gains nothing when we print his face on a one-dollar bill.

It is appropriate to examine courage from a timing perspective. First, an individualís values and sense of ability to perform exist before any event that might lead to courageous behavior. Second, an emergency calling for courageous behavior tends to happen quickly and without anticipation. The would-be courageous person then experiences a lightning fast change of mood that elevates reaction to both protective and survival instincts to peak levels. The luxury of time to reflect on possible consequences or even alternative solutions likely does not exist Ö it is now or never. Value-based reactive instinctive behavior dominates immediately. The interplay between bravery and risk assessment leading to the conclusion to act or not to act happens with extreme speed.

What about the opposite of courage Ö cowardice? Cowardice is knowing the rightness and criticality of the necessary act and failing to perform, failing to risk self on behalf of an accepted higher goal. The deciding point for identifying cowardice is rather easy. If the person has the requisite skill to succeed and the risk level allows for the reasonable possibility of success, then paralyzing fear and inaction are the clear symptoms of cowardice. Lack of requisite skill is a valid reason not to act, as there is then no rational expectation of possible success.

One might then consider acts that have no reasonable possibility of success. Simply think about a squadron of soldiers deciding to take on an enemy division in a battle to the death. No matter how high the value of weakening the division the outcome is certain death for all the members of the squadron. Is that an example of courage? I submit that obvious suicide is an irrational act regardless of beliefs or values. No possibility for success means the acts are not qualified to be considered courageous, simply foolhardy.

So why did I decide to write about courage? Perhaps because absolute behavior predicated on values makes courage a dependent behavioral trait and not something to be rigidly defined by those with strong motives. I leave you with the following questions: Is it reasonable that Iraqi insurgents are every bit as entitled to be called courageous as our soldiers? If so, why? If not, why not?