Trait not shared by the short and fat

The Mystery of Courage
April 27, 2001

Courage is a quality that today seems to have a somewhat old-fashioned ring to it. We may marvel at the feats of the single-handed yachtsman (or woman), Arctic explorers or mountain climbers. Yet in a world where each human life is treated as far more precious than it ever was in past centuries, we have less time for the Boy's Own brand of heroism. William Miller is professor of law at the University of Michigan. He confesses that he is among those middle-class Americans who bought their way out of having to fight in Vietnam and so has little practical experience to draw on in unravelling the mystery of courage.

Much of this book deals with the courage of the soldier in combat through the ages. Miller claims that no theory of courage can ignore war or the experience of fighting. However, as the book does not in the end produce a theory, this claim is perhaps less important than it might be. The volume is an odd mixture of discussion and observation based sometimes on factual accounts, in part on works of fiction and even on cinematic representations of real and fictitious heroes. The scale of the reference material is impressive, but leaves the reader little wiser.

The essential difficulty of an examination of courage is defining the quality. There is a considerable body of literature about the military virtues of courage, but the definitions change with time. Miller reminds us that in the American civil war it was considered an act of cowardice to stop and assist a wounded colleague. Yet in more recent times, selfless rescue attempts in combat have been recognised as great acts of bravery, even when they prove ultimately futile. He fleetingly mentions that experience in selective breeding of brave rats and cowardly rats suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to a courageous character.

Nor is courage seen as an absolute value for a given individual. Perhaps the most interesting discussion is over the well-documented decline of courage when exposed to continuous high levels of risk. In the first world war, officers were of little use after nine months of operations unless they had had a few weeks' rest. A study of soldiers in the second world war showed that after about 200 days of combat they had become so cautious as to be ineffective. In even more hazardous situations, courage declines yet more rapidly. Troops in Normandy in 1944 were in a vegetative state by day 60. Some armies recognised this phenomenon and made the necessary arrangements to keep their troops at peak performance. British troops were rotated in and out of the front line so that they would have four days' rest for every 12 of combat operations. In the second world war, the Americans kept men at risk for 40 days or more.

Miller focuses mainly on the studies and writings about courage under fire in a land battle. It would have been interesting to compare this more closely with the different naval and air warfare experiences. Sailors may spend much longer at risk in their ships and submarines, but the risk is shared by all the company. The aircrew of Bomber Command would fly night after night to Germany and back, and less than half would survive to complete their tour of operations. Yet for each flight, the crew could believe they would be lucky this time. The book highlights the importance of peer pressure in reinforcing courage. For the ship's company and a bomber crew, the shared risk is perhaps even more personal than it is for a company of infantry.

The book does, however, draw attention to the role of luck and chance in fear and courage. The soldier fears the bullet more than the artillery shell or bomb, because the rifle is aimed at him directly, whereas death by shell or bomb is just bad luck. Similarly, the bomber crew feels more at risk than do fighter pilots because the latter can duck and weave around the sky. Yet anti-aircraft fire in the second world war was so random that flight manoeuvres made no difference.

From all the examples and debates about what courage is, the reader may find that Aristotle provides the clearest analysis. He lists five semblances of courage: the fear of shame or desire for honour; experience and skill in facing the danger; spirit or rage; feeling lucky; and ignorance of danger.

The last factor, ignorance, raises the question as to whether an act is courageous if the person is unaware of the risks involved. Indeed, Miller spends much time discussing the various paradoxes of courage. Physical courage and moral courage may often lead to quite different actions. Is the pacifist who faces punishment and dishonour showing greater courage than the soldier who fears letting his comrades down more than he fears death? There are also issues about leadership that could have been examined more deeply. Does the military leader who puts himself in danger show greater courage than the one who ensures by his own survival that he can continue to lead his men to victory? Too much courage can become rashness.

Miller spends some time examining the sexuality of courage. His analysis of courage as primarily a male concept will not convince everyone. He also identifies problems with looking at non-western cultures and their approach to courage. He perhaps attaches too much credence to the British stiff upper lip. His suggestions of the courageous stereotype seem at times to be drawn more from Hollywood than from real life. In the academic world, he suggests that we all accept that anthropologists and archaeologists stand a better chance of needing courage than literature professors or computer scientists. Likewise do not expect the overweight, the short or the very thin to be courageous.

Today, military courage is a specialist activity. As the Kosovo operation of 1999 showed, western nations are keen to ensure that their forces are protected as far as possible from the dangers of casualties. Does that make the crews who flew night after night over Kosovo and Serbia against highly capable air-defence missiles less courageous? Today's pilots and navigators share the fears of their long-dead predecessors from Bomber Command in 1940. The risk of being shot down is far less, but it is real. One of the great difficulties of assessing courage is in measuring the degree of fear that each individual has overcome. People make irrational risk assessments every day: they fear flying across the Atlantic, but feel safe driving up the motorway.

Miller is at times dismissive of today's civilian risk takers. He suggests thrill seekers are exercising courage in dull times. This is a book that the writer seems to have enjoyed producing, even if he provides no answer to the mystery of courage. For those who would wish to examine the paradoxes of cowardice and courage, any George MacDonald Fraser Flashman book gives a more readable insight. In the end, courage may just be one of those qualities that we know when we see it.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a former bomber pilot and is visiting professor at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.

The Mystery of Courage

Author - William Ian Miller
ISBN - 0 674 00307 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £20.50
Pages - 346

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