The enigma of courage

Fight, flight and the psychology of choosing

Budo is the way of the warrior. And essential for the warrior is courage — without it, he has lost his way, and his skills become worthless in a violent encounter. Researcher and long-time jujutsuka John Coles takes a look at what courage really means to a soldier, a samurai and a modern-day martial artist seeking to develop the mindset needed for self-defence.

Recent Australian Victoria Cross recipients CPL Mark Donaldson (left) and CPL Ben Roberts-Smith of the SAS, with Keith Payne VC

“Fighting in war creates an environment where fear is prevalent, and unless courage prevails, all is lost.” So wrote General Sir Peter de la Billiere in the preface to the 2007 edition of The Anatomy of Courage by World War 1 veteran Lord Charles Moran (first published in 1945). He added that, consequently, “the most important personal requirement for those who go to war is to understand the enigma of courage and its critical importance in overcoming fear”.

Fair enough. But what is courage, exactly? It is often defined in terms of acting despite fear. As Mark Twain explained, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” The late anti-apartheid warrior Nelson Mandela was of the same thinking: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” he said.

The notion that courage is acting in spite of fear means that without fear, there can be no courage. As legendary American WWI fighter pilot Edward Vernon Rickenbacker put it, “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”

A more contemporary expression of this relationship between fear and courage can be found in the book Game of Thrones: ‘Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.’

Not only can there be no courage without fear, but as General de la Billiere reasoned, “without fear there is no need for courage” (emphasis added).

De la Billiere described courage as being “an individual’s exercise of mind over fear through self-discipline”. And Lord Moran put that idea even more succinctly: “Courage is willpower.”

Willpower means to deliberately exert control in order to do something or to restrain our own impulses — so, in some circumstances, then, willpower can certainly take the form of courage. If courage means using our minds to resist the instinctive impulses generated by fear and instead take different actions — like running toward an attacking enemy, as a soldier is expected to do, rather than away from them — it is, indeed, willpower at work. This attribute is reflected in Aristotle’s explanation of courage, which he said requires “deliberate choice and purpose”.

So, the generally accepted notion of courage, it seems, is that it requires us to first feel fear, then to exercise our willpower/deliberate choice in order to act in spite of that fear. Or, put simply…

This story is titled ‘The Enigma of Courage’, and ‘enigma’ means a thing that is mysterious and difficult to understand — yet there doesn’t seem to be anything too mysterious or difficult to understand about courage based on the above definition. But having said that, there are a couple of anomalies associated with this simple view of what defines courage.

Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith was awarded Australia’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross (VC), “for the most conspicuous gallantry [courage] in action in circumstances of extreme peril”. Was Roberts-Smith courageous when he performed his perilous act? We can only answer that question if we know whether or not Roberts-Smith was scared at the time. If he was scared at the time of his perilous act then the next question becomes, how scared was he? Does mildly nervous while performing a perilous act qualify as being courageous, or does it need to be approaching terrified to qualify?

When discussing fearlessness, William Ian Miller (The Mystery of Courage, 2002) suggests that “it is striking how many of those uses of the word ‘fearless’ do not pretend to describe the inner state of the actor. They are meant rather to register the awe of the observer”.

The same may be said of the use of the word ‘courage.’ Was Roberts-Smith awarded the VC for his courage, acting in spite of fear, or because of our awe of his actions with no regard to his inner state? (Reflect on that question the next time you watch an AFL match on TV where the commentator describes a player’s action as ‘courageous’.)

Can courage be taught? De la Billiere and many others believe that courage can be taught through ‘realistic training’, which refers to training that increasingly approximates the operational environment. It is the third stage in stress training (sometimes called ‘stress inoculation’ or ‘stress exposure’ training), which is increasingly being used by the military and law enforcement to better prepare their personnel for operational deployment.

This type of training is designed to reduce anxiety/fear and uncertainty regarding the environment, and enhance the trainee’s sense of individual control, thus increasing their confidence to perform in that setting. Realistic training is not so much about training courage as it is about reducing fear — which, paradoxically, reduces the need for courage.

One of the training methods used by the military to counter the effects of stress (fear) is ‘overlearning’. Overlearning leads to automaticity, which enables the soldier to perform required tasks with limited attention. In an interview that Roberts-Smith gave to The Australian after receiving his VC, he explained how “in the middle of intense fighting there wasn’t time to think and a soldier’s training kicked in”.

Was Roberts-Smith describing trained automaticity that enabled him and others to overcome their fear without the use of willpower or deliberate choice, and if so, could that disqualify the performed perilous act from being classified as courageous?

Perhaps. Even so, it could be argued that courage, in his and every soldier’s case, was required to get him to the battlefield in the first place — when making a series of deliberate choices to join the military, complete the training, board the Hercules for the assigned tour of duty, leave the base to patrol in enemy territory, etc. — all while cognitive of the dangers that would be faced and continuing despite experiencing degrees of trepidation and fear throughout.

Plato explored the enigma of courage nearly 2500 years ago in Laches. In it he provided a military-centric explanation of courage as being a soldier standing his post and defending himself rather than running away. This gets to the very heart of the matter when it comes to a military perspective on courage: a practical perspective — fight rather than flight.

Many people talk about the fight-or-flight concept to explain our natural responses to a threat. They explain that fear motivates instinctive fight or flight behaviours, which the body enacts via an automatic physiological response — however, this is an overly simplistic and flawed understanding of the concept [see John Coles’ article ‘Fight or Flight: Have we got it all wrong?’ in Blitz Vol. 27 No. 10].

Walter Cannon developed the fight-or-flight concept in the early 1900s to describe our inherited survival mechanisms. But he proposed that these two instinctive behaviours were not motivated by the same emotion: he associated flight with fear but fight with anger.

This small but important detail is often overlooked or not understood by those referring to fight-or-flight to describe our natural responses to a threat. It is important because if our instinctive fight behaviour was associated with fear, then there would be no need to summon courage to overcome fear in order to fight.

Nature’s strategy in the face of a perceived threat is to turn fear into anger in order to change flight into fight. That strategy has been used by man since time immemorial in order to achieve the same objective. For instance, Sun Tzu stated in The Art of War that “killing the enemy is a matter of arousing anger in men”.

In their article ‘Countering Fear in War: The Strategic Use of Emotion’ (Journal of Military Ethics, 2006), Roger Petersen and Evangelos Liaris include the creation of anger as one of several strategies to counter fear in war. Even the US Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual FMFRP 12-15 (1990) directly links turning fear into anger with courage: “In major warfare, hatred of an enemy is developed among troops to arouse courage.”

Turning fear into anger in order to promote fight behaviour does not equal courage if using the generally accepted understanding of it — but it is if using Plato’s ‘fight not flight’ definition.

As well as the strategy of arousing anger in order to counter fear in a war, Petersen and Liaris talk about changing terror back into courage through rational discourse (basically distraction), the threat of shame (i.e. dishonour), the creation of spite, and instilling hope. These strategies either replace fear or overcome it in order to turn flight into fight. Is the use of these strategies courage? Again, not according to the generally accepted understanding of courage, but it is according to Plato’s ‘fight not flight’ definition.

Were the Japanese samurai courageous? The Japanese martial arts teach the concept of  mushin no shin, or ‘mind of no mind’, which refers to a state of mind free from thoughts, anger, fear or any emotions. If courage is acting in spite of fear, then the Japanese samurai were not courageous. If courage is the use of willpower to overcome fear, the Japanese samurai were not courageous.

However, if courage is defined in terms of fight not flight, no matter what means are used to achieve it, as per Plato, then the Japanese samurai were courageous.

Is the most important personal requirement for those who go to war — and for those who prepare them to go to war — to unravel the enigma of courage and understand its critical importance in overcoming fear? Or is it more important for both parties to understand fear itself, and the ways and means that have been used since time immemorial to turn flight into fight?

From a practical perspective, in terms of getting us ready to fight, there is no enigma or mystery of courage — there is only the distraction of courage. And then there are the practical mental tools that can help us turn flight into fight when necessary.

Read more on self-defence here.

Source: Blitz Magazine

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