As I’ve freely admitted over the years, I’m quite a cowardly person. I’m a physical coward insofar as I assiduously avoid physical risks, and I’m an intellectual coward to the extent that I blog anonymously. I’d like to be brave, I truly would, but whether I’m confronting the specter of sky-diving or announcing my real name, I just crumble. Indeed, just about my only act of bravery is to acknowledge, instead of dissemble about, my own cowardice.
I’ve always assumed that part of my fear stems from growing up in a home with one parent who escaped the Nazis only to be tumbled into the worst fighting North Africa and Southern Europe had to offer, and another parent who spent the war years interned in a Japanese concentration camp. Quite unsurprisingly, the oft repeated lesson in my home was to decrease risk at all costs and to seek the quiet life.
Turns out that the fact that these early childhood messages may have gained reinforcement from my verbal skills, skills that helped me prosper in school. Stephen Rittenberg, who served in the Navy as a psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, contrasts two approaches to fear he frequently saw, one from the Ivy League draft avoiders, and the other from the regular Joes who went into combat. The former dissembled:
When I served as a Navy psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, one of my weekly duties was interviewing and assessing potential draftees who were seeking to avoid service by claiming mental illness. Many of these were recent Ivy League graduates, students of the humanities, who were active protesters of what they insisted was an immoral war. They thought of themselves as idealists.
Yet they were not principled conscientious objectors. Instead, they were glib, had read up on symptoms of psychosis, and could feign the manifest behavior of any disqualifying syndrome-including homosexuality. Their efforts to dissemble were usually rather obvious. They were predicated on the arrogant assumption that they were smarter than any military psychiatrist.
Once it was pointed out to them that if they avoided the draft, someone else, less educated and less favored by fortune would go in their place, they quickly revealed their true motivation: fear. I realized I was observing cowardice masquerading as idealism. These young men would do anything to avoid the risk of fighting and dying for their country.
The latter, having faced their fears, ignored their fears, or failed to recognize their fears, were quite honest about, and not limited by, their emotions:
I then would return to my hospital responsibilities, working with wounded vets. These were not glib wordsmiths. It took real effort to get them to talk about their experiences. They didn’t think of their courage in battle as anything special. When they did talk about it, they often worried that they’d let down their comrades. The contrast with would-be draft evaders was striking. There was absolutely none of the self-preoccupation of the Ivy Leaguers. Instead these were men who had done deeds, fought battles, rescued other wounded platoon members, risked their lives. They readily acknowledged having been afraid, and many paid a high emotional price. They felt fear, but unlike our Ivy Leaguers, the force that propelled them was courage, not cowardice.
Why the difference? Had the Ivy Leaguers spent their childhoods with parents who rewarded them for cowardice, or had they been raised with a cowardly ethos? Rittenberg doesn’t think so. Instead, he sees something more subtle, which is the fact that the academic world rewards skills different from those that are actually useful in the real world, with the reward favoring those who are more adept at rationalizing away their failings:
In his great essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?, Robert Nozick pointed out that wordsmith intellectuals-writers, journalists, liberal arts professors, film makers, television pundits-had frequently been children who achieved success in school, based on their verbal skills. They were rewarded with elite status within the school system. As adults, however, they were not similarly rewarded. Capitalism rarely gives its greatest rewards to the verbally skilled.
Nozick also observed that there is a childhood forerunner to capitalism — the world of the playground. There, verbal intellect is far less important than action. On the playground aggression is as important as intellect. Being able to utilize aggression in the service of solving problems produces leaders not designated by authority figures, but by one’s peers. Physical courage is valued highly. Cowards are mocked and shunned as “scaredy cats”. Willingness to fight for oneself, without appealing to authority becomes a measure of status. It also provides real world lessons in human nature.
As girl, of course, you can get away with a certain amount of playground cowardice without having to turn to the classroom as your only resource. As a boy, woe unto you if you can’t take your licks. For all those kids who found the playground an intimidating place, rather than an exciting challenge, the classroom was a haven — and one in which a very different set of values was taught than was on the curriculum out of doors:
In that freewheeling world of the schoolyard, the good little girls and physically timid boys who craved teacher’s praise were at a disadvantage. The schoolroom was their utopia, where physical aggression was banned and all problems had a verbal solution. Girls are usually more verbally adept in the early childhood years and gain surplus praise from teachers. In addition, such children, including boys who crave teacher’s approval, receive moral approbation for being “good” while aggression is, “bad”. Hence the future wordsmith intellectual grows up feeling smarter, morally superior, a caring idealist.
The wordsmith is an idealist so caring, of course, that he’s always happy to see the other man die in his place.
Incidentally, while Rittenberg’s is a thoughtful and well-informed article, the product of both a learned and experienced man, it can actually be summed up in one sentence, an apocryphal attribution to the Duke of Wellington: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”