Now I know why I’m a coward

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.”

10 Responses

  1. “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.”

    Hardly, Book. That you don’t take unnecessary physical risks just means that you are cautious. Thinking people do that.

    That you blog under a pseudonym just means that you are logical – whether you blog under your real name or pseudonym would have absolutely no bearing on the quality of your blog and the ideas expressed herein. However, using a pseudonym makes you far more effective in your personal life as you do not create unnecessary controversy and confrontation in your business life and community. Simply put, there is no benefit to using your real name. It is a sensible and practical solution that frees you to express your ideas…a win-win.

  2. I disagree that you are a physical coward, Book.

    Did you know what Grossman said on the subject of courage in battle, Book?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killology

    I cannot produce it all that accurately, but he said something to the effect that there are three types of people in combat situations. Those who don’t feel fear. Those who feel fear but don’t show it. And those that feel fear, show it, tremble under it, and yet do their duty when the time comes. These are the types of courage he listed as a behavioral thing.

  3. You are a very nice person, Danny. Thank you.

    As for your point, Y, I’ll admit that I’ve never been tested in a battle situation. I’ve often wondered if I’d turn tail and run, or if I’d face it out. In coward fashion, though, I hope never to be tested….

  4. 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’m not trying to give you any platitudes about a straight chin or some such, given that fear may un-man any of us, if you will pardon the expression.

    It is just that most people, especially civilized people like you Book, are often multi-faceted. There is the civilized exterior you show towards the world and then there may be a fire deep within hidden by the effects of time or desire.

    In other people, their inner souls are more closely connected to their exterior masks, such as beserkers. One instant away from immediate mayhem.

    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.

    Reading much of David Weber and various other military science fiction, Book, I can definitely say that such lessons were very important to me.

    Bcak to the subject, courage something that you want above anything else. What a man or a woman may tolerate or be scared to act in one situation, may be different if he or she is provided a greater motivation. In this sense, courage thus is a trait that is neither here nor there. It can be inspired and you can inspire it in others.

    As for the intellectuals, I tend to think they are such that they actively resist being inspired by courage or anything else that might prove that their own existence doesn’t matter all that greatly in the greater scheme of things. They must hold on to that identity, Book, even if it means destroying courage and other virtues that might force them to recognize their station in life.

  5. In coward fashion, though, I hope never to be tested….

    That may be simply a feminine facet, Book ; ) Rather than a vice.

    Few men or women are those that would wish to be tested in such furnaces, for you may not get out in one piece or even with your identity intact. For others, they may not have any reason to want such a transformative experience. I spoke to Neo about a similar subject, concerning will power and morale. I said that high morale and strong will power comes from having a wish deep in your heart and soul. What you really want, is what you will try to exert your willpower to get and the very act of trying gives hope for good stable morale. Think I might have added some things here.

    Bill Whittle speaks of sheepdogs, wolves, and sheep, which I think was another reference to David Grossman (!).

    I tend to agree with Danny that it is an innate cautiousness. Certainly, Book, your experiences from Mom and Dad had a great effect on the development of your personality. Early childhood experiences, memories, and emotions often do. They certainly did for me. Thus conditioned behavior may seem like cowardice, but it is sort of like the conditioned behavior that seems like courage, covered in the Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

    The test of life and death can be exhilirating at times. The knowledge that you hold not only the life and death of others at your hand, but your own as well. Or simply the facsimile of it, when your body believes you will live or die in the difference between one second and the next. Those that aren’t adrenaline junkies may perhaps prefer a calmer life, and there is no shame in that, for it harms no one what a person may choose to do with his or her time.

    I don’t think I ever felt fear in physical danger situations. Certainly I felt fear before it and I understood the dangers afterward, but during the test all I could say for myself was that I feared failure. Not pain, not the possibility of death, but of failure. one anecdote as an example.

    I almost passed out trying to climb 5 flights of stairs from the bottom of one hill to the top of the same hill, one time. I was having difficulty breathing because I had ran around the track with my schoolmates and had pushed myself too hard near to exhaustion. By the time I stopped running, the class was moving up the hill, on the stairs, to the classroom because the period/late bell was going to ring to announce that it is time for the next class in the rotation.

    I believe I was conscious for probably all of the time it took me to climb from bottom to top, as I lagged noticeably behind all the others eventually. At times I would feel a certain dumbness born of coldness, and I would ask myself, “where is that coming” before realizing that my chin had hit the steel railguard. Using my eyes were useless because there were all kinds of hallucinations going on there. Best to shut the eyelids and conserve energy, I thought to myself.

    However, my climb required enough time for the class to have gone to the classroom and then for the teacher to realize that I was missing, and for him to walk back. Course, by that time I was already on the top of stairs to the hill anyways.

    The only thing my dumb self ever thought or felt at the time, was the fear of being late to class. You might say that that was the elemental purpose I had left in my oxygen starved brain, to get to class on time and to climb the stairs by whatever route possible. I asked for no help, because I didn’t even think about it, and it was nice to be alone in the solitude of the task. I wouldn’t have to worry about what others thought. Conserves oxygen in a way.

    I never collapsed once in the climb, but when I saw that the science teacher had come back for me, I collapsed from sheer relief that the ordeal was over. As embarassing as it was to have to be carried back into school, it was good to know that I had got back in as the bell sounded. For that was one thing I remembered very clearly in that Junior High building.

    I think I held onto consciousness for the whole time, except for a few seconds here and there when I felt like I was sleepwalking, and lost momentary gaps in memory when the brain acted like it shutdown. The funny part was how freaked out you should have seen the folks in the nurse office was or whatever the place was called that they brought me to. They were talking about how blue my lips were, as if I had just fallen into a lake of ice or something. Not surprising: my arms and legs needed the oxygen more than my outer skin did. The brain could take a seat for awhile, it seemed.

    The point though is, physical courage in my view is inferior to moral courage. And while there is some questionable terms over your physical courage, Book, I have no doubts about your moral courage.

    John Kerry and Murtha may both have had “physical courage” (or not), but I would never allow them to watch my back, Book. Wouldn’t be healthy.

  6. Most people under estimate their capacity for courage, whether moral or physical. Only when one is faced with a situation that requires courage does one truly discover the depth and capacity in ones self.

  7. What rockdalian said.

  8. Caution is an indication of intelligence. If there is no need to fight, it is not cowardly to avoid the fight. If there is no alternative to exposing oneself to danger, then you do so.
    The idea that playgrounds create courageous leaders and classrooms create articulate cowards seems a bit strained. The truly courageous soldiers were afraid of failing their commrads, of letting others down. The motivation for courage was protecting others. I think that motivation exists on the field and in class. There are different manifestations of it.
    Al

  9. Cowardice masquerading as idealism is utterly disgusting, of course. It is also completely dishonest. Book, you’re clearly not dishonest, so you can throw that concern away.

    Aversion to risk is usually a good survival technique, but sometimes the moral choice requires the risk. Also, when the violent threaten you, it is a terrible thing to train yourself to become instantly cowed and submissive. Aversion to risk is perfectly fine… but when it comes time to step up… will you?

    I was a terrible coward at times in junior high school. I detest the little whimpering simp that I was. I haven’t really been challenged since then. I believe I have completely changed. I don’t know if I could stand the utter failure, if I am ever confronted by aggression again, and I wilt like that.

    The real danger for intellectuals is rationalization. An intellectual, under pressure, can take any position and justify it to him or herself. To detect your rationalizations and STOP them is critically important. Uncompromising self-examination is necessary. We tend to look at it these days as being hypocritically in violation of your own principles, which is probably a good way to detect it in yourself.

    John Kerry is (to me) a great example of an intellectual caught up in constant rationalizations. It’s painful to watch someone do it, and the “common man” instinctively recoils in disgust from it. Almost as much as they recoil from obvious cowardice.

  10. Stevie Rittenberg is a former Navy psychoanalyst who professionally pathologized pacifists during SE Asia conflict and in a thought piece at American “Thinker” denouncing wordsmiths. He is credentialed.

    Stevie talked playground roundball and hypothesized two teams: one unified and committed to winning, the other stuck with the black guy who must try to win all on his own because his team quits on him just to let the other side win. Stevie pretends this happens to Jews too and proposes only a Catholic drunk, brawling Irishman can save Stevie Rittenberg from having to win his own fight (or ballgame.) Stevie hates quitters so he calls conscientious objectors PSYCHO
    — with _authority_.

    Fifty-first fifty of the states of mind;
    Judged wrong for thinking of the other kind.

    Only WashPost and the Boston papers covered Winter Soldiers 2008 among big media.

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