On military bravery

All countries and armed groups emphasize the bravery of their soldiers for propaganda purposes. Such claims are made regardless of whether there is any actual valour. Going to a dangerous situation or even certain death is not necessarily courageous, in particular if there is no knowledge of the danger or no choice. Are sheep going into a slaughterhouse brave? They are calmly walking to certain death, after all. But usually this is not ascribed to courage, but to ignorance. Analogously, soldiers used in early tests of the physiological effects of radiation exposure who were marched through an area of a recent nuclear explosion are not considered brave. They did not know the cancer risk.

If there is no choice, which usually means there are only perilous choices, then putting oneself in danger is not usually accounted brave. Jumping out of a burning building offers a higher probability of survival, so people do it despite the substantial risk of falling to death. When a sufferer of a painful terminal disease chooses euthanasia, this early death is commonly not considered brave. Some cultures even believe suicide to be a sign of cowardice. If a military has a well organized system for catching deserters and administering the death penalty to them (and their family in some regimes), then a soldier charging enemy machineguns is merely maximizing his survival probability. The enemy might miss, the firing squad rarely does.

The greater the probability of victory for one’s own side, the less attractive desertion becomes, because being caught is more likely. This explains the propaganda emphasis on own victories and the punishment of “defeatist talk” in wartime. The greater the military advantage of a party in an armed conflict, the less bravery its soldiers need.

Genuine bravery exists, but it is rare. Evolution favours cowardly bullies who attack the weaker (prey) and run from the stronger (predators). People who face no compulsion to fight in a war and know the dangers, yet still join, are brave. Freedom fighters (insurgents from the other side’s viewpoint) against a dictator qualify. With the caveat that only joining the fight initially requires bravery – after that, losing would mean being tortured to death by the dictator, so continuing the war is the safer option. Similarly, volunteering for the military requires some bravery (the more the greater the likelihood of being sent into danger), but once military law applies, desertion is usually more dangerous than the duty.

Military courage is proved for those who start the war as a weaker side against a stronger, if a continuing peace is not a slow death. Peasant revolts were often driven by hunger, meaning the participants may have perceived the probability of death from starvation as higher than the probability of being killed by the aristocrats.

People who have never faced an informed choice between a safe and a dangerous option may be “latently brave”, in the sense that given such a choice, they may exhibit courage. They are not proved brave, however, until they have made the choice. There are likely to be some latently brave people in the world’s militaries and armed groups. Probably a greater percentage than among the general population.

There are some proven brave folks even in the militaries of powerful countries, but the proof requires knowingly choosing a dangerous option when there is no future punishment for cowardice. For example, when nobody would know of the choice.

A topical question is whether suicide terrorists and other fighting religious fanatics are brave. Their behaviour may be driven by the fear of punishment either in the afterlife or by their fellow fanatics. It may also be due to ignorance – believing in an afterlife is like believing that one cannot really die and thus the danger is not real. In both cases, no courage is required for choosing death.

The belief in the impossibility of dying may even be literal – W.E.B. Griffin had a story of a witch doctor convincing the fighters of his tribe that his magic had made them immune to bullets. Great was the fighters’ surprise later… Their charge with spears against guns was not due to bravery, however.

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