This last week has been a bit strange on the writing front – I’ve mentally written a lot of posts, but I haven’t actually written them. Now we’ll just have to see whether they actually materialize into something worth reading.
The reason for the strangeness of the week has been due to me being on military orders for Annual Training. I had a huge list of things that I needed to have my company and myself do – so that took some time, but the real reason was mostly psychological. It’s always that switch for me when I start working to time and not to task.
Needless to say, I’m back.
Since this weekend was really busy, I didn’t get to put a Food For Thought post out. The pondering this week is a result of the conversation between me and Bill in the comments of 12 Ways to Practice Courage. What’s bothered me for a long time is what makes a particular act courageous. (It didn’t help that Kelly had a post some while ago about the most daring thing she’s ever done – that started me thinking about it all over again and I declined to comment.)
Before we start, this is not purely an academic point that I’m presenting. It’s prompted by situations I’ve been in.
I’ve been in mortal danger no less than five times throughout my life. I could talk about all of them, but it’d be a really long post that may or may not be interesting. The one that really pops into my mind, though, is from a convoy gone…weird…in Iraq. I’ll keep it as short as possible.
On said weird convoy, we ended up going through a largish town during Market Day. Going through towns during Market Day is very much akin to driving 30 tractor-trailers through the middle of a fair – people and animals are everywhere, meandering with their wares, and really, really pissed that this huge trucks are coming through the middle of it. It doesn’t help that those trucks have people with guns, and some of those people are quick to point them at you.
My convoy also had the fortune of escorting Third Country National drivers – so for every one military truck, we had two or three TCN trucks. These guys were usually scared shitless because they had no idea where they were going, couldn’t speak English, and they knew they were in danger.
What would inevitably happen in these types of situations is that a TCN truck would not follow the truck in front of it closely enough and people and goats would start running between that truck and the one in front of it. The natural thing to do is to stop, because running over people is not something people naturally do. Once that one vehicle stops, it becomes a crosswalk from one side of the market to the other. The end result is that you end up with your convoy cut in half – and that’s bad.
Once our guntruck had ended the crosswalk situation, the second half of the convoy rushed to catch up with the first. In the excitement, another of our TCN drivers hit a curb really hard and the generator he had poorly secured on his trailer fell off…in the middle of Market Day. He stopped – and he was the third to last truck of the convoy. Still left in the convoy was my mechanic’s truck, my truck, and the trailing guntruck.
The crowd, out of curiosity, immediately swarmed that truck and the generator. There was no moving of any of the vehicles. My mechanic radioed up, but I still couldn’t see what was going on, so I got out of my truck to go see.
The crowd parted around me with a buffer of about 3 feet and then would close up behind me. For about 75 meters this happened – and I was completely isolated from my truck and my driver.
(I doubt many of you are transporters, so I have to make clear two major points: being unable to move your truck is terrifying, and being isolated from your truck with a crowd of neutral to hostile people is bone-chilling terrifying.)
As I approached the mechanic’s truck, it began to dawn on me that we were in a bad situation – for he had that “deer-in-the-headlights, what-do-we-do, I’m-scared” look on his face. The only two things that went through my mind were 1) please, Specialist, don’t start shooting, and 2) we have to get the fuck out of here. If he started shooting, dozens of people would have died, because everybody would have started shooting. And if we didn’t get out of there, something bad was going to happen.
There was no way to recover the generator, and we had to get out there, so I went against standing orders, placed an incendiary grenade on the generator, and we left (the crowd parted enough due to the intimidation of our guntruck.)
(I’ve left out a lot of detail to make the story shorter.)
Only when we meet up with the rest of our convoy outside of town did I realize what how bad that situation was. It would have been really easy for someone to jump from the crowd with a knife, or shovel, or any of the other tools they were carrying and overwhelm me. There were people walking on the rooftops with AK-47s.
But at the time, I didn’t think about any of that. I didn’t worry about my personal safety and I didn’t think about the danger I was in. My overriding thoughts were: 1) please, Troops, don’t start shooting, and 2) we have to get the fuck out of here.
I didn’t sit in the truck to deliberate what was the courageous thing to do. I didn’t fight the urge to sit in the truck because it didn’t really dawn on me that I had the option of sitting in the truck.
None of this is meant to be bragging or boasting, but rather, I’m just making it clear that I wasn’t thinking about the actions I was taking. I was just acting.
But is “just acting” worthy of moral praise? For it seems to me that a lot of people “just act,” but they act badly. The married man who can’t control his sexual urges comes to mind here – for, presented with certain situations, he can reasonably say he was just acting. He didn’t mean to hurt his wife – he didn’t think about it. But the fact that he didn’t think about it doesn’t seem to make any difference to the nature of his actions – although if he did it knowing it would hurt his wife or so that he would hurt his wife, that seems worse.
Of course, if the analysis for courage works, then it should work for truthfulness, friendliness, and the other virtues. If it’s the act itself that counts, why do we stress intentions?
What do you think?
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Great question posed, Charlie. I don’t think actions or intentions matter exclusively. I think it is the combination of the two, plus past behaviour adds some reckoning to judgment too.
In your examples, you didn’t think about getting out of the truck, you just did it but your whole motivation was to do good while doing the least amount of harm. This makes you an honorable man.The same cannot be said for the man who can’t keep his dick in his pants. He’s not necessarily bad, but he’s immature with poor impulse control and not a “good catch” for a woman who values herself.
Maybe you think this is a simplistic argument, but I tend to believe the basic tenements of life are simple. The person who does not think to pull a stranger from a burning car wreck may say they acted on instinct. But the person who didn’t help and just stood there also acted on instinct. What separates them is courage and sense of morality or ethics.
Making me think as always Charlie. I like it.
Kelly@SHE-POWERs last blog post..Our First SHE-POWER Man – Clay Collins from The Growing Life
Terrific thoughts, Charlie, and I think Kelly proposed an equally terrific understanding. It’s the combination of actions and thoughts, the purely physical with the higher powers of mental, that make us beings with teh capacity for tremendous good (and all-consuming evil).
You continually tackle the tough subjects here – and that in and of itself is courageous. Keep on keepin’ on.
QuietRebelWriters last blog post..Creative Kick: Johnny Cash and the Ultimate No-No
Hmm. I do a lot of mental post writing as well…that made me laugh!
This post is interesting, and has my brain all twisted in a loop. I put myself in the path of a big raging kid a couple of weeks ago and got myself punched for the trouble. My instinct was to keep everyone safe. I didn’t even consider backing off, and I’d do it again.
I’m agoraphobic. Meaning, I’m terrified to drive to the next town. For me, courage would be facing the horrible feelings and doing it anyway. My instinct is to avoid the panic attacks that come as a result. Does that make me cowardly? Who knows. Crazy, yes. 😉
Sometimes I can’t even think about this question because I’m too afraid of the answer.
Bloggrrls last blog post..Why Kids Should Be Bored
I’m not sure you can separate action from intention. The human brain is complex, and we never really act without some kind of thinking – even if it is done on a subconscious level.
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Charles Gilkey says
Wow, great comments here.
@ Kelly: So, if I understand you correctly, it’s some combination of intention, action, and past behavior. Just curious – is it all three, or does one suffice? Intuitively, it sounds right – the person who in the past has had a particular vice and overcomes it in a new case seems to be more praiseworthy than someone who has never had that vice.
But then, isn’t the person who never had the pull to do the vicious act being somewhat penalized, as far as praise goes. Reminds me of the Prodigal Son story – think from the perspective of the good son who always tended to his duties. Doesn’t it suck for him when the father welcomes the return of the wayward son?
@ Amy (aka QRW): One of the more frustrating things about the human conditions is that we, on the one hand, are capable of supreme excellence, yet, on the other, we are capable of utter depravity. But what makes us unique is that mental capability – the depravity, and the excellence, are both attributable to the same feature. Therein lies the rub…
@ Michelle (aka Bloggrrl): I’ve been reading your blog for years and never remember reading that you had agoraphobia – that’s cool to know. Some ethicist are troubled about what to do with phobias – are they a reflexive character trait that doesn’t count against someone’s excellence, are is it a trait on par with courage? It’s a hard question.
Consider this: we often don’t hold people’s cleptomania against them. Sure, we may remove our valuables when we know they’ll be around, but we don’t think they’re bad people. So shouldn’t we think that people who have phobias aren’t cowardly?
The hard question really begins with people who have sexual or homicidal urges that seem to be beyond their control. If they really can’t help it – like the klepto can’t help it – then why do they get different moral ascriptions?
Being afraid of the answer to difficult questions is understandable. But sometimes the answer is not as scary as we think…
@ Vered: Hmm, good insight. We may be talking past each other on the notion of thinking. I don’t consider the action that’s the result of having one’s knee hit with the mallet-thing in the doctor’s office causally related with a thought. Indeed, braindead people still have reflexive actions.
Consider Michelle, from above. Are the physical responses to the thought of going to another town, or mixing with a crowd of unknown people, the result of a thought?
@ everyone: Thanks for your wonderful comments. I’d love to keep this one going for a while.
The physical responses are indeed the result of a thought, however, the tendency of the brain to rewire itself to become more susceptible to negative thoughts (causing the amygdala to trip its switch and all kinds of yukky hormones to be released into the body causing the symptoms) is a genetic thing. It has to do with having short alleles on a particular DNA strand.
So this makes me wonder how many other behaviors are genetically based. I hate to go there, because I don’t want to think of people as meat. Perhaps they are there to be overcome. Still, there are some things that are absolutely inexplicable, and I hit brick walls when I run up against them.
Anyway, where is the line drawn between “instinct” and training/upbringing?
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