CAT | Ethics
Issues of courage and cowardice have been on my mind a lot lately. In my reviews of ’300′ I mentioned that the disturbing thing about the bad reviews I’ve read isn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but that much of them seemed to be part of a reflexive dislike of any portrayal of physical courage.
In my post ‘Virginia’, I mentioned that the three responses to deadly danger in rough order of desirability are, 1) avoid it, 2) successfully run away from it, and 3) successfully fight back against it.
Any competent and ethical martial arts instructor knows that one of the difficult tasks of instructing boys and young men, is teaching when and how to escape and evade aggressors. Testosterone overload often makes men want to fight when they should run, or keep pounding on a downed foe longer than the law considers justified. (You could call that “losing by winning”, when you consider the potential criminal charges and/or lawsuits.)
One thing I like to do is to pose the question, “What is the highest military command skill?” I didn’t know the answer myself until it was pointed out to me.
Experts consider the highest command skill to be the ability to lead a retreat in good order.
Think about that for a minute. When in an untenable position, you may have to fall back to a one you are better able to defend. If it has to be done in the face of the enemy, it can all to easily turn into a rout – and then you’re screwed.
Circumstances alter cases of course. For a Greek hoplite, when the day was clearly lost he could possibly save his life by abandoning his heavy armor and running. (“He who fights and runs away… etc.) But if just one man did it too soon he could cause the collapse of the line. (Hence the Spartan expression, “Come back with your shield or on it.”) For a medieval pikeman facing cavalry, dropping his pike and running meant that the cavalry would likely run him down and take him from behind.
The point of all this is that running is not necessarily evidence of cowardice – it all depends on circumstances.
Americans proud of our preeminent position of power in the world, might do well to remember from time to time that our nation was populated largely by people who successfully used the strategy of running away.
Now if you’ll bear with me a moment (I promise, it’s actually heading for a point), I’d like to tell you about a science fiction story I read when I was in high school, lo these many years ago.
“At the Core” by Larry Niven, was part of his Known Space universe, set in the far future and involving his character Beowulf Schaeffer.
Beowulf Schaeffer is hired for a deep space exploration mission by the Puppeteers, an alien race described as looking like “a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets for heads.”
Puppeteers have a certain outstanding characteristic – they are cowards. All of them.
Puppeteers have an inborn mortal fear of, basically everything even remotely dangerous. So for dangerous tasks such as exploration they hire humans, whom they regard as crazy – but lucky. (A brave Puppeteer is by definition psychotic.)
They hire Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot a new kind of spaceship to the galactic core and report back what he finds.
What he finds when he gets there is that the galactic core has exploded in a chain of supernovas. In 50,000 years the blast wave and radiation is going to reach our galactic neighborhood, rendering it uninhabitable. He reports this and returns.
When he gets back to Known Space, he finds that all of the Puppeteers have fled the Galaxy.
Let’s break here and ask yourself what you’d do if your knew for certain that an unavoidable danger was going to wipe out all life on Earth and all of the nearer solar systems – in 50,000 years? Would you even lose any sleep over it?
Didn’t think so, neither would I.
Beowulf Schaeffer muses on this and comes to the same conclusion. We’d do nothing until the sky started to glow.
He thinks further on it. No Puppeteer ever pretended danger didn’t exist. He may have been looking for the best place to run, but he would never deny the necessity for running.
He concludes, “Maybe it’s humans who are cowards, at the Core.”
(Nice play on words there.)
To belabor the point just a little, it’s not necessarily cowardly to run from danger. As I said, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes running can save your life, sometimes it gets you killed – or leaves those you love unprotected.
But to deny that danger exists?
I’ll deal more with this later.