Friday, October 12, 2012

What is Courage? Do you Train for Courage?

The following is taken from US Army FM 6-22, Army Leadership: Competent, Confident, and Agile (2006):

When SGT Leigh Ann Hester and members of her Kentucky National Guard military police company set out for a routine convoy escort mission in March 2005, she did not know what challenges awaited her and her team.

SGT Hester was the vehicle commander riding in the second HMMWV behind a convoy of 26 supply vehicles when her squad leader, SSG Timothy Nein, observed the convoy under attack and moved to contact.

When she arrived at the ambush location, she saw the lead vehicle had been hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. A group of about 50 insurgents seemed determined to inflict devastating damage on the now stopped convoy. She immediately joined the fight and engaged the enemy with well-aimed fires from her rifle and grenade launcher. The intense engagement lasted over 45 minutes. When the firing finally subsided, 27 insurgents lay dead, six were wounded, and one was captured.

Despite the initially overwhelming odds and battlefield clutter, SGT Hester and her Soldiers persevered. They effectively quelled the attack, allowing the supply convoy to continue safely to their destination. Throughout the situational chaos, SGT Hester and her comrades had remained resilient, focused, and professional. The fearless response by Hester and SSG Nein had helped the Soldiers overcome the initial shock of the ambush and instilled the necessary confidence and courage to complete the mission successfully.


For her actions, SGT Hester earned the Silver Star. She is the first female Soldier since World War II to receive this award. SSG Nein and SPC Jason Mike also won the Silver Star; several other unit members were awarded Bronze Stars for valor.

The manual describes the values of the US Army soldier, which includes personal courage. Personal courage is defined as being 'not the absence of fear. It is the ability to put fear aside and do what is necessary.' Many define courage in similar terms, as acting in spite of fear.

Fearless implies no fear being experienced. By definition, being fearless, as SGT Hester is reported as being, is not courage. If she was awarded the Silver Star for being courageous, or brave (similar/same concept), it was awarded incorrectly. SGT Hester did not act in spite of fear.

Many in survival activities (martial arts, military, law enforcement, etc) refer to courage and its opposite, cowardice, but do they actually know what they are talking about? I would suggest it is doubtful.

This is no mere philosophical discussion (or it shouldn't be). Those who study violence and aggression often classify violence and aggression as being emotional/affective or instrumental. They differ in terms of the emotion being experienced (and motivating behaviour) in the former and no emotion in the latter. The latter form of violence and aggression can be described as being fearless.

Emotion involves a physiological response. The physiological response, with respect to fear, is evolutionarily designed to increase our chances of survival when threatened. The cascade of hormones increase speed, strength, pain tolerance, blood clotting, etc. Being fearless, engaging in instrumental violence or aggression, does not gain the benefit of these evolved physiological survival responses. Acting in sprite of fear still gains the benefit of these evolved physiological survival responses.

Training should be tailored to the desired outcome. Are the trainees being trained to be fearless and to engage in instrumental violence (as many martial arts profess to do) or to be courageous and to act in spite of fear? These outcomes require different training methods. One may lead to the other (the latter to the former), but the if the former is the desired state, different methods can be designed to achieve that outcome. The samurai did just that with the adoption of Zen Buddhism. This changed intervened in the appraisal element of their survival mechanism (which I've discussed in previous posts) such that a stimulus that is a threat to a samurai's wellbeing is appraised as being benign.

Many martial arts train technique. They may train emotion by default, but they do not explicitly understand they are doing so. All 'reality' and scenario based training is actually emotion training. Stress training, including stress inoculation training used by law enforcement and the military, is in fact emotion training. Emotion is often the determining factor in an aggressive or violent encounter. It behoves survival instructors to understand emotion ... which is the focus of the chapter I'm currently working on.

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