I've more finely focused the chapter I am working on to fear and courage. During my research I came across Susan Sontag's controversial article in 2001 in which she held the 9/11 hijackers to be courageous.
Peter Olsthoorn in Military Ethics and Virtues, who refers to SS's article, refers to the definition of courage as being to act in spite of fear as 'the scientific view of courage.' This scientific view of courage is 'morally neutral' as SS explains.
Were the 9/11 hijackers courageous? How could we know? We do not know what their inner state was when they crashed the planes.
The US government et al described (branded) the 9/11 hijackers as cowards. Were they cowards?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines coward as a person who is not brave and is too eager to avoid danger, difficulty or pain.
It is difficult to describe the 9/11 hijackers as cowards based on that definition.
This leads me to wonder how the 9/11 hijackers overcame their fear of death and injury. The fear of death and injury is the produce of our survival mechanism that was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual (the subject of my book). How did they resist their instinct for self-preservation?
The survival mechanism is based on an appraisal process. Did the hijackers' religious beliefs change the nature of death for them so that crashing the planes was not appraised as a threat?
'the FBI’s investigative reports on the combat teams’ activities during the months leading up to September 11 make it clear that the members were not fundamentalist Muslims. Rather, it’s pretty obvious at this point that they were secular activists – soldiers, really.'
The 9/11 hijackers may very well have been courageous, as soldiers are taught to be, by using will-power to act in spite of fear. They may have used anger to overcome or replace fear, with fight being anger's action tendency. Or, they may have overcame or replaced fear with spite, with spite being a variant of anger but with a different focus. With spite a person will die just to inflict pain and loss on another (see Petersen and Liaras' article on the strategic use of emotion in Journal of Military Ethics).
These musing are no mere academic exercise. How do we motivate soldiers to fight and overcome their instinct for self-preservation that comes with fear? How does our enemy do the same?
I've come across a very interesting book on military matters written by Ardant du Picq, a French officer in the nineteenth century who was preoccupied with the role of fear in combat and how to overcome it. In his classic Battle Studies, du Picq said that the human heart is the starting point in all matters pertaining to war. The human heart to which he refers is the survival mechanism that is responsible for fear, therefore, the starting point in all matters pertaining to war (or any violent activity) is the study of our survival mechanism - the subject matter of my second book.
These musing also demonstrate that the terms courage and cowardice often reflect something about the speaker rather than the subject they are speaking about. They are also used to motivate others and have very little descriptive value of the subject.
Next time you see or use the words courageous and cowardice, think a little more about what is actually being said.