Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Some thoughts about courage (part one)

I've been working on this for a while and it's still not really finished - I need to tie it back to Baxter again, so I will write a part two later.

The motivation for this post is a recent article in the ODT about Archibald Baxter and the conscientious objectors. There's an interesting quote in the article by Professor Tom Brooking, who describes both the pacifists such as Baxter and the regular soldiers as brave:

He and Mark Briggs were the only two of the original 14 who held out to the end.

Whether fighting in a uniform or refusing to put a uniform on, both are acts of bravery, Prof Brooking says.

''It takes enormous courage to be one of a small handful of people standing against something that has huge popular support,'' he says.

''It takes enormous courage to go over the top as well. Lots of men were being extraordinarily brave. And Baxter himself said many of the soldiers never condemned him.

''You can't deny the courage of someone like Baxter who just refused to put on the uniform because he was opposed to war in any form.

Of course, the argument against that is that one of the democratic responsibilities, in return for all the rights, is to go and defend your country.''

It was not just bravery in the face of harsh realities that soldiers and conscientious objectors shared.

Ultimately, both were fighting for the same thing: peace. Conchies were trying to bring about peace by stopping people fighting one another, just as soldiers thought they were going to bring about peace by beating the enemy.

''The ends were the same; the means were dramatically different,'' Prof Brooking says.

''That's the fundamental point of the debate.''

Has either succeeded? Not yet.

There are several things about this which I find quite interesting. Firstly, it reflects the fact that the story of Archibald Baxter and the other conscientious objectors is receiving a lot more mainstream attention. The recent TV movie 'Field Punishment No.1' and the proposed memorial to the conscientious objectors here in Dunedin are also examples of this cultural shift. Anzac day, especially in the enlightened and peace loving utopia of modern day Aoteroa, is more and more 'liberalised': you can pick and choose your WW1 heroes as you see fit. If you are conservative and think that it was vitally necessary that the Germans had to be defeated, you can remember the ordinary soldiers who went over the top with their bayonets flashing. If you are a peace loving liberal, you can honour the pacifists with white poppies. Either way, both political choices share a common underlying virtue: bravery. This ethical substance transcends the nastiness and confusion of politics, and allows us to bask in the poignant spiritual radiance of the Anzac tradition, re-imagined and re-invigorated by our 21st century notions of tolerance and pluralism.

Secondly, this elevation of the virtue of courage and the desirablity of peace is very difficult to fault. Who can possibly demand the opposite in good conscience? If we wore yellow poppies and celebrated the cowards and shirkers we would be considered perverse. If we openly celebrated the violence and the blood of war without any moral coding in terms of political necessity, we would be considered bloodthirsty and evil. Courage and peace are morally ironclad, unimpeachable imperatives.

These thoughts prompted me to think about the idea of courage more generally. What exactly is courage, and why is it so highly valued? I started by reading Plato's Laches, a dialogue devoted entirely to this question. As per usual, Socrates demolishes all of the suggested definitions of courage, and the dialogue ends up in the same place as most other Socratic dialogies: aporia, or philosophical confusion. The beauty of Plato's thinking is not the answers, which are few and mostly negative, but rather the process and the insistence on not accepting the integrity of ideas as given to us.

Without going into the details of the dialogue, there is a movement from a common sense notion of courage as 'standing your ground in a fight' to a more abstract and cerebral definition which involves some kind of wisdom or intelligence. Foolish acts of fearlessness are not noble, so cannot count as being courageous. Courage is more than fearlessness, and requires a certain kind of knowledge to count as a kind of virtue. There are conceptual problems with this account, but for the purposes of this essay I will put these difficulties to one side, and make the assumption that Socrates was onto something even if he didn't quite get there in the end: courage has to involve some form of intelligence for it to be admirable courage. Exactly what this conception entails – what kind of intelligence, what sort of knowledge it requires and so on – I will leave these questions open, and turn to consider some examples from WW1 based literature to explore this idea some more.

My first example comes from Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell. The rebellious Starkie has just discovered the body of his 16 year old 'mascot' friend Jackie. He takes revenge:

There was a German maxim-gun with a crew of three that in the rising dawn made merry across No Man's Land, telling the story of a raid that got cut to pieces before it reached the lines. But as the maxim sang there was a shout overhead and a terrible figure crashed down upon it. The figure wore a tunic torn open at its waist, clotted and dyed and hideous with blood. Blood dripped from its nose and open mouth, blood stained its nightmare club – a great axe-handle with an iron cog nailed to one end. It was neither white man nor black. Under the blacking smeared on face and throat the skin shone red-brown. So much the three German gunners had time to see before the figure uttered a madman's shriek, and with a madman's strength leapt down on them. The axe-handle swung twice, and twice the iron cog came away with hair and blood sticking to it. Then the butt end was thrust into the third gunner's face as he turned to run. The three lay in the pit. The figure groped forward with great brown hands, swung the machine-gun round until its muzzle pointed directly at the gunners. Then the rattle of bullets began. The maxim sang again and its gunners lay on the ground, their bodies impaled by the sharp little tusks of lead.

The terrible figure met an officer from the Otago lines as it dragged the maxim towards the British wire. The officer, a Major, stopped and said: 'Good work, Starkie!' Starkie stared at him, a red world swimming before his eyes. He wasn't the only one. Officers – men gently brought up, trained in decency and self-restraint – were wandering about like madmen, silly from the concussion of shell-fire. Their eyes were bloodshot and dazed, and in their hands they carried naked bayonets, wet with blood. They were still hunting, like animals, with no idea whom they sought or why. Presently they would come to; you would notice nothing unusual about them except in quiet moments, when the thick, glaucous glaze swam over the pupils of the pupils of their eyes again1.

This is an interesting passage because it highlights a central tension in Hyde's text: she clearly relishes the violence and bravery of Starkie, but she also recognises it as being mentally unhinged. The 'red brown skin' description emphasises Starkie's (supposed) Red Indian ethnicity, and has echoes of the idea of a 'noble savage'. When Hyde turns from the heroic and enraged Starkie to the officers, her vision is less tainted by this sort of romanticism: the officers are 'like animals' and their vision is obscured by a haze of blood. There is bravery here for sure – but the enraged blood lust is animalistic, and there is not too much thinking going on, just aggression. Socrates would be disappointed.

The next example comes from Louis Ferdinand Celine's novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932):

That colonel, I could see, was a monster. Now I knew it for sure, he was worse than a dog, he couldn't conceive of his own death. At the same time I realised that there must be plenty of brave men like him in our army, and just as many no doubt in the army facing us. How many, I wondered. One or two million, say several millions in all? The thought turned my fear to panic. With such people this infernal lunacy could go on for ever …. Why would they stop? Never had the world seemed so implacably doomed.

Could I, I thought, be the last coward on earth? How terrifying! …. All alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs? With and without helmets, without horses, on motorcycles, bellowing, in cars, screeching, shooting, plotting, flying, kneeling, digging, taking cover, bounding over trails, bombarding, shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes, destroy, destroy, madder than mad dogs, worshipping their madness (which dogs don't), a hundred, a thousand times madder than a thousand dogs, and a lot more vicious2!

Celine fills out his idea of bravery as a form of mental weakness in more detail:

Walking along, I remembered the ceremony of the day before. It had taken place in a meadow, at the foot of a hill; the colonel had harangued the regiment in his booming voice: 'Keep your courage up!' he had cried. 'Keep your courage up! And Vive la France!' When you have no imagination, dying is too much. That's my opinion. My understanding had never taken in so many things at once.

The colonel had never had any imagination. That was the source of all his trouble, especially ours. Was I the only man in that regiment with an imagination about death3?

The best moment comes a few pages later, when Celine describes Captain Ortolan:

One morning when they rode in from a reconnaissance patrol, Lieutenant de Sainte-Engence invited the other officers to confirm he hadn't made it up. 'I sabred two of them!' he insisted, showing everybody his sabre, and true enough, the little groove was full of caked blood, that's what it's made for.

Captain Ortolan backed him up. 'He was splendid! Bravo, Sainte-Engence! … Ah, messieurs, if you'd only seen him! What a charge!'

It was in Ortolan's squadron that it happened.

'I saw every bit of it! I wasn't far away! A thrust to the right! … Zing! The first one drops! … A thrust full in the chest! … Left! Cross! Championship style! … Bravo again, Saint-Engence! Two lancers! Less than a mile form here! Still lying there! In a ploughed field! The war's over for them, eh, Sainte-Engence? … A double thrust! Beautiful! I bet they spilled their guts like rabbits!'

Lieutenant de Sainte-Engence, whose horse had galloped a long way, received his comrades' compliments with modesty. Now that Ortolan had authenticated his exploit, his mind was at rest and he rode off some distance to cool off his mare by circling slowly around the assembled squadron as if he were just coming in from a steeplechase.

'We must send another patrol over there!' cried Captain Ortolan. 'Immediately!' He was terribly excited. 'Those two blackguards must have been lost to comethis way, but there must be more behind them …. Ah, Corporal Bardamu. Go take a look, you and your four men!'


The regular army men told me that in peacetime this Captain Ortolan hardly ever showed up for duty. Now that a war was on, he made up for it. He was indefatigable. His vigour and verve, even among all those other lunatics, were getting more unbelievable from day to day. It was rumoured that he sniffed cocaine. Pale, rings under his eyes, always dashing around on his fragile legs … Whenever he set foot on the ground, he'd stagger at first but then get hold of himself and stride angrily over the furrowed fields in search of some new feat of daring. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd sent us to get a light from the muzzles of the enemies guns. He was in league with death, I'd have sworn they had a contract together, death and Captain Ortolan4.

For anybody who feels the need for a tonic of good old fashioned misanthropy and black humour in the face of the mountain of sentimental moronism awaiting us in April 2015, I heartily recommend reading the first part of Journey

These examples of mine do not really prove anything – it would be easy enough to find conflicting cases where the courage on display was not the savage animalistic frenzy Hyde describes, nor the idiotic masculinist version lampooned by Celine. A good example might be Maurice Shadbolt's play Once on Chunuk Bair, which basically ticks all the correct Anzac boxes and maintains the narrative of courage we are supplied with again and again in millions of books and movies. Like any narrative, it has some element of truth to it, and it's not my intention here to cynically cast doubt upon the moral integrity of dead Anzac soldiers. Rather, if we want to actually honour the dead, I think it's necessary to question this sort of received view, and think critically about what courage might mean in the context of any war, and world war one in particular.

To me, the most outstanding fact about the first world war is its utter and complete failure to bring about a world of peace. The idea sold to people at the time that it would be the 'war to end wars' turned out to be absolutely false. We are still paying for the idiocy of this war today in the middle east. It seems to me quite perverse that we focus on the subjective bravery of the soldiers who fought in the war, rather than the broader question of what the actual consequences of all that courageous (or otherwise) violence were.

And for a bit of light relief from the heaviness .... here's John Goodman as Walter and his thoughts on pacifism:



Celine, Louis Ferdinand. 1988 (1932). Journey to the End of the Night. John Calder Ltd.

Hyde, Robin. 1986 (1936). Passport to Hell. Auckland University Press

1Hyde (1986) p.131

2Celine (1988) p.18 -19

3Ibid. p. 23

4Ibid. p.34

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