Fear, Cowardliness, and the Military
Last week my blog post asked, “Does Your Fearfulness Make You a Coward?” While attempting to answer this question, I pointed out that viewing yourself as a coward when you experience fear consumes time and energy. Moreover, it is way too simplistic. Fear is actually a highly valuable emotion. It motivates us to take some wise precautions. And the fact that some people can fearlessly perform a task that would make you quake actually indicates, when properly considered, that diversity in what people fear is helpful for the survival of our species. When it comes to fear, we are wiser to seek to learn to skillfully utilize it, rather than to seek to insult ourselves.
Within three days of my writing that post on fear, NBC Nightly News presented a video of Secretary of State John Kerry calling Edward Snowden, the NSA document leaker, a coward. I found this rather ironic because John Kerry, as a younger man, demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Such demonstrators were repeatedly called cowards by those who supported our military’s war efforts. And so I guess that makes both John Kerry and Edward Snowden cowards, at least in the eyes of some people who choose to use this name calling strategy when they believe it suits them.
What’s up with this Name Calling?
When we call someone a coward, we are not making a scientifically objective distinction as we do when, for example, we call a snake a reptile rather than an insect. People use the word “coward” as a strategic move to actually increase fear in the hopes of achieving their personal desires. I know that this can seem counterintuitive at first, but with a little thought, this becomes simple to understand.
Many people are afraid to put themselves in a position in which others are publically calling them cowards. Thus, Sec. Kerry, by calling Mr. Snowden a coward on national television, sought to discourage others with access to secret government information from revealing what they know for fear that they, too, would be branded a coward. And those who called Sec. Kerry a coward when he was a younger man protesting against the Vietnam War sought to discourage others from doing likewise lest they, too, would be subjected to such name calling.
When we think of the military we often think about how it honors certain individuals who act fearlessly in the face of danger. Typically this is done in a ceremony during which medals are handed out and an inspiring speech is presented. It stirs our hearts to participate in these events.
Although we may think that courage and bravery is the driving force of the military, far more often utilized are strategies designed to actually increase fear. It is worth taking a good hard look at these strategies because when people become more aware of this, their simplistic kneejerk reaction of construing any fearfulness that they personally experience as a sign of their cowardliness can be dispelled. A more realistic understanding of these experiences can then take its place, thus aiding people to make better informed choices as they seek to achieve their most treasured desires.
The Military’s Use of Fear
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it was the fear that our country would be conquered by another country that led men to enlist in the various branches of the military in record numbers. But even when our country is not actually attacked, those who seek military intervention artfully manipulate fear to achieve their ends.
Those of us who lived through the period during which the Vietnam War mounted, recall how our fear was heightened by repeated references to the “Domino Theory.” This theory claimed that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. Thus, fear was aroused that if South Vietnam was to fall to the communists, other countries in the region would soon follow. And then these countries would enter into a vast policy of conquest. The Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands, and the whole of our coast west of the Sierra Passes would be swamped by the invaders in rapid succession. If we fail to act decisively in Vietnam, the rest of America would, in but a few short years, be enslaved by the conquerors, our women raped, and our children brainwashed.
A dismal forecast indeed! And yet, just plausible enough to rile up enough Americans to wage a terribly costly war.
In the end, the U.S abandoned its effort to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. And yet none of the fearful projections about our own country being swamped by foreign invaders came to pass. Among the effects of the fear campaign were approximately 58,000 US combat deaths and a million Vietnam combat deaths. Several million others were seriously wounded and according to Vietnam’s government, the U.S. herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, conducted during the Vietnam War, led to 400,000 people killed or maimed as a result of after effects, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. To this day, our own country continues to provide treatment to thousands of American veterans who were wounded in Vietnam battles or have been suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
More recently, as a result of the military’s leadership that drummed up fear of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, we fought a war costing billions of dollars, the lives of 4,486 U.S. soldiers, and approximately 100,000 Iraqis. Many more are still suffering from serious injuries.
Once people begin to serve in the military, fear is a dominant driver of carrying out one’s duties. Military personnel quickly become aware that insubordination can lead to prison time and various forms of name calling, including being branded a coward. Fear is further heightened by knowledge of the possibility of being disgraced with a dishonorable discharge, or shot for desertion. If soldiers don’t carry out their duties under fire, this can increase the likelihood of the enemy either killing them along with their fellow service personnel or to being captured and subjected to possible torture. All of these fears are strategically heightened by the military so that these fears, when combined, will be greater than the competing fear that comes from the sounds of bombs going off, bullets flying overhead and knowing that severe injury or death may come at any moment.
Now, of course the military doesn’t just rely on fear to achieve its ends. It provides training, initially under relatively easy conditions, and then under more and more arduous ones, eventually requiring trainees to perform with live bullets flying overhead. This increases the military personnel’s confidence that they can indeed perform under highly stressful conditions. Stories are told of simple soldiers who achieved great acts of bravery. Military personnel are provided with leaders who have distinguished themselves as individuals of great intelligence and character. And there are rewards for carrying out one’s duties—a salary, cheers from one’s comrades, an honorable discharge, veteran’s benefits, etc. Nevertheless, the idea that there is no place for fear in the military is a bunch of hogwash.
Bob, experiencing fear as he prepares to perform with his band in front of a large audience, initially observes his thoughts going off into a chain of insults. “I’m such a coward. Why can’t I be like a brave soldier, never experiencing any fear even in the face of bullets raining down from the enemy?”
But then it dawns on Bob that soldiers actually do experience fear. With this knowledge, he decides to let his thoughts continue for a few more minutes, but he simply nonjudgmentally observes them passing by without attaching any belief in them. Soon, they pass. He gets on with the work before him. He spends some time practicing his performance. He recalls some stories he heard about other performers who experienced fear before shows and yet managed to thrill their audiences. And, from time to time, he reminds himself that if it turns out that the life of a musician ends up not suiting him, there are other paths he can take to create a worthwhile life.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.