Bravery and a “we-creature”

Posted by on Oct 25, 2006 in Uncategorized | No Comments


On this morning’s Midweek (on BBC Radio 4), this fella, Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry , the youngest living holder of the Victoria Cross popped up to talk about the story told iin his just published autobiography. The tale itself seems worth reading – not just as a piece of pseudo Victorian pro-military propaganda (‘how the army got me to sort myself out and become a useful citizen…’ or some such). Here’s the link to midweek programme to listen again.

And here’s the link to his book

One fact that boomed out of the speakers at me was that the majority of the recipients of this highest award for military bravery in the British army are from large families. Johnson is no exception being one of eight.

Why should this be? What does it tell us about some of these bigger ‘human nature’ questions?

I suspect that ‘bravery’ as we know it is often not the result of a rational consideration of risks and a consideration of some kind of principle but that it is more instinctive and has something more to do with our links and bonds with other people. Someone leaping into a canal to save a small child or returning to house-fire to save an invalid does this because they ‘instinctively’ (i.e. unthinkingly) see an imperative to act in the situation. Perhaps those from large families are more likely to have a sense of “We” rather than just “I” than the average bear. “We” is part of their cognitive make-up – learned probably rather than genetic – but well-wired nonetheless. While some folk from big families will do anything to avoid their siblings and family ties (you know who you are), most have a more “us” orientation hard-wired into their psyches.

Instinctive, reflexive responses to support and protect others at the expense of oneself is what a large part of military training is about. The SAS’s fearsome reputation is certainly built on this interdependence with your platoon or ‘crew’, but other studies (for example from the Pentagon) have shown how military training works not just to engender obedience to authority but also to engender a mutuality within the unit. Without it, our instinct to preserve our own individual skins might prevent us doing anything. Interestingly, one study I came across a few years ago suggested that the majority (>90%) of combat troops never fired their weapons in combat – their instincts for self-preservation prevent them from doing so; only the psychopathic and the ‘brave’ do. Military training is – at least in part – about wiring individuals within a unit together in order that that they act in a way which is likely to put themselves at risk.

As Johnson himself puts it, “Maybe I was brave, I don’t know. At the time I was just doing the job, I didn’t have time for other thoughts.”

No, he didn’t think. He just acted. Because that’s how he perceived the situation – being a threat to his ‘unit’ and he – an instinctive Kantian – saw the imperative to act on his units behalf, embedded in his view of the situation. The combination of family and military training made this more likely in the extreme situation he perceived himself to be in. Truly brave and worthy of the highest accolade but not in the way we tend to explain these things.

Because our culture is dominated by the notion of “I”. ‘Co-dependency’ is a bad thing; self-actualisation (our contemporary version of enlightenment or salvation) can only be achieved, we tell ourselves, by loosing the ties that bind us to others around us.