On Courage and Heroes

A few weeks ago, I attended an off-road motorcycle class. After a few preliminary basics, we started learning some basic skills: climbing hills, descending hills, hopping over obstacles, riding through slippery terrain and, most importantly, lifting up one’s bike after you’ve fallen down. After two days of camp, I’d fallen down 3 times, once resulting in a nasty bruise to my leg.

What struck me most about the class (other than 500 lbs. of motorcycle falling on my shin) was how challenging it was. Some of the skills (e.g. hopping over 6″ tall obstacles or riding through river rock) were downright scary. While I waited in line for my turn to come, my mind raced through all of the bad things that could happen. And these weren’t simply idle worries; bad things did happen. I remember hopping over a 6″ obstacle (a stack of 2×6’s) and accidentally gunning the throttle. As I raced towards the fence, I knew that I needed to release the throttle, but that meant loosening my death grip on one of the few things that were holding me on to the bike! Somehow, that time, I managed not to fall.

For the most part, I managed to overcome my fears. I took on most of the riding drills and emerged mostly unscathed. After my nasty fall, however, I did choose to skip some of them (e.g. hopping a 9″ obstacle).

Ok, now, imagine this experience 1000 times as intense. A soldier rides slowly down a street in Baghdad or Fallujah knowing that an IED might be buried up ahead. How can anyone do that?

Another soldier is riding on a troop carrier and someone tosses a hand-made grenade into the vehicle. The soldier quickly picks up the grenade and tries to toss it over the side. It explodes before he has the chance, but his actions save the lives of his squad. How could he do that?

I think the image of the war hero as a fearless warrior is inaccurate, at best, and disrespectful, at worst. John Rambo rushing into battle without regard for his safety and no fear of death exists only in Hollywood. I believe that real life heroes are much more human and acknowledging their humanity makes their deeds all the more heroic.

Much of what the military does to train its soldiers, including the mindless repetition of tasks in boot camp, is to provide them with the right instincts to do the right thing at the right time. Athletes, doctors,  and pilots all train to achieve the same goal. A linesman falls on a loose ball. A surgeon clamps a bleeding vessel. A pilot  pushes down on the stick if the plane is stalling.

Fear is a natural response to danger. Our brains are programmed to recognize threatening situations and to run, if possible. Racing towards an obstacle is not natural. Grabbing a grenade is counter to our inborn survival instincts.

For me, the essence of heroism is what happens in that brief moment when, pondering action or inaction, fight or flight, someone quickly makes the decision that yields the greater good even at the price of personal sacrifice. I imagine a millisecond of total awareness when the decision is made, amidst fear and amidst the barrage of a trillion neurons all shouting “NO!”. 

It is hard to imagine such moments. I’d like to think that I would do the right thing, especially if it came down to defending my family or myself. Could I do the same thing to defend my country or the interests of my country or, more mundanely, to take a hill that my commanding officer told me is important to take? I don’t know. 

So, on this Memorial Day, I don’t think about the John Rambos (if they even exist). I think about the millions of soldiers, both friend and foe, who’ve faced the ultimate moment of truth and have made the right decision in spite of all the obvious reasons not to.