Courage and Obedience: Virtues of the Tribe?

athena2           I recently, thanks to a nasty summer cold gifted from Barbarian #1, read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging which was highly accessible, interesting but somehow not what I expected. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing!) The thesis of the book and its reflections are that our sense of ‘tribe’ and community has broken down and that especially in the case of PTSD, the issue of veterans homecoming is not so much the trauma of war, but the lack of a meaningful return and re-entry process.

This is an interesting claim, and other writers on the topic (like Jonathan Shay in his book Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming) have addressed this issue in terms of the civilian/military culture gap and the oddities of a small all-volunteer force.  Junger argues that our culture isn’t just isolated from war, it is isolated from everything. (p.111) His arguments also reflect the cycle documented by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I have argued elsewhere is helpful in thinking about the warrior.  The Return is a critical piece for the hero/warrior and the larger society in dealing with the sin of war and being accepted back into full and productive membership in the community. This is clearly missing in any kind of ritualized sense with the participation of the whole community.

I am more interested in another claim that Junger makes early in the book and then returns to later in his discussion of the Bergdahl case.  Junger argues that courage is a communal virtue and that cowardice (failure to show courage) is “…another form of community betrayal” which is often punished by immediate death or severe stigmatization and expulsion. (p. 30) This seems clear enough in traditional warrior societies, but he also references the treatment of British ‘cowards’ in WWI.  We might think of the plot of film The White Feather and how the main character’s fiancée essentially rejects him because of his cowardice.  We might also think of the famous scene in Patton where the general slaps a soldier with ‘combat fatigue,’ reflecting his view that such things were the result of cowardice and not a medical issue.

If we agree with the view that courage is a communal virtue and not simply a matter of an individual and his or her own fear (which we may not, see Chapter 2 of my The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare for discussion of the individual and communal aspects of this virtue, which I term the ‘Politics of Courage,’) then we must ask who the community or audience is here.

On one hand, we might think the community is the other warriors or soldiers in one’s unit or group.  This seems to be what Junger has in mind in his discussion of the military reaction to Bergdahl; they view his walking off as an act of cowardice and a betrayal of his fellow soldiers, in part because of what happened afterwards in the search for him. So on this line of thinking, failure to be courageous is to let the other members of your unit or group down.  This is a rejection of the central value of unit cohesion, loyalty and the bond between soldiers and is a literal rejection of community.  The basic job of the tribe is to protect the tribe and its members against harm and courage is designed to do this.

On the other hand, we might have a broader notion of tribe and community. In White Feather and the film 300 (which portrays Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae), it is the women who are the enforcers of this standard.  The Spartan queen quotes the famous Spartan dictum, “Come back with your shield or on it” which lays out the choice between an a honorable return or death. Is cowardice just a betrayal of other warriors and soldiers? Or is it also a betrayal of the larger community, even those who do not yield violence on behalf of the community.  Is it also the beneficiaries who are betrayed?  In what sense are they betrayed? In this case where the existence of the tribe is at stake, this seems more straightforward, but in other cases of elective war or colonial wars this idea is more complex. (There are also intersecting notions of masculinity tied up with courage especially.)

In either case, we are faced with a question about how the actions of an individual can also involve obligations to and ethical implications for the larger community, however that is defined.   This clearly seems to also be the case with the virtue of loyalty, which is other regarding in the sense that it directly involves others.  One must have an object of loyalty in a way that does not obtain with courage. (See Chapter 3 following the discussion of courage.)

But what about other virtues? Are there other virtues that also have this individual and communal aspect?

What about obedience?  Is obedience simply a one to one relationship between an agent and one who gives an order? Or is there a broader aspect to it? Can we see lack of obedience as communal betrayal? If it is, is that betrayal of the military community/audience or is disobedience also a betrayal of the broader community?


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