Monday, June 2, 2014

Falling on a grenade and other morals

I don’t for a minute believe that people only sacrifice their lives for kin. My last serious study was of the American Civil War. Countless men gave up their lives and it strikes me as preposterous, something no Civil War historian would ever say, to assert that they were all doing it for their kin. While it is doubtful that many of them had a comprehensive view of what was at stake, they nevertheless, most of them, fought bravely. And if a group’s officer ordered them to make a “suicidal charge,” they would usually do it.

Military historians have puzzled over the motivation of soldiers who will literally give their lives in battle. There are many cases, for example, of soldiers falling on grenades in order to save their comrades and these comrades were in almost all cases not their kin. The consensus view, a view I have never read anyone dispute, is that they do it for their comrades. They fight for each other. Saving their friends becomes more important than saving their own lives.

Perhaps someone who jumps in the water to save his dog doesn’t think he is going to be killed. Maybe he overestimates his ability to swim out of trouble, but someone who falls on a grenade can be in little doubt.

The same sort of thing occurred in many of the Civil War battles. At Cold Harbor for example, Grant sent charge after charge against an impregnable position. General Hood did the same thing in another battle. In World War One, waves of soldiers were sent against positions defended by machine guns. It took countless lives lost before generals realized that superior enemy tactics or technology necessitated a change in their own tactics, but what about the soldiers who were sent on those “suicidal” charges? Why did they do it? Stephen Crane, though he never fought in the Civil War, in his The Red Badge of Courage, is credited with perceptive insight into this matter. The soldiers believe they “ought” to be brave. If they don’t perform as commanded in an attack, then they were (typically) ashamed of themselves, and if they have a chance to redeem themselves by giving their lives in the next charge, they may do it. Crane’s “coward” turned “hero” didn’t lose his life, but he was willing to lose it. And here, by using the word “ought” we are entering into Nicholas Wade territory.

We know more about the Chimpanzee than we once did. It is now known that in the wild they engage in almost constant warfare with neighboring tribes of chimpanzees. One tribe will try to kill off the males of an enemy tribe, one by one, and eventually take over its females. The Chimpanzee and the line that became homo sapiens split about 5 million years ago. Wade infers that man’s pre-hunter-gatherer ancestors behaved just as the chimpanzee does today, but when man entered into hunter-gatherer societies, the old ways didn’t work. These societies no longer needed an alpha male. They needed to become egalitarian; so, according to Wade, Natural Selection developed “morals” in the Hunter-Gatherer society so that tribe members would behave as they “ought.” Wade lists what he believes were the critical “oughts,” and tribe members who didn’t abide by them, when found out, would be ostracized. Being kicked out of a tribe in those days was tantamount to a death sentence; so it was in their interest to conform.

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