COMMENT: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
Baddies are not always cowards
, October 20, 2001
When I was a boy I commanded my own regiment. It was quartered in a tin box and consisted of dozens of small plastic figures: soldiers from various historical eras; cowboys and Indians; mediaeval knights; even some frogmen. Drawn up in formation, they looked more like a Village People concert than a military unit. They had all been moulded into appropriately martial postures, with the exception of one group. Amongst the WWII German soldiers, one was running away, another had his hands up and another was waving a white flag.
A number of commentators have pointed out that the September 11 hijackers, whatever other virtues they lacked, were not wanting in courage. And yet we wish that they were. Like the manufacturer of my miniature stormtroopers, we would like to console ourselves with the belief that the perpetrators of reprehensible actions are cowards. Unfortunately, it isn't true. The Third Reich was responsible for what was arguably the worst crime of modern history, but the Wehrmacht in general performed very bravely. Some of its auxiliary formations, such as the Waffen SS, fought with suicidal commitment and Hitler, its commander in chief, had earned an award for outstanding valour during WWI.
The list of the "brave but bad" goes on and on. Mussolini also had a respectable war record, being wounded in 1917 during the fighting against Austria in the Alps. Joseph Stalin, author of the Great Terror and one of the Big Three 20th Century murderers, displayed steadfastness and competence in both the Russian Civil War and the "Great Patriotic War".
Mao Tse-tung and the Red Army recorded feats of death-defying determination in the Great March and the campaigns against the Japanese and Kuomintang, as a prelude to setting up the most lethal regime in history.
Japanese troops, guilty of horrific massacres and other atrocities against both civilian and military opponents, were among the bravest soldiers of the Second World War. Field Marshal Sir William Slim remarked that every army talks about fighting to the last man and the last bullet, but only the Japanese actually came close to doing it. The novelist John Masters, who fought under Slim in Burma, claimed that in the British Army almost every Japanese soldier would have won a Victoria Cross.
As a final example, we have witnessed in our own era the extraordinary endurance and tenaciousness exhibited by groups such as the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge and the Pathet Lao in their homicidal struggle to force the population of Indo-China under communist totalitarianism.
At a more mundane level, we have to face the fact that it takes courage to break the law. Common or garden variety criminals, like the more high profile September 11 hijackers, are routinely described in the media as "cowardly". We would like to believe that that was true, too. Sometimes, as in the case of offences against old people, it is. Most of us, however, would not dare even to shoplift, not only because we think it is wrong, but also because we are afraid of the consequences of getting caught.
This innate dread of transgressing the legal code comes out in fiction. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, inveigled into purloining some item from a spooky country home in the middle of the night, reflected that reports of the decline of British pluck must be ill-founded if the British burglar did this sort of thing on a regular basis.
The problem, then, is that the vast majority of the citizens of civilised, liberal democratic societies tend to be far less temperamentally contemptuous of danger than their ideological opponents. Most of us possess an all too highly developed instinct for self-preservation.
In our own country, the point of Anzac Day is not (as is sometimes suggested in the sillier hype) that Australians were the world's greatest soldiers, heroically eager to sacrifice themselves on the altar of martial glory. Its significance is rather that ordinary men and women were more interested in their families, jobs, homes, sports and hobbies than in war, but rose to the occasion in defiance of their natural inclinations when called upon to do so. Some of the outcomes were remarkable.
Nearly 60 years ago, militia units whose young ex-civilians had barely begun to shave confronted battle-hardened and indoctrinated Japanese jungle fighters along the Kokoda Trail, while at Milne Bay Australians defeated them on land for the first time and thus, as the aforementioned Slim wrote, "broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army".
The archetypal example of the clash between the open society and militant absolutism is the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC) of Athens versus Sparta. Based as it was upon slave labour, Athens could scarcely be described as a liberal democracy, but at least it nurtured its inchoate elements. Free Athenians by no means neglected defence, but were not obsessed with it to the exclusion of the other aspects of life - social, economic, political, intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual.
For Sparta, the militaristic ethos of unconditional obedience, discipline and self-sacrifice constituted an end in itself. In the midst of the "soft" West's current conflict with the fanatical lunatic fringe of Islam, it might be of some comfort to note that Sparta was the immediate winner, but that Athens triumphed in the long term.