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Achilles Last Stand: The Primal Heroic Response

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achilles' helm
"If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to slaughter.
If you say, "Behold, we did not know this,"
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?"
   -- Proverbs 24: 10-12

I composed this piece in response to Joe's Zimbabwe Changed My Mind: Guns Are A Human Right. (And I must thank Joe for some editing I asked for, but the final result is Nobody's Fault But Mine.) Joe talked about a number of things in his post, but I want to draw on my personal experience in rescue situations and focus on one thing: what makes people act when the chips are down?

Where, in other words, do heroes come from?

It isn't just a rhetorical question - understanding the answer could save somebody's life.

Perceptions: In Through The Out Door

Chester's Zimbabwe and the Kitty Genovese Incident list of five steps in responding to an emergency situation: (1) Noticing (2) Recognizing (interpretation of what you've noticed) (3) Decision (4) Assignment and (5) Implementation applies best to situation that ought to be easy calls. It's good as far as it goes, but it lacks some reality by itself.

In my experience of unexpected critical situations (which thank the gods is scant) scary-cold, vague estimates and options leap right to the forefront of your mind with no prior steps required - and they influence you pervasively.

Example: someone is drowning in heavy surf where I know there's a rip. How heavy is that surf, will I die or will I live? If I die, will it have been worth trying, or is this just stupid? How big is this guy, and how likely is he to panic and take me with him? How badly do I not want to die like that? (Based on a previous close call - badly.) How long have I got if I go to summon other help (factoring in his discouragement when he sees me running away, not to him)? What are the routes and options, what uncertainty is there about success? How long it might take to summon more help, and how long it might then take the help (if any) to arrive?

Often the decision is simple and greatly assisted if you faced the decision and made the right call before. Sometimes it isn't. In the mythology of Spider-Man, heroism can even come down to having faced the decision before - and having totally internalised and transcended the reality that you made the wrong decision. To call that moral growth merely "guilt" would be cheap and wrong.

At every step, including initial orientation ("Where is everybody?") people are also thinking about questions like "What is an adequate reaction, is the relatively safe option really enough or is it just symbolic?" and "Am I doing or have I already done my bit?" Trustworthy answers to jumbled-together questions can be elusive under pressure.

Of course there'd be no problem if nobody was really calling for help... If that rip is bad, and the guy is as big as a whale, and I don't like the odds at all - maybe he's just waving? To someone else, preferably. On an empty beach, near nightfall. Riiiiiight.

Unreality beckons invitingly. Especially under stress.

Dazed And Confused

People get this look on their faces - I can't describe it but it's no problem to recognise That Look™ - and they just won't react appropriately. It's like they jam.

Having seen people in crowds fail in unexpected critical situations again and again, I'd say the one overwhelming requirement is to accept the reality of what's going on.

You can point to the nut with the knife. You can yell "Knife! Get away!" repeatedly at the top of your lungs, drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Victim #1 can be face down in plain sight (albeit only superficially hurt) - and you may still be unable to get people to move beyond some kind of phoney non-reaction.

Not only will people fail to react appropriately but - and this is something I haven't seen discussed - they may actively prevent you from doing so.

The only thing that seems to work is to threaten them, as personally as possible - and preferably in a way they have no immediate physical defence against - so they have to engage their brains. Yelling at them about the law is great for this.

Example: a drugged-up girl charges to the toilets, crashes into/through the door. Self-KOed, she's now vomiting and choking to death inside the toilets but in plain sight. Enormous Obstructive Moron (OM) gets That Look™ and, completely non-reacting to the life and death emergency, he insists on maintaining order and normality. "No going in ladies toilets. No way!" (Blocking the way.)

What worked was not "She'll die!" (which was completely blocked by That Look™ ) but "You will be held responsible, you will be sued, YOU will go to JAIL yes YOU, JAIL, get out of my way or BIG TROUBLE for YOU!!"

Fortunately I knew how to react to the roadblock, as I was once saved in an analogous way myself. A chemist was perfectly ready to let a child blue-lipping on his shop floor (me) die, but not to lose his licence, which he was bluffed into thinking would be the consequence.

Such is the moral splendour of humanity.

In The Light

Are you reacting to reality in a critical situation? Then it's all up to you, or if you're lucky, it's up to you and the one or two other people who are also reacting to reality.

"Assigning responsibility" (step four) is almost trivial by comparison.

Often, assigning responsibility isn't even a step - it's just knowing who you are.

The vital response is terribly primal - see-and-accept-the-problem --> Bang! Go! Fight/whatever! Anything that stalls the Primal Heroic Response™ or convolutes or confuses it or diverts it into academic mirror mazes is poison for the soul of the hero.

This is so primal, so hard yet un-theoretical, that even a dog can master it. That's why even a dog can be a hero.

Please click. This dog story is full of great, highly discussable illustrations of what I'm talking about.. In particular, look at the boy, "freezing" but also ready to save others - especially his sister.

The line between the hero and the moral failure isn't between you and me, it's between one side and the other of each of our hearts.

And the line can move.

I think this is why Holocaust rescuers typically showed a signal lack of any moral elaboration. The fanciest response researchers generally got out of them was something like "I had to or he would have died."

I warmly recommend Nehama Tec's great book When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland on what Holocaust rescuers are like - though with some reservations about her conclusions. I take a different line, one with much less emphasis on the luck of having had caring parents etcetera, and more on what you can do by your own choice.

In My Time of Dying

Learn how from heroes: Rick Rescorla and reality.

My perfect example of a human being who had the Primal Heroic Response down pat would be Rick Rescorla, whose consistent pattern of heroism reached its culmination in the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2002.

Mudville Gazette archive on Rick Rescorla, including his prior history of consistent heroism.

"He added that the Port Authority was telling him not to evacuate and to order people to stay at their desks.

"What'd you say?" Hill asked.

"I said, 'Piss off, you son of a bitch,' " Rescorla replied. "Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people the fuck out of here.

I have no words for how perfect a hero Rick Rescorla was.

When the Levee Breaks

Bleak estimates.

In relation to Zimbabwe - I think it comes down to a tiny number of morally responsible people in touch with reality (as always), and unfortunately in this case there is no effective way to threaten the Enormous Moron (domestic and international political opposition) into compliance. The heroes cannot threaten the Obstructive Moron with the law, because the Obstructive Moron is the law (or "international legitimacy" or "the global test"), and very well aware of it.

I don't think George and Tony would have a prayer of getting the needed cooperation. Which is bad news for Zimbabwe, face down in plain sight and choking on that human piece of vomit, Robert Mugabe.

Sometimes that's how the best estimates you can make add up: badly. Sometimes it's just about guts. But sometimes it's complicated. And sometimes, in really bad cases, it's about triage.

Same deal for Darfur. It's genocide. Can we stop it? No. Wizbang explains why Darfur is not a promising case for a military rescue attempt.

I think Wizbang is right.

Yes, those are horrible things to say. Yes they are concessions to evil. But there's too much evil in the world, and not enough heroes. So evil is going to win some. That's cold. But truth - or your honest best guess - is better than bull.

Ramble On: Afterthoughts

Heroism is important enough that lots of folks want to own it. I find myself mostly unpersuaded by these attempts.

I don't think this is a left-right ideological thing, though according to my picture an all-consuming grand theory like Marxism is NOT good news.

I think religion is also double-edged. If it can overcome the feeling, so paralysing for a social animal, that you're going to die alone and nobody will ever know or care what you tried to do - great! If "Jesus sees, and no good deed is wasted!" is an automatic part of your mind-set, so that it supports you and you don't have to stop to think about it - fine. But in general I do not think dogma, including religious dogma, is the essence of heroism.

Nor do I fall in with the tenents of science. I don't think it's a gene, or if it is, it's a gene which an exceptional dog can have too.

I think it very faintly bears upon economics: what is the perceived cost to you of a belief, including believing - and responding to - what is happening right in front of your eyes?

The hero must pay the emotional price of accepting that belief before paying any physical price. Sometimes that emotional price can give new meaning to the phrase "sticker shock".

Ultimately I think this is about the nature of consciousness, which is a deep, mysterious thing. I don't think it's the sort of thing that can be rationally "solved" without remainder.

3 TrackBacks

Tracked: June 11, 2005 12:52 PM
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Being a Hero from Caerdroia
Excerpt: David Blue, at Winds of Change, has a must read (seriously) essay on heroism. I think that the essence of heroism, which David touches on but does not go into great detail about, is the ability to shut down every other response, no matter how primal, i...
Tracked: June 18, 2005 12:02 AM
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A worthy work. But it seems to have a hiccup and some repetition. Perhaps editing by a moderator or Marshal is in order?

This is a really good post but is it double posted?

I agree with all of it- up to this point here-

I think it very faintly bears upon economics: what is the perceived cost to you of a belief, including believing - and responding to - what is happening right in front of your eyes?

Which is predicated by this-
Example: someone is drowning in heavy surf where I know there's a rip. How heavy is that surf, will I die or will I live? If I die, will it have been worth trying, or is this just stupid? How big is this guy, and how likely is he to panic and take me with him? How badly do I not want to die like that? (Based on a previous close call - badly.) How long have I got if I go to summon other help (factoring in his discouragement when he sees me running away, not to him)? What are the routes and options, what uncertainty is there about success? How long it might take to summon more help, and how long it might then take the help (if any) to arrive?

I as an individual have been in a lot of these situations I run head first without -afterwards I say to myself-was I stupid-I am glad I got through it. One time what woke me up out of rescue mode was a gun in my face. Sometimes if you say "Hey-you in the red shirt-give me a hand,"-you can get someone else to help just that simply.[maybe they are waiting for somebody else and they freeze up that way?]

However does the analogy between individuals and the responsibility of organized governments really correlate?

I guess what I am trying to say is that governments have a moral responsibility to lead and think of the longterm interests of their citizenry and I think the individual case analysis absolves world 'powers' too easily.

But you're belief that there are not enough heroes-sadly too true.

As for no type of government owning heroism save Marxism-I think you can stretch that to the democratic party that self-negates its own moral authority by actively attacking religion. I am not religious but would I toss out all of its values that have been the bedrock of our society-no that would be foolish, but that is exactly what today's Democratic party is doing.

The Liberals of Europe know this. Did they protest Pol Pot,do they protest the actions of the Chinese? Hardly-and this is REASONABLE for once of them because there is no citizenry of despotic regimes that can be influenced by outside pressures and what they witness through a free press to rise up and vote to throw the Communist or despot out. Even European protestors know it is futile. But they do protest the U.S. for exactly the reasons of what has been inspired by a belief in free will and other values that were derived from the religious beliefs of our Founding Fathers. Yet the Democrats try to dissasociate or even attack and belittle the religious of today.

The Democratic party is more appalled by the deaths caused by our military and the prisons of our military than the efficient killing and torturous incarcerations of Saddam Huusein.

The Democrat's and liberal media's assymetrical response to our supposed sins in comparison to the atrocities of Saddam EARN them through their own actions the loss of the right to be considered anything close to heroic.

madawaskan: "This is a really good post but is it double posted?"

Thanks for the kind words, Nortius Maximus and madawaskan.

Yes, the post is screwed up a bit, with a mangled link at the top and double posting. It'll be fixed as soon as Joe rescues me from my incompetence. In the meantime, thanks for focusing on the message not the mess.

Here's a link to a Word document on the economics of irrational beliefs that influenced the thoughts in my piece above. I got it from here at EconLog, but I didn't link to it because if you link everything, it's a turnoff for the reader. But if the reference to "a faint bearing in economics" seemed obscure, this might help.

madawaskan: "I as an individual have been in a lot of these situations I run head first without -afterwards I say to myself-was I stupid-I am glad I got through it. One time what woke me up out of rescue mode was a gun in my face."

That would sober me up. I'm glad you're still here. :)

madawaskan: "Sometimes if you say "Hey-you in the red shirt-give me a hand,"-you can get someone else to help just that simply.[maybe they are waiting for somebody else and they freeze up that way?]"

Absolutely. We are sheep. In a criss, we look around to see if other people are being brave or cowardly, and it can have a big influence on how we act.


On second thought given the nature of the EU and UN maybe the analogy of the individual being selfish in a crisis does work and my expectation for a government to transcend beyond the immediate selfish situation is utterly naive.

Man! I am getting my bubble bursted a lot lately-sheesh but I still like being a delusional believer. For mabe my selfish reasons-I FEEL better-ugh.

I've cleaned up the inadvertent doubling of text.

Dave, you do a good job of describing the obstacles to heroic acts. I'd like to suggest that you missed one important possibility for generating heroism, though, and that is to train for it in the context of a shared set of values. That is what Rick Rescorla brought to 9/11. He didn't just make up a response on the spot - he lived out a set of skills, values and training he'd had for years.

A lot of the military training with which I have some passing familiarity is designed to build in recognition of danger situations and responses to them. Occasionally in a video clip of combat you'll hear the NCO or commissioned officer yelling "GO GO GO" but that isn't a new command - it's a reminder that these soldiers have trained in stressful, confusing and dangerous conditions, have survived that training, and now are to execute in light of it.

In real combat not all survive - the dangers are real. As you point out that's part and parcel of heroism of any kind.

That's where the values come in. "Duty, Honor, Country" is one set of values for officers in training, as is "My men, then my mission and only then myself". So too is the honor code at the Academy. Cadets are faced with two sets of tough demands: perform to rigorous academic, physical and followership/leadership standards and do so within the constraints of the honor code. Their 47 months are an intentionally crafted experience in which they learn the meaning of those values and practice making hard decisions in increasingly more challenging situations.

The military isn't the only place for learning to make tough choices amid uncertainty and fear (or temptation). Young kids can and should be taught this day by day. No, we don't tolerate cheating on homework or tests because what's at stake isn't just your grade on this minor event -- it's what kind of person you are becoming. No, we don't tolerate casual cruelty to unpopular kids in middle school, even if they seem to "deserve" it. Actually, by this point I expect you to challenge any such cruelty by others, too, even if it means risking your own place in the clique. Because that's the kind of person we should be.

And so on.

Yes, we can try to describe heroism in terms of rational choice theory. But IMO that doesn't begin to get at the heart of what makes some people able and willing to act in selfless ways on behalf of others.

Not everyone has had overt training of this kind. But I'm willing to lay odds that everyone who has ever acted heroically did so based on some internal set of values which, ultimately, boiled down to "it was the right thing to do".

Thanks for the "econ" links I need to come back and take the time to read those-at first glance they look super interesting-and -really good post.

I just thought of this though-don't international governments such as the EU and UN -almost serve as the obstacle because it prevents one country from being singled out amongst the sheep as a "red shirt"-and it acts as an enabler of some sort of group think where they all look for someone else to take responsibility.

Yes, that's the idea behind rational choice theory -- that officials will act rationally with regard to their own personal interests when making decisions.

David: I am surprised that you didn't reference Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" which deals with at least some of the same ideas.

I didn't know of this book, Blink. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

I'm familiar with the psychological research on chess, which also puts a high value on what you see instantly (meaningful patterns, mostly), but chose not to bring it in. It looks temptingly like it might be relevant, but I'm not sure that it really is.

I've always admired Albert Camus, the French anti Dominique de Villepin, not only for his sound character and strong moral ideas but for his unpretentious writing style. He didn't make it seem he was supplying or easily could supply flashy, comprehensive or deep answers to genuinely awkward questions.

Robin, I would certainly agree on the value of training on the basis of a shared set of values, "ultimately, boiled down to "it was the right thing to do".

hi david!
really excellent post.

I don't think it's a gene, or if it is, it's a gene which an exceptional dog can have too.

Of course not--it is both a gene complex and a meme complex. Homo sapiens has deliberately bred for loyal, heroic dogs--but for us, it is historical natural section--of course we've selected for a warrior caste--and some of them are heroes.


So now I go to the wizbang link and he's got most of it right except for the line about driving a dagger through the moral of the troops if you sent them to Darfur.

He is sooo correct about being overstretched it is not funny


I reallly don't think you need that many boots on the ground-something could be done by air power perhaps...


I personally know guys who thought it would be more moral to go do something about Rwanda because the atraocity was so great and obvious-and they feel the same way about the Sudan-I know guys who want to make that sacrifice.

Let me be fair there are probably gals too-I just don't personally know them.

And darn it-The Chicago Sun Times- "dog" link is coming up blank for me.

im afraid I dont agree theres nothing we can do.

1. AFAICT the govt in Sudan would be VERY displeased with economic sanctions. This is NOT iraq, which had the oil resources to defy sanctions. While I cant guarantee that economic sanctions would work, I dont see what the justification is not to try. Perhaps China would veto such sanctions at the UNSC. Until the West proposes them, China is spared the shame of a veto.
2. IF western military action is called for, this need not be like Iraq. We DONT have to go in and rebuild the country into a democracy. We have to do enough damage in Khartoum to make the Sudanese govt rethink its policy. We did that in Serbia, without a single American combat death. Its harder here cause of the geography, but I dont think there arent creative military solutions to that.
3. RIGHT now, however, 1 and 2 arent on the table. What IS on the table is using the ICC to investigate and try responsible individuals, so that pressure can be brought to bear for their extradition. And the West can provide logistical support for the African force. I see no excuse not to do that, and I think we should do all we can to press for an expansion of that force.

If someone is drowning, and I cant swim, thats still not an excuse to do nothing.

The West (mostly the USA) is providing extensive logistical support for the African force, and more is on the way via NATO. I'm also hearing that the African force may be increased. At this point, with much of Darfur's population ethnically cleansed already, it strikes me as something of a too little, too late response.

The ICC is a bad idea and a non-starter for all kinds of reasons. Better to focus on 1 & 2... and consider arming the villagers of Darfur against the janjaweed thugs. that way, they can eventually do for themselves what now requires others - i.e. enforce continued peace by raising the cost of ethnic cleansing to level Sudan won't be able to suport. At some point, the only way to continue would be via massed, coordinated troops - and those are very vulnerable to air power.

Right now, however, outside of the USA we're seeing an awful lot of That Look™ abroad.

Dave, you do a good job of describing the obstacles to heroic acts. I'd like to suggest that you missed one important possibility for generating heroism, though, and that is to train for it in the context of a shared set of values. That is what Rick Rescorla brought to 9/11. He didn't just make up a response on the spot - he lived out a set of skills, values and training he'd had for years.

Sorry to get in late on the discussion here. Robin you left one thing out of that training. We all come away with a sense and acceptance of our own mortality. As with Rick first things first don't panic. Panic is natural response to adversity not doing so in the face of adversity is a learned response.

Madawaskan, you're right, the story is gone. But I need it, I think it's essential to what I'm saying. It's not just the dog story, amazing as that is, there's all kinds of stuff going on here.

OK, this is from "The best Chicago dog story ever" June 5, 2005, by Shamus Toomey and Lisa Donovan, staff reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times, where, evidently, the best stories are told. :). I've cut a lot of good stuff to get this to dome decent approximation of "fair use", but I've kept the stuff I need, which is a lot of the piece. (And, Joe - or somebody - could you point that link above to here now?)

The dog in the story is Maya, a 5 year old 74-pound black Lab who took on India, the 120-pound pit bull who was mauling a sixth-grader on the Northwest Side.

(snip - intro)

"I think it's wonderful," said Chicago Police Sgt. Magge Lameka, one of the first two cops on the scene. "She practically gave her own life for a stranger -- not even her owner. Coming to the aid of a stranger, I mean, you can't find a lot of people who would do that.

"If anyone's a hero, that black Lab was."

Maya's big day began just before 9 a.m. on May 26 as India, the next-door neighbor's pit bull, was acting up, police and witnesses said.

Maya's owner, Dawn Montiel, 35, arrived home from a night shift and pulled her car into her driveway in the 4200 block of North Drake. The pit bull greeted her by jumping on top of the car's hood. She managed to make it inside her house, but neighborhood kids began pouring down the street en route to class at nearby Patrick Henry Elementary School.

Montiel and her 15-year-old son, Michael, yelled to the kids from their windows, warning that a pit bull was loose. Many hustled away as India barked, but one boy froze.

"We kept telling him to 'Go! Don't stop! Keep going!' " Montiel said. "But he just stood there."

The 12-year-old boy later told his principal he stopped to help the smaller kids. But it gave India a chance to pounce.

To distract the dog, the Montiels threw bread and dog treats out of a window, but the pit bull ignored the food, she said.

The pit bull first latched onto the boy's groin, and then bit into his ankle, police said. His 9-year-old sister, who was walking with him, began swatting at the dog with her book bag. The boy yelled for his sister to run away so she wouldn't get hurt. That's when Montiel and her son went for the door to help.

"In our minds, we were going to go out and save the boy," she said. "But our dog had other plans."

As soon as their front door opened, Maya blew by, knocking the Montiels over "like bowling pins," she said. Montiel went down and Michael hit a wall.

Maya bounded down all eight stairs of her front porch in one leap, aimed for the pit bull and bit.

India let go of the boy, and as he fled with his sister, the two dogs began circling each other, Montiel said. Soon, India got the best of the smaller Maya and locked onto her neck. Then, in a move police called "bizarre," India dragged Maya up the Montiels' stairs and into the home, Montiel said.

They thrashed about in the living room, knocking over a coffee table, lamp and a chair before Michael separated them with a broomstick and rescued Maya, who suffered deep puncture wounds.

By then, Sgt. Lameka and Officer Froylan Serna, both of the Albany Park District, arrived.

(snip - battle)

When the wounded boy and his sister got to school, Principal James Burns called an ambulance. Then he noticed the boy's sister staring into the distance. "She said: 'Nobody would help him. They all ran away. So I had to [help],' " Burns recalled. "It broke my heart. I was wiping my eyes, to be truthful."

(snip - aftermath)

"People say this sounds like a movie, but I'm not kidding," Montiel said. "God only knows what would have happened if it weren't for Maya."

Her son was more blunt: "If it [weren't] for Maya, the kid would be dead," Michael said.

USMC: "... training. We all come away with a sense and acceptance of our own mortality."

Joan of Arc was in my opinion one of the best examples of bravery in history, though even she buckled at one point because she had a severe and particular fear of being burned. ("Why does it have to be snakes?" - Indiana Jones.) She was morally, physically, socially and every other kind of brave, brave on the spur of the moment and brave under the authority of a Church court that worked on her mind for month after month. (That means, no mere pattern recognition or valiant impulse without the moral strength to sustain it would have qualified her as a hero in the long run.) Her training, her preparation for all her achievements looks very slender in comparison to what she accomplished.

From very early in her mission and consistently thereafter she foretold that she would last a year but not much more (which was correct), and said that she had to work fast. I think it's obvious what impact this had on her dynamic military style (in sharp contrast to the languid aimlessness of French aristocratic leadership at that time).

USMC, would you say that until that year and a little was up (and she got captured, after which she was off her map), it would have been an advantage in sustaining her courage - the sort of advantage that is usually produced by good training - that she "knew" she was living on a short fuse... ?


And instantly we see one of the problems of letting religion touch this discussion: the suicide bombers have polluted the idea of religious support for courage.

Some hadji with a head blurry from drugs and the debauchery of the night before, taped to the wheel of the car-bomb he's driving at a bunch of kids, and not overly concerned about current events because he's hot to get to his main course of 72 virgins - that's not the perhaps-painful acceptance of reality as a precondition for true heroism that I was talking about, that's probably not what you (USMC) had in mind in terms of accepting your mortality, and it's certainly not moral courage. It's like a perverted reflection of all these things.

#16 David-

Thank you! -you are so gracious to take the time to re-post that.

Ghee-I don't get back until now because I did not expect that-

ugh-anyway this is a particular obsession of mine-

Arrrrrgh! David-that story---no words.


Re Joan of Arc - I do not have the biographical background knowledge to address her case. I would surmise though that her training in military arts (Joan if Arc - A Military Appreciation) was very limited to none at all. Two reasons for it:

1) Considering military maneuvers she was not a genius. It could be argued that she couldn't make decisions based on training that would have had her do otherwise. In this case it is not beyond the realm to suggest tactics of which you know nothing about. Is this genius? In all likely hood it is probably not. More likely it is making a decision based on what you know at the moment.

2) She was capable of attaining and maintaining a significant following which is part and partial to the actions she directed. Her saintly status, conviction and actions of example provided a catalyst for her followers. The mind set of her followers be it for mystical or religious beliefs was enough for an army to do what ever she demanded regardless of past experience and knowledge in the art of war.

These two factors gave Joan of Arc the platform she required for a leadership role. What drove Joan of Arc to attempt and carry out such feats are only known by Joan herself. Whether or not she was driven by other factors such as a hatred for the English, feudal lords, nobility and injustice only she can tell. Her testimony is strictly that she was commanded by God to do such feats. Given that I'll grant that such a belief would also put one in touch with one's own mortality regardless of consequences be it by fire or snakes.

If I understand your question correctly yes coming to grips with one's own mortality can in fact pose itself as an advantage as is the case with Joan of Arc. One is more apt to act in favor of what one would rather see accomplished than wallow in self pity. (The person who has but six months to live is more apt to attempt things they have neglected over the course of their lifetime.)

As to your final analysis about insanity - I refer to those as loony tunes. These are the people who require a bottle a courage to act with perceived conviction. These people are not in any sense of the word heroic. Whatever sanity they maintain is incapacitated by use of external forces rather than self driven convictions. (The LSD tripper jumps out the window believing he can fly.) These types are not martyrs they are fodder for leaders that will employ them as they see fit. Leaders will aid in the mind altering techniques to attain their end and desired results. The individual at the time of incapacitation may believe in 72 virgins but it is highly unlikely that such a quest would be under taken during a time of sanity.

First, a note on sources: Stephen W. Richey is outstanding, and we can proceed with full confidence on the basis of the piece you linked to: Joan of Arc - A Military Appreciation. I got to know Steve online when he was writing his book. I'm reminded yet again that if you want to affect public discussion for the better, the best thing you can do is just put your stuff online and keep it on line where people can link to it.

Anyway, we're on the same page when it comes to amateurs with religious visions.

Someone who, for whatever reason, has cut through a lot of everyday illusions, like our usual refusal to accept our mortality, and in Joan's case also the bad warrior ethos of the over-privileged French aristocracy, which she as a peasant was outside, may be good tinder for the spark of authentic heroism - quick to light and ready to burn long and fiercely. See the situation: respond genuinely to the situation, at whatever cost to oneself. That's a hero.

Drugged up or otherwise deluded/brainwashed suicide killers are a different animal entirely. These looney-tunes types are more like fire and forget ordnance than heroes. Some retarded Palestinian boy loaded up with a suicide vest trying to get to an Israeli checkpoint to kill himself and others, because he's been told that's the way to get good sex .. that's no hero.

Even though this may be controversial, I'll put Japanese kamakazis in the heroic column. They were warriors fighting warriors, not children, and their situation was that they just weren't good enough to get to American ships, do damage, and get home. The Americans were too good and too heavily armed, it wasn't going to happen. So...

It's close to the line. Kamakazis certainly were fire and forget ordnance, more like components than champions. And they were not responding as individuals as much as it was the leadership that decided on this tactic. But they fought, clear-eyed (OK, fortified by alcohol), against warriors not civilians, for what they believed in.

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