On the Virtue of Cowardice

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Courage is a virtue but discretion is the better part of valor. If you want to stay alive and well there are times when it’s appropriate to be a coward.  Sometimes its better to surrender than fight.  You can’t win every battle in life and if you try you’re likely to end up in a bad way.

A Florida man named Michael Dunn was recently convicted of attempted second-degree murder for shooting into an occupied vehicle.  Dunn apparently objected to loud music coming from a carload of youths.  He asked them to “turn it down” and a conflict ensued.  Dunn claimed that a firearm was pointed at him but the authorities did not find a weapon.

It has been suggested that there are similarities between the Dunn case and the self-defense shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.  There were allegations that Zimmerman initiated contact with Martin by stalking him.  Nonsense.  Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch duty that night.  It was his right and his duty to follow suspicious persons and report them to the police.  The evidence showed that Martin ambushed Zimmerman, knocked him to the ground, and began beating him and slamming his head into a concrete sidewalk.  Zimmerman was on his back, pinned down by Martin, and was sustaining serious injuries.  His only option was to shoot his assailant.  Thus Zimmerman was properly acquitted.

In contrast, Dunn apparently initiated the conflict that led to a fatal shooting.  It is wrong to disturb the peace by playing loud obnoxious music.  But sometimes in life it’s smarter to accept defeat.  Some ills have no remedy.  If you carry a gun you ought to go out of your way to avoid conflicts.  The general rule is that deadly force should be used only as a method of last resort to save human life.  If you have any other option, take it.  Even if you have a legal and moral right to stand your ground it may be smarter to retreat if you can.  Of course no one can or should retreat when they are inside their home.

There was no greater advocate of gun rights than the late Robert Heinlein.  Between 1947 and 1958 Heinlein authored twelve science-fiction novels aimed at an adolescent audience.  I was eight years old when I found a copy of Have Space Suit–Will Travel (1958) on the shelves of the public library.  It was the best day of my life.

Heinlein’s books continue to quietly foster seditious mindsets in young minds.  In Red Planet (1949), the teenage hero runs away from a boarding school after the headmaster announces that all students must turn in their guns.  In the future world Heinlein created in Beyond this Horizon (1948), citizens wore sidearms, cowards wore brassards.  In this same novel Heinlein originated the famous phrase “an armed society is a polite society.”

But Heinlein also warned that possession of a gun could make you overconfident.  In Tunnel in the Sky (1955), the protagonist, Rod Walker, takes an advanced class in survival skills.  The final exam is a survival test on a strange planet.  Rod is advised by his older sister to not take a gun, only an extra knife.  He is warned “your only purpose is to stay alive.  Not to be brave, not to fight, not to dominate the wilds…one time in a hundred a gun might save your life; the other ninety-nine it will just tempt you into folly.” Fellow student Johann Braun ignores this advice and is later found dead. Braun’s body is half eaten and the power pack on his Thunderbolt gun is exhausted.

History also provides some lessons on the virtue of cowardice.  The ancient Greeks were noted for courage and intelligence.  The foundations of Western Civilization were established during the presocratic enlightenment of 600-400 BC.  The Greeks had superlative art and literature, and they invented science, philosophy, and mathematics.

The Greeks were also great warriors.  If the Athenians had not defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC the Golden Age of Greece would never have occurred and Western Civilization would have been snuffed out of existence at its very inception.  The stand of 300 Spartans against an immense Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC is widely celebrated as the epitome of valor.  When asked to surrender their arms, the Spartans replied “if you want them, come and take them”.  Molon labe.  The Spartans were defeated by overwhelming numbers but their martyrdom inspired their countrymen to rally and beat back the Persian invasion.

But there are also cases in history where resistance proved to be foolhardy and only led to extinction.  The ancient Greek city-state of Thebes was justly proud of its military prowess.  It was Thebes that finally broke the backbone of Sparta’s power at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.  In 338 BC Philip of Macedonia seized control of Greece by defeating the allied forces of Thebes and Athens at the Battle of Chaeronea.  When Philip was assassinated in 336 BC Thebes decided to revolt.  What was there to fear?  Philip’s premature and unexpected death had left his naive eighteen-year-old son, Alexander, on the throne.  No one could have foreseen that Alexander would prove to be a military genius who never lost a single battle.

Alexander decided to make an example out of the Thebans.  He marched on Thebes with thirty-six thousand men.  The Thebans fought bravely.  But they were badly outnumbered, and the Macedonians continually augmented their forces with fresh troops.  On an individual basis, the Thebans may have outfought the Macedonians.  But there are limits to human endurance.  Eventually the Theban lines broke and the Macedonians overran the city. They killed everyone, including women and children. The city was razed to the ground.  Any Theban that survived was sold into slavery.  It was the end of Thebes, both as a polity and a civilization.

Had Thebes acquiesced to Alexander’s dominion, it is likely the yoke would have been light.  After destroying Thebes Alexander convened a council of Greek states at Corinth.  Each city was allowed to remain “free and autonomous.”  They only had to acknowledge Alexander’s supremacy and lend their support to the common goal of invading Persia.  In return Alexander provided what the Greeks so desperately needed:  an authority that could maintain peace in Greece and stop the incessant internecine warfare.

In Asia most Persian cities opened their doors to Alexander’s invading army.  If they surrendered, he left them in peace.  It probably made little difference to them if they paid taxes to Alexander or the Persians.  But the Phoenician city of Tyre decided to resist.  The Tyrians considered their defenses to be insurmountable.  The city was located on an island half a mile from shore and was circumscribed by walls 150 feet high.

Alexander laid siege to Tyre.  He surrounded the island with ships and took control of the sea around the city.  Then he patiently built a monumental causeway between the shore and city.  When the bridge was complete siege engines were brought into place.  Eventually the city walls were breached and the Macedonians entered the city.  Two thousand male Tyrians not killed in the assault were taken ashore and crucified.  Thirty-thousand women and children were sold into slavery.  A mere nine years later, in 323 BC, Alexander himself died and his empire was divided among his generals.  Had Tyre submitted they might have lived to regain their independence.  But their resistance was rewarded by extinction.

Resistance to a superior force is not always the best course.  Neither should the prospect of armed revolution be taken lightly.  The Declaration of Independence declares a right to revolution but also notes that “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Why?  Because revolution is a damned dangerous business that frequently leaves people worse off.

In the US we tend to glorify armed resistance to tyranny because our country was born in a successful revolution.  But the American Revolution is anomalous in world history.  Revolutions usually turn out badly.  The French Revolution culminated in the Reign of Terror. The Russian Revolution led directly to the famines of the 1930s that killed five to ten million people.  It is easy to recognize and complain of inequities in any form of government.  Implementing a better system is considerably more difficult.

The German Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 began with a list of reasonable demands for reform.  But it quickly degenerated into rampaging hordes of violent mobs that looted and murdered.  When the revolt was finally put down 100,000 peasants had been killed.  Hundred of villages were burnt to the ground and a thousand castles and convents were destroyed.  Surviving peasants were subjected to even more severe degradations.  German lords cited the Bible:  “whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke:  my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”

Another reason to eschew violence is that violence has traditionally been used as an excuse by statist governments to limit freedom and consolidate their power and control.  The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was used as opportunistic justification for the so-called Patriot Act, a law that stripped US citizens of their most basic civil liberties.  In 1995, the tragic Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 innocent people, shut down the militia movement in the US, and assured the re-election of Bill Clinton to the Presidency in 1996.  The Reichstag Fire of 1933 was used as a pretext by the Nazi Party to consolidate its power and turn Germany into a dictatorship.

If you think that I am anti-gun, or that I am advocating automatic submission to tyrannical statism, you have misread me.  My thesis is that in any circumstance, individual or collective, force must be employed prudently.  To win the war you may have to lose many battles. And the best way to resist statism is not necessarily by force but through education.  Government is a necessary evil whose size is in inverse proportionment to the enlightenment of the population.  The Iron Curtain fell without a shot being fired. The Soviet Union collapsed because people lost faith in communism.  The West effectively subverted and undermined the foundation of socialism, not so much by rhetoric, but by simply demonstrating the superiority of capitalism.

Every situation in life is unique.  There are times when it is proper to exhibit courage and fight.  In other circumstances, submission may be the appropriate course. Choose your battles judiciously. If you value survival don’t peremptorily dismiss the virtue of cowardice.

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