The Nature Of Courage & Heroism


Marine Air Base, Chu Lai, Vietnam (Archive Photo)

Home Sweet Home (Jan 67 – Feb 68)

Listen to most any Medal of Honor recipient and they will categorically deny being a hero.  Listen to Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who miraculously landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, and he will also deny being a hero—if these are not acts of courage and heroism, then what is heroism?

I think that courage and heroism are closely linked to awareness.  Awareness of fear and danger, and the exceptional ability to overcome that fear with positive action, typically defines the hero.  In times of severe stress and danger our bodies tend to go on autopilot—the endocrine system kicks in with massive doses of adrenaline in what is commonly referred to as the:  Fight or flight syndrome.  This is an involuntary autonomic response to danger that is generated from our primal reptilian brain.

I think in large part that’s why heroes don’t really feel like heroes, because it seems to them to be involuntary and effortless in nature.  In fact a large number of heroes report not being fully conscious of events as they unfolded.  The reaction is swift, automatic and often lacking in conscious awareness.  The hero is reluctant to take credit for something that he didn’t consciously decide on beforehand.  Courage and heroism are rarely premeditated acts.

In a very real sense I think these people are correct in their assessment.  Bravery doesn’t feel brave if it’s an automatic response.  They associate bravery with being fully aware of the potential danger, and then making the conscious decision to face that danger head-on. I think both the hero and the coward often shortchange themselves with an overly harsh and critical assessment of their subsequent behavior.  Often times the so-called coward is no more responsible for his actions than the so-called hero—both are typically automatic responses to massive external stress stimulus.  Courage and cowardice, then, are very personal issues involving action usually beyond our immediate control.

Automatic or autonomic responses to stress are often a product of hardwired physiological responses coupled with training and experience.  Does this then make the heroic deed any less meaningful?  Does an automatic negative response rightfully brand one a coward?  It is, therefore, often a fine line that separates heroism from cowardice—for an amazing insight into this phenomena I would direct you towards Joseph Conrad’s book:  Lord Jim.

I’ve personally witnessed what others would call heroic acts.  A case in point occurred at the small Marine air base at Chu Lai, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive of 1968.  In the midst of a massive rocket attack a young Corporal pulled two Phantom F4B aircraft away from two other burning aircraft loaded with napalm and Snake-eye bombs.  The two aircraft that were on fire were both burning furiously and poised to explode at any moment.  He was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star with V device (for valor).  When I later asked this young Marine what he was thinking he told me “I wasn’t thinking.”  Hero?  I thought so at the time, and I still do.  Did he think of himself as a hero?  No.

I have included a video interview with Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger for your amazement.  He was fully conscious of his situation and the danger associated with his aircraft’s mishap.  He talks about having to consciously overcome his initial physiological autonomic response, and to remain calm and resolve the emergency at hand.  To my mind there is no doubt that he demonstrated courage and heroism beyond the pale.  He made the conscious decision to act decisively, to rely on his vast training and experience, and to resolve the emergency in a miraculous way.  His calmness under stress was nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Enjoy the video of this American hero:  (Click Here).


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Sergeant USMC (1965 – 1971)

Vietnam (1967 – 1968)


6 responses to “The Nature Of Courage & Heroism

  1. If all this is the product of our “reptillian” brain, that is the product of random, purposeless, blind chance mutations over millions of years, then why should one mutation care about the welfare of another mutation? Just the opposite in fact,if that is actually the origin of our response to have empathy to other human being’s plight and risk ourselves to help, then that’s the worst thing that we could do if this scenario were true.

    The fact is…empathy, bravery, heroism, and courage only make sense if there is a creator that endowed us with these traits and feelings, they make no sense if all is only matter in motion and we are only random accidents of Evolution.

    • If one believes in a Creator, I don’t think that belief has to necessarily exclude science and physiological processes—quite the contrary in fact. I would agree that an empathetic response would strongly suggest ‘Purpose’ in our daily life, but that doesn’t automatically preclude the reality of a primal brain or evolution on the macro/micro (quantum) level IMHO. If a Creator sees fit to endow us with a purposeful life, that same Creator is surely capable of providing us with the necessary tools to carry out that purpose (i.e., Brain, Endocrine System, etc.). My point is simply that we often operate in a subconscious (seemingly automatic) mode, and that includes courage and heroism—doesn’t make them any less real (or God-given).

      • If you think that random purposeless chance mutations generated a desire to help others survive then I’d love to hear you explain it…others have tried and realized that it fails miserably on a philosophical level. The fact is; matter/pure materialism cannot give a rational foundation for this behavior…it can only recognize that it exists….yet this is the way we are…

        So..face with materialism/monkeys to man on one hand, and a Creator who created us to have feelings of empathy on the other, I’m forced by rational, logical thinking to chose the latter…if I want to be consistent and not have “blind faith” in evolution..I must choose #2.

        And I do agree…the fact that some are “prone” to that or operate that way doesn’t in any way detract of their acts of heroism…not one bit.

  2. Well…you didn’t say that directly but there are only two alternatives right?

    1.) Evolution; we evolved to become this way.

    2.) We were designed by a Creator to be this way.

    And if it’s the case of #1; then random chance mutations are all that their are…there is no intelligence behind Evolution…it’s random and it’s chance.

    Which is why I phrased it that way.

    • I respectfully disagree. I find them mutually ‘Inclusive’ rather than mutually ‘Exclusive.’ Just my opinion (and belief) of course. Thanks for your comments Robert.

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