Criminalizing Courage…or the lack thereof

Don’t lie. If you are found out you may not be trusted by your friends. Worse still, lie about something you did, or indeed, in respect to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, something you didn’t do, and you may find yourself in Federal Court. Such is the case of Xavier Alvarez who in 2007, lied about being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, one of the highest US Military accolades.  However, this self-attributed glory was short-lived and quickly, Alvarez was the subject of an extensive FBI investigation and a landmark Supreme Court hearing.

Lying about being the recipient of a military medal is nothing new. In fact, it is rather common (and rather easy) – so much so that the US Government criminalized the practice and deemed a six-month prison sentence as being acceptable punishment for those who claimed valor without action. There are even avenues to report those who you may be suspicious of and entire databases dedicated to recording legitimate recipients and indeed, to name and shame those who falsely claim that they have.

In the course of researching the psychological and organizational mechanisms behind military medals and their recipients, I have come to learn that attitudes within the military towards medals are mixed. On one hand, there are those who recognize that medals are important organizational and societal symbols of sacrifice, of service, and of morality. However, there also exists the belief among service men and women that medals are a necessary inconvenience which must be endured.

On several occasions, I have heard how medals are seen by personnel to be given, not for courage under fire, but for the greater public need. It is often argued that “we need heroes”. Medals may act as symbol of redemption for organizations who expose their personnel to danger and risk and also, be used to justify to a non-serving public that what they do is both valued and important despite being often characterized by aggression and violence.

Three weeks ago, I spoke with the recipient of military service medal, his nationality and branch of the military, I won’t say. In 2009, he was awarded a medal for bravery in the line of fire. As with many service men and women, they find the attribution of bravery uncomfortable and unwarranted saying things like”its part of the job” or more commonly “I just did what anyone else would do”. While humility contributes to much of this behavior, the culture of many military organizations shape recipients attitudes  towards being awarded a medal, specifically for courage or bravery. His belief , like many service personnel, was that this accolade was unnecessary and drew unwanted attention in a profession often characterized by humility.

The Stolen Valor Act, which I should point out has its supporters and detractors in equally passionate measures, is interesting not only because it criminalizes a false claim of heroism or military service but because it legislates on displays of professional or occupational courage. If nothing else it is another reminder of the social value we place on the extraordinary moral action of courage over all other virtues.

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In our own words…

Early yesterday, I spoke with a man recently returned from his third military deployment to Afghanistan in as many years. His most recent tour was in a different uniform , that of a private military contractor rather than as a soldier under any given flag. This recent professional transition had been a tremendously difficult choice for him – to finally leave his regiment of 7 years, and serve not for Queen and Country, but instead for profit.

Included in the usual pleasantries that we routinely exchange (we aren’t friends so much as have a mutual interest in one anothers work) was my question, “was it much different being a contractor than a soldier?”. His answer, which once surprised me but no longer does, was that it was easier. Much easier.

He talked about it being easier to be above the politics of combat, to avoid becoming “bogged down” in winning the hearts and minds of locals and instead to be able to focus on discreet missions which had a clear start, middle, and end – something very different to the  “posturing” that characterized his past tours. What was most salient in our conversation was the recurrent use of the term “freedom”. He said that as a soldier, your voice is somewhat stifled, restricted and controlled through a complex mechanism of impression management, rigid hierarchy and standard operating procedure. However, as a contractor, his opinions were his own, their expression his choice, and unlike his time in the military – they had an outlet.

Our conversation reminded me of the work of Derek Eland, himself a former serviceman who recently spent some time in Afghanistan with British troops with the sole purpose of letting them tell their perceptions, constructions and opinions about war in their own words. What developed was an installation currently on display at the Imperial War Museum entitled “In Our Own Words”, here beautifully summarized in a BBC slideshow .

The product of Eland’s work, , although artistic in intention, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance and neglect of discourse in the arena of work. The narrative, in all of its forms, allows us to achieve a depth of understanding of an individual’s experience of work and in the case of my friend, the contractor, highlights the importance of being heard – of simply giving those narratives a voice and an outlet.

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An uncomfortable morality…

Julian Assange has had a busy year. In a short space of time he has managed to make multiple headlines and countless enemies as the figurehead and catalyst of a unique free speech movement; Wikileaks. A runner-up for Time Magazine’s, “Man of The Year”, he has gained notoriety for being the principal editor of Wikileaks, the central activity of which has been the metered release of hundreds of diplomatic cables and government memos, none of which should have seen the light of day, let alone the world-wide web.

My interest in Assange lies in how his actions have been placed under a moral scrutiny by both the press and public alike. It is difficult to ignore the multiple sources, both media and public, that have labelled his actions as courageous. Indeed, some have called his decision to publicize the occasionally dubious actions of some nations’ leaders and representatives as the highest possible form of moral virtue.

I respectfully disagree.

Assange is indeed doing something dangerous. His choice to disseminate the Wikileaks contents have exposed him to inevitable retribution and his freedom and life are very much in danger as a result of his actions. However, it is imperative that we remember that while courage as a behavior has a relationship to risk and danger, this is metered only by the presence of a moral good. Exposing oneself to danger is not in itself courageous…doing so for the advancement of a greater good moves one closer to being labelled as courageous but even then there is an issue.

Assange will remain in the headlines for many months to come and although we have only seen a small proportion of the cables in the Wikileaks arsenal, it might be worth considering the extent to which “the moral good” has been advanced by his actions. What may seem as a selfless action for noble purposes (e.g. the telling of “truth”) can be brought into question by the specifics of Assange’s decision to release cables only to certain news sources. In doing so, Assange has moved away from advancing the case of “the moral good” towards advancing his construction of “the moral good”. Of course this isn’t to say that his construction is of immoral origin, but it is shaped by his decision to be selective in disseminating what he shares and indeed, who he shares it with.

I can’t help but bring into question how much more transparent and powerful his actions might be if he released cables to all news sources at the same time rather than cherry-picking those media outlets which seem to support (often with little critical interpretation) his actions. Detractors might be given far less ammunition to discredit the potential morality of his actions if there wasn’t such an obvious class distinction in how he appears to select those publications who are given access to details far in advance of others.

I feel it important to say that I think that Assange has shown a high degree of moral purpose in his actions but as I usually caution, we need to be attentive to how we attribute courage to actions not simply to preserve the integrity of that label but also to ensure that it is applied to those people and actions where moral advancement occurs ahead of personal or financial gain. Assange is indeed doing something admirable in advancing free speech but the extent to which he is courageous in doing so is still unclear to me. Maybe those labels and attributions need to be directed more towards Bradley Manning, whose fate, still undecided, lies outside the rule of civil law.

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Making a case for courage…

The world does not need another blog.

More importantly, it does not need another blog about courage.

It may, however, need just one about courage in the workplace.

The aim of this site is to provide an outlet for that material which crosses my desk in the course of my research on courage. So much of what I come across during my interviews, may never make it into a paper, project, or publication. However, I want to make sure that these narratives and perspectives have a voice and hopefully, that others can contribute to that voice.

The outcome of this endeavor may be just another redundant blog but time will tell.

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