Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dutiful Sacrifice

Private Kenny's family was engulfed in grief and pain on his recent demise. In a recent bomb attack, he had thrown himself to save his comrades by smothering a grenade. Private Kenny's family had no consolation but the pride they held on account of his heroism to have fearlessly sacrificed his life, quelled their grief. But just as his family tried to cope with his loss, their shred of honor and pride was snatched by the regiment, which refused to acknowledge Private Kenny's act through the prestigious award - The Victoria Cross for Bravery. Shocked, his family demanded an explanation. The regiment politely and apologetically stated, "It has been the practice in the past to reward such actions with the appropriate medal. However we have decided that it's a mistake to consider such acts as requiring an exceptional devotion to duty. All military personnel are required to act in the interests of the whole unit at all times. To suggest that Private Kenny's act was over and above the call of duty, therefore suggests that it might be acceptable sometimes not to act in the interests of the whole unit. This is clearly absurd. Therefore we no longer reward such acts with posthumous awards. Although we appreciate this is a painful time for the family, we should also point out that Private Kenny would have died in the blast anyway, so it's not even the case that he sacrificed his life for his colleagues." The cold letter added insult to injury. Is the regiment's take on this incident justified? (Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

It's quite possible that your initial reaction on reading the letter from the regiment was of anger or shock, or perhaps just intrigue. I was shocked and furious, although Kenny is but a fictional character and I've had no one in the army to even realize the true emotional implications. I was not necessarily shocked because of the regiment's cold-hearted logic in refusing an award, but because I equate the loss of a life in the name of war, as just a horrible exploitation of human beings. This is probably out of naivete, but I can never fathom why we humans need to still resort to physical duels to resolve issues. My God, we have been through millions of years of evolution, isn't it time that we stop acting so animalistic and territorial, literally butting heads, or clawing each other to let our "brawn" and physical might determine the "winner"? How ridiculous that we still can't use our developed brains and ability to reason as tools to come to a solution! It deeply saddens me when I hear of soldiers dying every single day trying to "fight" the "bad" guys. Sadly that's how the world is and we have not really civilized beyond knowing how to dress well and put on social charades.

I should probably stop attributing humans as being "special" just because we are at the highest level of the food chain, and we have a 6th sense to boast about. Survival is still our prime instinct. So anyway, having resigned to that, I must say that for someone to look beyond their personal interest and survival and to have sacrificed their life does merit a proper recognition. It does take immense courage. Doesn't matter if they merely executed their duty and moral code. A person who enters the army knowing fully well that he might lose his life as part of his duty, by itself deserves merit. The duty poses a threat to our very basic instinct of survival, and to act selflessly at that tragic second requires tremendous will to push aside the basic survival instinct. For a person to stare straight at death and still not have his thoughts and body reflexively protect him, is indeed a feat.

Besides, incentives, encouragement and motivation are necessary elements for effective performance. Yes, it's the duty of every student to excel in every class in school. Why then are their awards for top rank holders? It's the duty of parents to take care of their children. Why then should mothers and fathers be revered and appreciated? We keep imposing a lot of idealism, regardless of whether we are equipped to naturally be so accomplished. Incentives are those that drive us - for many, recognition is what fuels their motivation and brings meaning to their lives. Our scriptures preach that our motivation and sense of duty should be independent of the results/consequences/incentives. But that doesn't justify indifference to a duty well performed. Incentives need not be materialistic, a sense of respect and honor are higher awards.

An oft repeated pattern in all moral dilemmas is the delicate balance between doing "good" versus self-interest. For someone to take that extra leap to save a child from a frothing sea or a burning building, risking their own lives is surely extraordinary and heroic. Does that make the rest of us, who do value their life higher than others, moral failures? Or as I mentioned, are we just trying to impose idealism that is against the way nature made us?


SecondSight said...

Lots of interesting ideas here!:)
The letter from the army- fact, logic and regulations apart- that was just plain rude! Am sure they could've come up with a better way of saying it, if they had to!

As far as using 'intellect' to overcome animal tendencies- how much of our intellect is actually rooted in those tendencies? For example, the same hormones that are essential in a child for normal mental development are responsible for aggression and fighting- so how much can one really separate the two?

Incentives to promote good behavior are definitely essential- and they are in some ways the link between self-interest and altruism. Altruistic behavior, rewarded with the right incentive, becomes less altruistic and more self-centered.. If the incentive is high enough, almost anyone can be persuaded to jump off a burning building to rescue a child :)

Neeraja said...

Thanks for bringing up these points SecondSight! :) One aspect that I forgot to mention is the debate on how "selfless" altruistic actions really are. Ayn Rand had much to say, even Phoebe in Friends had much to say :). I guess incentives do reduce the act from being completely selfless. But it's highly subjective. When it comes to a matter of their survival and life, that's probably a very huge gamble that people need to play to satisfy their ego or their self-interest; versus throwing a fat cheque at charities, or working with those in need. Guess there are "levels" of "sacrifice" or altruism. In that regard, it will be quite an interesting experiment to see people's reactions on risking their life for a hefty incentive.

As for the first question on how much of our intellect is actually rooted in animalistic tendencies - thats where I accept defeat! :) I agree that most of our "lingering" primal instincts are due to the plethora of hormones! But I believe that positive social conditioning/grooming can help abate some of those instincts.. whether it's right or wrong to curb them, I don't know. Or at least help the mind reason when those instincts surface? I don't know... the case of missing link haunts me, and sadly I have no proven answers :(

SecondSight said...

There's this famous saying about altruism in a genetic/ evolutionary context - "I'd give my life for two brothers, or eight first cousins"- harks back to the selfish gene concept, which sort of explains why a mother will give her life for her child.. the genes survive, regardless of the vehicle. (That's a rather coarse description, will lend you the book for a better explanation!)

Perception said...

As always, another well written post. I couldnt even get the logic behind the letter from the army, whether as a part or duty, responsibility, role or not, that soldier still died in war and he should be given some recognition for the same. Well it doesnt matter to the soldier any more, but what message does not recognizing him send to his team/squad and others in the army?

On the topic of war, no matter how civilized we become, human still is a animal after all. The more technologically advanced we become the more developed technologies to destroy life and things around us we create. But isnt it in humans inherent nature to protect his house, child, food?

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Thanks for bringing that point too! Call it genes, call it emotional attachment but that saying is quite true.

Perception - I agree, it's in our nature to protect our home, our kids, and fight for our survival. But when we exhibit territorial traits that blinds the sense of reason, then it saddens me that we still don't call upon our reasoning abilities and instead blindly act on our animal instincts.

Anonymous said...

oh i didn't read it before i wrote my post on appreciation.

well.. rewarding does meddle in Altruism which is seen and is also expected from the army people during such situations.

Private Kenny might not have done this to get a medal, but a medal would suggest to the world that what he did was a good thing and more and more people should come forward to do somehting like that.

when not awarded it seems like as if dying for the fellow soldiers was his duty and he would have been punished or atleast looked down upon if he didn’t do so.

rewards are always a kind of encouragement to anything (good or bad)so we are programmed. the more we are encouraged (awarded) for the good things the more good we (anyone in this world) would perform and vice versa.

Neeraja said...

Oorja - What you said is quite true, but I think it was the army's intention to set an example to other soldiers that what Private Kenny did was merely his duty and not something extraordinary that deserved merit. But as you said, unfortunately the world revolves around encouragement, approval and validation and we have a long way to go before we can discard such emotional needs to perform well.

btsvoice said...

I completely agree with what you said about it being really sad that there is necessity of the army, there are soldiers who sacrifice their lives, all for what? For some silly conflicts that we people have which cannot be resolved without bloodshed? I mean, what is the idea behind having an army in the first place? Why should we at all have wars? Can't human beings be at peace with each other? It bugs me no end when I think of this.
About incentives, hmm, I think they are essential, and it will bring out the best in a person when he / she is rewarded in some / any way for his good deeds.

Neeraja said...

Bts!! Thanks for taking time to read and share your thoughts :). In some ways I hate people glorifying losing one's life for the country. Nobody can own land and earth and it seems so futile and unwanted to lose your life for an expanse of land. Why all the territorial violence? As I said, maybe we have 100s of years more of evolution to stop all this.