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Belmont Club

The Ace Factor

July 15th, 2013 - 1:59 am

“If you survived a plane crash, how would you behave?” Julia Prodis Sulek of the San Jose Mercury News found that the survivors of Asiana Flight 214 responded variously to the situation of finding themselves in a plane wreck. Some men stepped on prostrate women and children in their haste to escape the broken fuselage. Others just seemed to become preternaturally calm, as if transported to “bullet time” and began helping others escape before themselves. The article concluded that “past disasters reveal interesting patterns of behavior. During the Colorado shooting rampage a year ago at the midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ three men, including two with military training, were killed while shielding their girlfriends.” Others ran as fast as their heels could carry them.

Just which of the two archetypes one turns out to be is revealed on the day. We typically call those who help others at the risk to themselves as heroes. One of the more interesting questions is whether heroes are born or are made. Professor Deane Aikins, a psychiatrist at Yale University, thinks they are born.

His findings, based on research with the military, found that some individuals did not panic because their body naturally protected them.

Unlike the majority of people who were flooded with a stress hormone, they had much lower levels and also showed signs of another hormone that actually calmed them down.

He referred to Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the aeroplane that was successfully landed on the Hudson River in New York last month, as an example.

“There are some individuals who when confronted with extreme stress their hormone profile is rather unique,” he said.

“It doesn’t reach the same peak as the rest of us. So we’re all ready to scream in our chairs, but there are certain individuals who just don’t get as stressed.

“Their stress hormones are lower and the peptides that down-regulate that stress are higher, so you can see in action the hormonal regular system really hitting overdrive.

“Certain people are cooler under pressure and they perform very, very well during these periods of time.”

In other words some people are born brave. That would certainly go a long way toward explaining individuals like Adrian Carton de Wiart.

Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 – 5 June 1963), was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived a plane crash; tunnelled out of a POW camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. He later wrote that “Frankly I had enjoyed the war” when describing his service in the First World War.

Because wartime creates such a large sample of perilous situations, it throws up data from the tails of the curve.  We find from the data that there are apparently people  so constituted they will literally die before giving up. Quitting is not in their vocabulary. But we might not have found out if they had continued in their peacetime occupations where the characteristic would never emerge.

One such person was Douglas Bader. After a pre-war crash in which he lost both his legs, Bader requalified as a pilot to become a leading RAF ace during the Second World War. Shot down over France he made so many attempts at escape that he was eventually incarcerated in Colditz Castle for the remainder of the war.

People like de Wiart and Bader seem almost pathologically brave, though admittedly “pathological” is probably the wrong word to use.  But “unusually” is certainly accurate.

One factor which Professor Aikins might have neglected in his study of heroes was the role formerly played by social pressure and self-esteem in maintaining “manly” behavior. A century ago people were not always brave, but they were expected to be. When Robert Falcon Scott and his men faced certain death during the Antarctic expedition he penned a letter which he must have known would their obituary. In it he expressed careless indifference to impending doom. “Well dear heart I want you to take the whole thing very sensibly as I am sure you will – the boy will be your comfort I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up but it is a satisfaction to feel that he is safe with you.”

For it was then commonly thought that while men died to die like a British officer and a gentleman was a thing that not everyone could carry off with aplomb. And Scott did it in the approved style.

oh dear me you must know that quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again – The inevitable must be faced – you urged me to be leader of this party and I know you felt it would be dangerous – I’ve taken my place throughout, haven’t I? God bless you my own darling I shall try and write more later – I go on across the back pages …

There is a piece of the Union flag I put up at the South Pole in my private kit bag together with Amundsen’s black flag and other trifles – give a small piece of the Union flag to the King and a small piece to Queen Alexandra and keep the rest a poor trophy for you! – What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey.

Even in our modern age, when such attitudes are positively scorned by the PC crowd — had Scott done this today he would have been pilloried by feminists and hounded by lawyers — there is still some residual burden of heroism.  The story of Rick Rescorla’s efforts on 9/11 come to mind. First of all he unquestionably fit the mold of a hero.

Rescorla was sent to Vietnam, where he served under the command of Lieutenant General Hal Moore. The two participated in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, which Moore would later describe in a 1992 book he co-authored We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, (from which the 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers would be adapted). Rescorla is the soldier pictured on the book jacket cover. Co-author Lieutenant General Hal Moore described him as “the best platoon leader I ever saw”. Rescorla’s men nicknamed him “Hard Core” for his bravery in battle, and revered him for his good humor and compassion towards his men. He is also mentioned in the book Baptism by Larry Gwin who also fought at Ia Drang. The fourteenth chapter of the book Rescorla’s Game describes him as the “Cornish Hawk”. Despite this tough image, according to his second wife and widow Susan Rescorla in her book, Touched by a Hero, music was “so central” to Rick’s life that he sang to his troops in Vietnam to calm them – something he would later employ during 9/11.

It was an attitude that was hard to get away from. Rescorla was critical of the police response to 1999 Columbine High School massacre: “The police were sitting outside while kids were getting killed. They should have put themselves between the perpetrators and the victims. That was abject cowardice.”

Cowardice. This is not a word we hear today. But what does it mean? Rescorla felt that if he and Hill were younger, they “could have flown to Colorado, gone in that building, and ended that shit before the law did.”  Rescorla hated seeing himself depicted in books as a hero, but had a harder standard to fulfill than public expectation. There was the internal expectation.  Burdened by this attitude he found himself the security chief for Morgan Stanley on 9/11 and in that capacity repeatedly entered the building to shepherd down yet another batch of survivors.

At some point he must have realized that he was cutting things too fine.  For most of us, one or two trips up the stairs would have been enough.

Rescorla called his wife, telling her, “Stop crying. I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier. You made my life.” After successfully evacuating most of Morgan Stanley’s 2,687 employees, he went back into the building. When one of his colleagues told him he too had to evacuate the World Trade Center, Rescorla replied, “As soon as I make sure everyone else is out”. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the tower collapsed. His remains were never found. Rescorla was declared dead three weeks after the attacks.

There is no burden so heavy as that which you take upon yourself. It becomes your most valuable possession and your defining quality. And in time it becomes you. “Who are you?” is not always an answer we want to learn. But some, having discovered it,  find that being able to step up to the plate, to live in “bullet time” is only a fate of a different kind.


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All Comments   (21)
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Years ago, talking to an academic who was researching the factors that separated MoH awardees from the rest of us. I suggested looking at the proportion raised in a small town. He looked at me impatiently. For his research, it was an early given.
Then there's Hollland, MI, home of four MoH awardees.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm kind of partial to Patton's # 7

"A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later."

That is the antithesis of bureaucracy.

And yes, I tend to piss off a lot of people, at least at first, before the results come in.

"A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could do no mighty work there, except he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief." Mark 6:4-6

It can be lonely out in front. But that is where the work needs to be done. Leaders lead from in front, not from behind.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I think it was Pappy Boyington who said "show me a hero and I'll show you a bum"."

It was indeed Greg Boyington. Thanks for mentioning him, Richard.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The testimony I found to be reamarkable from the Zimmerman case was that of one of the neighbors, who heard sounds of a struggle and stepped outside to see one man atop the other, slugging away. He reacted by going back in his home, presumably to call the police.

Now, this was not on a city street or in a bar but in an apartment complex. Calling the police is a good idea - after you have at least yelled for the two guys to break it up. Had he yelled, then Zimmerman probably would have realized that help was nearby and on the way and thus probably would not have shot Martin.

Of course, an even better response would have been to dial 911 while you were running to break up the fight, a gun in hand (or else something like the big long steel handle off my hydraulic floor jack, since there are no laws restricting that).

But the Zimmerman case, however it finally ends, will not cause many people to meekly sit and wait but rather to shoot and scoot. Let the cops try to figure out who plugged the perp.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
In a perverse way, courage except of certain kinds, has become a liability rather than a virtue. The approved behavior is now to shelter in place, get under the desk, or stay calm as you hear the shooter's firing come ever closer.

That may be an exaggeration but I think there is some truth to it. The courage we are expected to show today is the courage to do nothing, to withhold judgment, to blind ourselves to the obvious, even to obvious peril. The reason given is to maintain order. To wait for the official response. That presupposes things will always work. The whole point of courage is the ability to act when things aren't working.

I think it was Pappy Boyington who said "show me a hero and I'll show you a bum". By that I think he meant that heroism was always a dangerous quantity. For any man who will fling himself recklessly at the enemy is also unlikely to stand much upon any ceremony.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, we Americans have been bred to be compliant sheep who (by design) stand frozen when confronted with a situation that doesn't conform to the norm.

I've got a little anecdote that has absolutely nothing to do with bravery, but does illustrate the point, I think.

A few months ago, I was at the large regional hospital on one side of the metropolitan area where I live. I had to go to an office on a higher floor, so I head over to the bank of six (or so) elevators near the main entrance. When I got there, I was the only one waiting for an elevator, and I pushed the up button. Minutes went by, and elevator cars were coming down and letting people off, but never lit up with the up arrow. Pretty soon, a crowd of about 20-30 people were all waiting to go up. Nobody did anything but stand there. After about five minutes, I guess, it became obvious something was wrong with the control system. But everyone just continued to stand there. Finally I said to myself "eff this noise" and jumped on the next elevator car going down. A couple of people must have figured out, same as me, that the correct strategy was to just ride the car back up after it finished going down, so they followed me in. When the doors closed, there was quite a gathering of people still waiting for the signal. Who knows how long they were there, as I was in an appointment for about a half-hour, I think. They had finally dispersed by the time I came back down.

It's a silly story, but it did open my eyes up to how bad the conditioning is. Honestly, I'm an introvert, so it took a bit of willpower to go against the group, and that was for a stakes of nothing (makes me appreciate the Zimmerman jury that much more). I wonder if most of the people followed my example, or waited for the "authorities" to fix things for them.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rescoria lead the doomed people in singing "Men of Harlech" on 9-11.

While genetics matter training is important to. Real training is deep on many levels. We need to overhaul the educational system. Do the statistics on flight or fight account for variables such as military experience or religious or sports training? It is possible for a child of Vegan Sociologists to become a hero. What can we do to raise the odds? Conversely do we want more heroes? The Left positively want fewer, they feel the community is safer with less aggressive conduct.

Stallone made a terrible movie, "Demolition Man."
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18e4GeUwVWs
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
George s Pattons' Top 10 Quotes

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97cR-Iy9BFE

# 4 - "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer."

While I was attending a Cold Water Survival class ("Be Prepared") I posed a question to my fellow students, "How many of the passengers on Sully Sullenbeger's plane brought their seat cushions out on the wing with them "in case of a water landing"?

You've heard the canned flight attendant's pre-flight speech many times, but would you act in your own best interest if you ever made a water landing?

Thank God for the ferries!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember George Patton's famous line, "...no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country, he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

Courage grows out of faith in oneself to find a solution. And practice makes perfect. The more times you do the work to find solutions, no more courageous you will become.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
There are many kinds of courage. No one man has all of them. A nation must have each of them. So, a nation must honor all of them.

To honor only one kind of courage is to honor vulnerability. To honor only one kind of courage is to honor the narrow minded. To honor only one kind of courage is to lay one's self open to intrigue. There are many kinds of courage. Each of them leads to ruin. Together, they lead to survival. Together, they lead to victory.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
That was beautiful, Richard. Not much has helped to buoy my faith in man, but this has done the job. Thanks for reminding us that the old honorable ways still live in the heart of man...somewhere...
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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