[December 9, 2019] I’ve had the personal good fortune to speak with military veterans who were in the most desperate, destructive battles of the 20th Century.1 I learned a few things from them that I will pass along today. The most important lesson they gave me was – do those things you fear.
Such advice seems counterproductive. Why should folks do things they fear? Why should people consciously face situations that make them afraid? Yet, if we were to read ancient philosophers, poets, and essayists across time and cultures, one piece of guidance is common. Face your fears!
“Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th-century American poet, philosopher, and essayist
I’ve written quite a bit about fear in my blog. I hope that those who made comments and for everyone reading the articles, that they learned something along the way. See a few samples here, here, and here. Fear is an unforgiving driver of our emotions and pushes us to act in unpredictable ways. That very unpredictability is the chaos in which we live. Reducing that fear, of course, is the solution.
Self-help books on overcoming fear, and some are worth reading. I would rather listen to the men who were “in the trenches” of combat and saw violence firsthand, the enemy, and felt their fears tighten around their gut. And, yes, those with such experiences have something to say and it’s worth the effort to listen.
The best inoculation against fear is to have been there before (under similar circumstances) and know what will happen. That is, of course, not always possible and often improbable. A soldier in a landing craft about to hit the shores of Normandy will not have made the landing before. But hard training with live ammunition and under simulated combat conditions with loud noises, smoke, and fake injuries can help reduce fear later.
Young men and women who were planning to participate in the Civil Rights march in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 practiced by having their friends scream at them, push them around, spray them with water, and punch them in the stomach. They were conditioning themselves to the insults, threats, and brutality that they expected. They planned to have a non-violent march and they didn’t want fear to push them into doing something to mar the protests. There are some somber photographs of the march here (see link).
- One of the men I spoke to was a 16-year old Russian tank driver at the Battle of Kursk (the largest tank battle in history), two were in the first wave to hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day, two were at the Battle of Ia Drang (Vietnam), one was an Infantry Captain in the Invasion of Grenada, several in recent major battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus at least a dozen more.