Brother courage: Why men put their lives on the line

18 November 2004

Brother courage: Why men put their lives on the line

NEWS OF THE ARREST of an insurgent with possible links to the terror network of Abu Musab al-Zargawi neglects to explain what it took for the Black Watch troops in the southwest of Baghdad to capture the man in question.

Inured by graphic images from the Iraq conflict, it is not necessarily that we take for granted the courage of the soldiers within the Scottish regiment. More likely it is that our own understanding of courage makes an explanation unnecessary.

But listening to a psychologist discuss the mental processes that overwhelm people in life-threatening situations is likely to change our view of what it takes to face real danger.

Aston Business School's Dr Patrick Tissington's experience of training the UK's senior fire fighters cope with the psychological impact of carnage makes him well qualified to offer a fascinating insight into the minds of people prepared to put their lives on the line.

The people in question in BBC Radio 4's review of 150 years of the Victoria Cross (Saturday 27 November), are the most courageous members of Britain's military. Tissington's explanation of the concept of courage reveals what sort of man (every holder of the VC is male) makes a worthy recipient.

In the programme presented by Sir Peter de la Billiere, Britain's most decorated living soldier, Tissington explains what happens to the brain when someone is faced with a life-threatening situation on the battlefield.

We learn what it means to 'shut down' extraneous functions: 'it's what psychologists call "perceptual tunnelling",' Tissington explains, 'the ability to focus solely on the task in hand.'

The programme also looks at the thought-processes involved when someone is literally prepared to put their head above the parapet. 'Going over the top [of a trench] is part training, part automatic,' Tissington offers. 'The soldier is working on behalf of his colleagues and, even in this life-threatening situation, his main fear is letting his comrades down.'

The programme also explores the nature/ nurture debate: whether courage can be instilled through training; and whether some of us are more naturally courageous than others.

We find that courage is an expendable resource which can be 'topped up' or 'drained', depending on the situation. But once fully empty a breakdown often follows and it is the job of the commanding officer on the scene to recognise the warning signs and allow the 'bankable reserves of courage' to be replenished (through rest and recuperation) before too many other demands are placed upon the individual.

Brave Or Lucky?: 150 Years of Winning The Victoria Cross
Saturday 27 November, 8-9pm, BBC RADIO 4
Producer: Libby Cross

For further information please call 0121 204 4549 or email: b.a.l.coombes@aston.ac.uk

Notes for editors

For further information on Dr Patrick Tissington visit his webpage: www.abs.aston.ac.uk/newweb/staff/detail.asp?sfldStaffID=A0000277

Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of the British forces during the first Gulf War, is the author of the recently published Supreme Courage: Heroic Stories From 150 Years of the VC.

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