Redefinition of Courage
May 2, 2008
The gun was ravaging the soul of the warrior. To many among them, virtually the whole purpose of battle was to demonstrate courage. Custom dictated that an international corps of heralds hung like scavengers about the battlefield, ascertaining brave deeds to be recorded by chroniclers. Bullets were making the whole process ridiculous; the standards of courage were becoming the standards of idiocy. Insistence on close-in fighting, elaborate rituals of identification, and pairing off were not just inappropriate on a battlefield full of guns; they helped reveal the impotence of the ruling classes.The bullet-riddled environment of the sixteenth century [C.E.] demanded a basic redefinition of what constituted courage. This would take time; but an incident near Brussels in 1582, during the Dutch rebellion, foreshadowed the direction it took. It was an early-spring afternoon and Alexandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, Philip II of Spain’s most famous general, decided to dine with his staff outdoors, near the trench works. No sooner had they sat down when a cannonball took off the head of a young Walloon officer, and a skull fragment also struck out the eye of another gentleman. The table was cleared only to have a second ball kill two more of the guests. Their blood and brains strewn over the previously festive board, the remaining diners lost all appetite and got up to leave. Yet Parma calmly insisted his guests resume their places, ordering his servants to take away the bodies and bring a clean tablecloth.A traditional hero might have charged the cannon…not Parma. His response was passive disdain. If flesh and bone were unequal to flying lead and iron, the spirit was. Parma’s defiant hospitality was a prototype. One day men of courage would be inclined to stand fast and take it. Other than ferocious aggressiveness, not flinching became the sine qua non of the warrior class.