Girlwithadragonflytattoo has a post on anger, in which she argues that expressing one’s anger is generally not a good idea, from the standpoint of one’s own mental health.
Dragonfly Girl’s post reminded me of a recent post by Grim, in which he discusses anger in a political context, and channels Andrew Klavan to point out that anger can make you stupid.
Grim: We need to be cunning. We need to think and act strategically.
Klavan: You want to win back your country? Here’s how. Fear nothing. Hate no one. Stick to principles. Unchecked borders are dangerous not because Mexicans are evil but because evil thrives when good men don’t stand guard. Poverty programs are misguided, not because the poor are undeserving criminals, but because dependency on government breeds dysfunction and more poverty. Guns save lives and protect liberty. Property rights guarantee liberty. Religious rights are essential to liberty. Without liberty we are equal only in misery.
Anger of course does have a purpose. In politics, it is anger at bad policies and their destructive impact that can motivate one to get involved and work hard for positive change. In relationships, anger at mistreatment can motivate one to fix it or get out of it. But anger needs to be controlled and moderated or it becomes the enemy of judicious thought and effective action.
Speaking of effective action, the original post also reminded me (oddly enough!) of a famous event in military history, the Charge of the Light Brigade. This unnecessary disaster took place during the Crimean War, in 1854, and seems to have been driven in considerable part by toxic emotions on the part of British officers involved. While the details of the Charge are still being debated by historians, 161 years later, the general outline was as follows…
The Light Cavalry Brigade was commanded by Lord Cardigan, who in turn was subordinate to the overall Cavalry commander, Lord Lucan. The two men were related, and they could not stand each other, to the point where they avoided communication. Neither was popular in the army.
On October 25, the overall British commander in the Crimea, Lord Raglan, was situated on high ground, from which he had a far better view of the field than did Cardigan and Lucan. He and his staff observed that the Russians had captured some heavy British guns and were about to haul them away. An order was dispatched to Lucan under the signature of Raglan’s chief of staff:
Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.
The order was handed to Captain Louis Nolan, a superb horseman who was sure to deliver it as rapidly as possible. In addition to his equestrian skills, Nolan was an experienced military professional who had devoted considerable thought to cavalry tactics and written books on the subject. He believed the cavalry was being mishandled in the Crimean campaign and he viewed Cardigan and Lucan as men who lacked military professionalism and held their positions only because of their inherited social status. Nolan had also served in India, and the snob Cardigan was highly prejudiced against officers with that background, believing they lacked the social graces and elegance of attire which were important to him. (Indeed, on one occasion Cardigan had persecuted Nolan for ordering what he believed to be a socially-unacceptable kind of wine.)
As Nolan galloped away, Raglan called after him, “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately.” Nolan sent his horse diving down the hill and quickly reached the place where the cavalry was stationed.
“Lord Raglan’s orders,” Nolan told Lucan, “are that the cavalry should attack immediately.” His tone of voice can only be guessed at, but it is said that he was “already mad with anger”…at Lucan, at Cardigan, and at the whole British command structure and what he believed to be their incompetence.
“Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?”
“There, my Lord! There is your enemy! There are your guns!” Nolan snapped back, waving his arm in a gesture “more of rage than of indication.”
Lucan could not see the British guns which were being hauled away; the only guns in sight were the Russian battery at the far end of the North valley, where Russian cavalry was also stationed. Certainly Nolan’s “impertinent and flamboyant” gesture had seemed to point in that direction. Lucan trotted over and passed on the order to Cardigan, who, “coldly polite,” dropped his sword in salute.
“Certainly, sir,” Cardigan responded. “But allow me to point out to you that the Russians have a battery in the valley on our front, and riflemen and batteries on each flank.”
“I know it,” replied Lucan. “But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.”
Raglan and his staff, and the French allies, watched in horror as the beautifully-uniformed Light Brigade, which they had expected to turn in the direction of the captured guns, headed straight down the valley into the jaws of the main Russian battery position. Nolan, who had chosen to ride with the brigade, cut across in front of the commander, Cardigan, waving his sword and shouting something–he could not be heard because of the boom of the Russian guns, but almost certainly he was trying to warn Cardigan that he was going the wrong way. One of the first shells to be fired killed him (Nolan) in the saddle. Breaking into a gallup, the Brigade continued toward the Russian position, now under fire from three sides.
The Light Brigade did reach the Russian battery and kill most of the Russian gunners; the military value of this is questionable. When what was left of the Brigade returned to its starting point, 156 of its members had been killed or were missing, and 122 were wounded. 335 horses had been killed or mortally wounded.
“It is a mad-brained trick,” said Cardigan to a group of survivors, “But it is no fault of mine.”
So, what happened here? In part, the debacle was caused by technical/intellectual failings…Airey’s order could have been clearer, pointing out the direction of the designated target, which he knew Lucan and Cardigan could not see. But the main cause of the disaster, I think, was emotional. If Nolan had been able to contain his (apparently quite justified) anger at Lucan and Cardigan, and to cooly point out the direction of the target, then Raglan’s original order would surely have been carried out as intended. If Lucan and Cardigan had not disliked one another so strongly, they might have been able to discuss the order for a moment and recognize that their interpretation of it didn’t make any sense–the guns they had interpreted as their assigned target were not being “carried away.” And after the Charge had already begun, if Cardigan had been able to keep his fury at Nolan under control (he thought Nolan’s crossing in front of him meant the Nolan was trying to take command of the Brigade), he might have recognized that he needed to change directions. (In the event, Cardigan’s mind was possessed with rage at Nolan both during the charge and the return.)
It is disturbing to think that the relationship among much of the American leadership today is just about as toxic as the relationships that existed among Lucan, Cardigan, and Nolan.
Again, anger can be an effective motivator for action, but it must be controlled if that action is to be effective.