THE story of the 12 young boys and their football coach, trapped for more than two weeks in the Tham Luang caves by an unexpected deluge, has all the elements of a Boy’s Own tale, a genre in which cave adventures featured heavily. But whereas fictional heroes were forced to survive a day or maybe a night with only the sandwiches and a bun packed for them by Aunt May, the Thai football team endured 17 days and nights underground, the first seven of them in the pitch-black with virtually no food. Once rescuers reached them, their ordeal was not over: their path to safety was perilous, through passages too narrow to wear breathing apparatus. The rescuers were full of admiration for the boys’ fortitude (though the administering of anti-panic drugs was a detail unknown to the Boy’s Own Paper).
The operation was a successful international effort following a natural disaster. But more than that, it gave an insight into the code that exists between practitioners of dangerous pursuits, where barriers of language and nationality are subsumed in conditions where human error or an unforeseen change in conditions can be fatal. Cavers, like mountaineers and the followers of other extreme sports, rely on the trustworthiness of their peers, and the unwritten understanding that cavers will put themselves in harm’s way rather than leave someone who has got into difficulties, as was shown repeatedly in the Tham Luang caves. Tributes have been paid to Saman Kunan, a Thai diver who died during the rescue operation. That such stories of endurance generally feature men has perhaps given the impression that the willingness to make such a sacrifice is a male characteristic. To correct this view, it is necessary only to recall the real-life exploits retold in the Girl’s Own Paper — and to acknowledge that the everyday lives of most women involve as much if not more sacrifice and endurance.
That extreme sacrifices are called for rarely is a welcome characteristic of human existence. The pattern is of occasional acts of heroism followed by years recounting and embellishing them. The Reith Lectures are currently exploring whether warfare is a break in this pattern — an aberration, or a normal element within it. Professor Margaret MacMillan makes the point that political leaders who have experienced fighting first hand are the least eager to start a war. There is an element in the human psyche which seeks adventure and danger. Those who serve in the armed forces — like cavers and the followers of other extreme sports — are most fulfilled when most tested. But things go awry when those who make decisions about their lives fail to take account of the cost. The public honouring of past sacrifice, as in the centenary celebrations of the RAF, is a useful reminder of this cost to political leaders who are thoughtlessly and dangerously bellicose.