Being frightened of the consequences
Cowardice: A Brief History By Chris Walsh Princeton University Press, 352pp, $55.95 (HB) “IT may be the most common and most profound human failing, but cowardice remains strikingly underreported and underanalysed,’ writes Chris Walsh, setting out to remedy the deficiency in Cowardice: A Brief History. According to Google Ngram (an online tool for measuring the usage of words and phrases), the word cowardice has steadily fallen out of use since the early decades of the 19th century, although the past decade has seen something of a revival, which Walsh tentatively attributes to 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.
But were either of these examples of cowardice? The spontaneous and no doubt heartfelt response of US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama was to denounce the terrorists as cowards. Perhaps, in the circumstances, that was the only description most Americans were prepared to listen to. Walsh quotes TV talk show host Bill Maher in the aftermath of 9/11 telling viewers that Americans “have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building — say what you want about it — it’s not cowardly.” Maher’s program was quickly canned.
So if cowardice is not flying an airliner into an office building full of innocent people, what is it? Walsh is drawn to the idea of fear contained in the word’s Latin root, cauda, meaning tail, as in an animal “turning tail” to run from danger or submitting by ‘‘putting its tail between its legs’’. In other words, excessive fear makes a coward. Against this, the scabrous 18th-century poet the Earl of Rochester remarked that “all men would be cowards if they durst” — suggesting that fear is what stops people being cowards.
During World War II countless troops (and even some civilians) were shot by their own side for alleged cowardice. While the Americans executed only one of their own soldiers, the hapless Private Eddie Slovik, Soviet executions for cowardice and desertion numbered “in the hundreds of thousands”. Such murderous compulsion caused Stalin’s Marshal Georgy Zhukov to remark (unexpectedly echoing the Earl of Rochester), “In the Red Army it takes a very brave man to be a coward.”
But while we cannot agree on what cowardice is, Walsh finds no such uncertainty in how severely we judge — and misjudge — it. He writes: Cowardice is not the worst thing; reflexive contempt for it is. Too often, conduct is wrongly judged cowardly when it is really prudent or even courageous. Such misjudgment has done terrible damage, most obviously in the underserved punishment of those men (it is almost always men) who have suffered, even unto death, for their alleged cowardice. Less obvious but far more pervasive harm has been caused by those who fear being judged cowardly and so behave recklessly. Were it not for such fear, history would be a much less bloody affair.
As an example Walsh cites president Lyndon Johnson, whose fear of being seen as a coward (in LBJ’s own words, an ‘‘unmanly man’’) by his political opponents, especially Robert Kennedy, was a factor in his decision not to withdraw US troops from Vietnam.
Nobody is likelier to find himself (or, increasingly, herself) in harm’s way than a soldier, and much of Walsh’s book is devoted to the subject of cowardice in the military: how it has been hushed up, punished, treated and, when necessary, tolerated.
Details of the cases of 306 British soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion in World War I were kept a state secret for more than 70 years. Records of cowardice in the British army have “vanished or been deliberately destroyed” while military historian Max Hastings notes that he has never read a British or US regimental war diary that admits to its soldiers fleeing from the enemy.
Yet some soldiers will panic and flee, or simply refuse to fight, as they always have. During the American Civil War some soldiers were branded on the hip with a C for coward, but even then the punishment was widely viewed as extreme.
By the end of World War I the terms shellshock and neurosis were being used to describe soldiers’ tendency to “paralysis, flight or uncontrollable weeping” caused by constant exposure to enemy shellfire. “Cowardice” was beginning to be seen less as a moral failing than as a clinical problem that deserved compassion and needed medical treatment.
But, as Walsh points out, while the real psychiatric effects of war trauma have mitigated the moral judgment against so-called cowardice, the admission of mental illness can still carry a terrible stigma. “Diagnosis”, he writes, can become “a vehicle that might delay but ultimately delivers moral condemnation”. The insinuation of cowardice is still beyond the pale, whether you have a doctor’s certificate or not.
Walsh’s well-written and wide-ranging study of cowardice offers some valuable insights into one of the military’s — and society’s — last taboos. (Even Mohandas Gandhi once wrote, “When there is a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”) His analysis of the portrayal of cowardice in literature and movies is subtle and perceptive. If he draws a little too heavily on a handful of texts (notably Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Dante’s Inferno), it merely reinforces his point that for such a deep human instinct, not much of substance has been written about it (although, paradoxically, Walsh’s bibliography is vast). I wasn’t quite persuaded by his attempts to broaden the definition of cowardice — for instance, to breaking up a relationship by text or email — but I admired his nerve in trying it.
September 20-21, 2014
A British soldier faces a firing squad during World War I