Be­ing frightened of the con­se­quences

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

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

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