We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
A U.S. Medal of Honor. Photo: U.S. Army Europe
Cowardice: A Brief History
Princeton University Press, $27.95 (cloth)
Cowardice once had something to do with the obligations of community. We used the word when courage faltered and duties were left undone. But now we rarely use or hear it outside of the politics of national security. It is the term of choice for political responses to acts of violence. Consider the diction of President Obama when he called the Boston Marathon bombing a “heinous and cowardly act.” Joining him were the governor of Massachusetts and the Boston Red Sox, among others. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 sponsored a billboard that simply read “#COWARDS,” which overlooked an expressway leading into the city. By that time, commuters had no need of further context. We all understood: terrorists are cowards.
This use of the word “coward” has a history. George W. Bush famously called the actions of the 9/11 terrorists cowardly, and that sentiment was echoed by politicians and pundits. It goes back at least to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who described attacks on U.S. embassies in similar terms. But just what these moral indictments mean is not clear.
In his new book, Cowardice: A Brief History, Chris Walsh offers the following definition: “A coward is someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do.” The term is loaded with moral assumptions. First there is an assumed notion of duty. A person may have certain duties because of her position in life, as a mother or a soldier, or because of other circumstances, such as happening upon someone in physical danger. But in those situations, duty’s call is typically accompanied by fear. When someone forsakes duties for a reason other than fear, we might call him capricious or negligent—or maybe a follower of his own heart—but we would not call him a coward. Fear also constrains a person from recklessness. Without fear, one might thoughtlessly rush into dangerous circumstances. But that would not count as courage. Courage, then, is the virtue that allows a person to remain dutiful even in the face of fear. Cowardice, by contrast, is the vice that makes someone falter.
Walsh offers a few reasons why we have taken up the word to describe terrorists. The first and perhaps most visceral is that, short of obscenities, it is one of the nastiest words that can be wielded against someone—and has been for a long time. Cowards are anathema in the Revelation of St. John, among the first to be damned to the lake of fire, and among the most despicable in Dante’s Inferno. Samuel Johnson confirmed the prejudices of ages before and after him when he wrote that cowardice is “always considered as a topic of unlimited and licentious censure, on which all the virulence of reproach may be lawfully exerted.” One wonders what could be worse.
Walsh also suggests that the term provides comfort to Americans. Believing that terrorists are cowardly may assuage the fear of terrorism. “If they were cowardly then they were scared too—vulnerable and weak,” he writes. "And thinking them weak somehow made another new phrase—‘Boston Strong’—seem more convincingly true." Terrorism targets innocent civilians, relies on secrecy and infiltration. It stands, at least rhetorically, in contrast to the more open apparatus of the American nation-state and its military might.
But these uses—to comfort and to condemn—are shorn from the context in which the word was traditionally used, Walsh argues. As he demonstrates in this thoughtful and engaging book, we have witnessed a semantic shift. Gone is the thick moral grammar and the shared language of expectation by which communities judged cowardice or courage. The word no longer connotes the failure to perform one’s duty either in moments of extreme fear or even in the mundane routine of everyday life. It now describes a “rare and monstrous thing,” an act of violence against unarmed civilians, an existential threat to civil society.
• • •
One of Walsh’s achievements is to reintroduce us to an earlier time in American history when the epithet had a common currency and circulated quickly in times of fear and war. During the Seven Years’ War, Samuel Davies, a minister, hymn-writer, and president of the College of New Jersey, delivered a sermon to recruit volunteers for the war effort called The Curse of Cowardice. His text was Jeremiah 48:10: “Cursed be he that doth the work of the lord deceitfully; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.” As an evangelical and veteran New Light of the Great Awakening, Davies was skillful in stirring the emotions of his listeners and readers. He brought the far-off threat of enemies and the abstract concept of duty near. His sermon was a “denunciation,” he said, “like the artillery of heaven” meant for the coward who refuses to obey God when he “in the course of his Providence, calls him to arms.”But Davies would not leave the matter simply with those who refused the call. He enumerated the many and various ways a coward could fail in his duty: by fighting without “Vigour,” by not volunteering and going cheerfully, by not making the war effort fully personal. Davies’s Puritan cunning issued in a precise exegesis of cowardice. For him, the outward show of duty was insufficient. It must be inwardly accepted. And duty could not legitimately be deferred; it must be personally appropriated. “Great Britain, I own is interested in our protection,” he implored, “but can she be as much interested as ourselves?”
Believing that terrorists are cowardly may assuage the fear of terrorism.
Walsh’s Cowardice is a genealogy that traces the concept through the discourses of sermons and newspapers, literature and letters. Tom Paine, for example, wrote in a Revolutionary-era pamphlet of “times that try men’s souls,” when the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” The specter of cowardly conduct haunted true patriots: “the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole.” War could scarcely be deliberated without invoking the virtues and vices that were at stake.
Decades later, abolitionists would similarly prod the North toward war. A New York newspaper spoke of the “bullying of the slaveocracy . . . impudently taunting the entire north with cowardice.” And Frederick Douglass pondered the judgments of posterity: “history will record the fact,” he wrote, that the North “with the best of causes, and pledged to it in open daylight before millions of their countrymen, acted the part of miserable cowards, insensible alike to the requirements of self-respect or duty. Was ever a people so terribly frightened as are we . . . at this moment?” The abolitionists rendered the sections as bodies politic that would corporately stand responsible for the choice before them.
The battlefield itself as a site of physical violence, too, stood as a test of courage no less at the time of the Civil War than in the conflicts of antiquity. The Iliad described it this way:
where the man who is a coward and the brave man show themselves clearly
the skin of the coward changes color one way and another
and the heart inside him has no control to make him sit steady
In contrast to the serenity of the courageous, the coward has no relief: “the heart inside his chest pounds violent / as he thinks of the death spirits, and his teeth chatter together.” War, especially in its pre-modern form, thrust individuals into the agony not just of pain and death but of virtue and vice.
While Walsh focuses on the context of warfare, he is careful to point out that courage and cowardice were important categories in everyday family and community life as well. There, battle functions as a metaphor for the more ordinary and vocational trials that one might have. Duty, he writes, “is not a single discrete obligation, which being met can be so disposed of,” but rather it is a series of tasks that must be regularly and constantly completed. And whether those tasks are frightening or, perhaps more commonly, simply mundane, they require courage and vigilance on an almost daily basis. Nevertheless the stakes remain high. To leave duties undone is to risk abandoning one’s family or betraying one’s community.
• • •
Walsh deftly turns from one textual representation of cowardice to another. The locus of his history, however, is the disciplinary system of the American military. He demonstrates that the treatment of soldiers charged with cowardly conduct changed over time. “Of the nearly one hundred thousand Union general court-martial cases on file at the National Archives,” he writes, “cowardice was the ninth most common charge, with roughly five hundred cases.” In those days, cowardice was a technical term, a charge that was often punished with humiliation, imprisonment, and sometimes execution. But the harsh punishments and stigma associated with cowardice served a particular function. They disciplined soldiers who fought on wide open battlefields, spaces where desertion was possible and where the virus of flight and fear could have disastrous consequences.
Modern warfare fundamentally altered the spaces in which battle took place. If the artillery and repeating rifles of the Civil War presaged a turn toward different modes of battle, World War I—with its poison gas, trench warfare artillery, and vastly improved rifles—represented a truly modern war. The logic of battle, if there has ever been such a thing, was rendered inscrutable. “A soldier, indeed an entire platoon, could now be wiped out before danger was even suspected.” And the far-flung theaters of world wars, where complex systems of transportation and communication delivered soldiers to largely unknown sites of battle, made the prospect of desertion increasingly untenable. “There was nowhere to run,” James Jones wrote. “The whole world was caught up.”
In modern warfare, then, the charge of cowardice came to serve less of a purpose. By World War II, the U.S. military turned from an outmoded system of punishment to a therapeutic treatment of fear. Tolerance was encouraged among the troops. One pamphlet read: “Have you been hiding some very dark thoughts about yourself? Have you called yourself a coward?” Language inside and outside the military changed from carrying moralistic tones to psychological ones. Succumbing to fear or depression came to be seen less often as a failure than as an experience of battle fatigue or shell shock. And while figures such as George S. Patton would take up the banner of martial vigor, the tide had turned. The U.S. military executed only one soldier for desertion in World War II and has not done so again since.
This change can be understood by the materialism of warfare (those modern methods and foreign sites of battle) but the cultural context is also important and sheds light on broader societal trends. Increasingly the language of duty and vocation had less purchase on the imaginations of Americans. In its place came the language of individual rights: a liberalism of the individual eclipsed a republicanism of the community and the state. There was also the triumph of a therapeutic worldview that rendered older, moralistic vocabularies less useful. Not all at once, in fits and starts at first and finally with the regularity of consensus, institutions gave way that might bind and loose the conscience with the burdens of duty and the threat of stigma and punishment.
When we look back to the moral grammar of an earlier time in American history, we see the differences between our time and theirs set in stark relief. Walsh helps us to recognize how this conception of cowardice and its vociferous denunciation of moral failure functioned as a mechanism of control. And we also understand more clearly the gendered nature of the ideal of martial vigor, how easily the repudiation of cowardice often relied on a deep-seated misogyny.
• • •
Returning to characterizations of the Boston Marathon bombers, the effect of this genealogy is jarring. What could we possibly mean when we call terrorists cowards? What duties did they fail to discharge? To what community were they unfaithful? The contemporary use of cowardice is not embedded within a moral logic in which these questions could be answered. While older uses of the word were powerful means of control, today we use it as a simple term of condemnation, a label for actions that are “rare and monstrous.” It carries all the weight of reprobation without the context of shared moral commitments.
Walsh laments this semantic shift and urges a return to older and everyday notions of cowardice. He notes that just because the term has been abused does not mean that it cannot be used rightly. “It pushes us to ponder seriously what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we’re so afraid of.” He argues for the thoughtful invocation of cowardice not just in extreme situations of danger, but also in common life where expectations and responsibility call us to account.
Though Walsh is right to say that cowardice can be a useful category for thinking about personal obligations, I am skeptical of the recovery program he recommends. Shorn of a thick moral grammar that steadies and constrains it, the rhetoric of cowardice—and the fear of being called cowardly it elicits—has a tendency to goad violence and the assertion of power pure and simple. Perhaps that is one reason we have seen its renaissance in conversations about national security. At the end of the Cold War, neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol became increasingly vocal about the ideal of a New American Century, arguing that a failure to assume global leadership would be a mark of cowardice. Today the habitually bellicose Senator John McCain and others like him often draw from such language in support of intervention in Ukraine or elsewhere.
On the other hand, a more humble and everyday deployment of cowardice can scarcely be imagined without envisioning the moral communities in which it might take place. It would happen within the lives of individuals, families, and civil society, unambitiously and mundanely where institutions and judgments were held in common. It would happen in a place, for example, where a minister such as Samuel Davies could ascend a pulpit and deliver binding moral sentiments. It is precisely that coercive morality that made older uses of cowardice intelligible. And to recover that use of cowardice would be a recovery not just of language but of a different way of life.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
“Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of Eternal Glory for Thee and for Everyone” & “Publick Universal Friend Adopts a More Androgynous Appearance, Wearing Long Clerical Robes, Sporting a Wide-Brimmed Beaver Hat Outdoors”
Congratulations to Adebe DeRango-Adem & Simone Person!
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven reminds us of the radical power of collective imagination.