Book review: Cowardice: A Brief History


Book review: Cowardice: A Brief History

Cowardice: A Brief History

Chris Walsh Princeton University Press, $27.95

EVEN in a shrinking world like ours, with so much shared by people, there are still nooks and crannies of human experience which are profoundly alien to many of us — forms of thinking which are truly strange.

Take the Buid, mountain dwellers of the Philippines, or the Semai, a tribe from the Malaysian forest regions. The Buid have many words for fear and fleeing, and for leaving people behind in the face of a fearful threat that necessitates fleeing, “but none are pejorative”, says Chris Walsh in his new book on cowardice.

The Semai are largely unexpressive and unemotional, says Walsh, apart from being regarded as the most fearful people on Earth. They’re frightened of “almost everything”, according to one anthropologist, terrified even of the regular heavy rains that fall on their region.

“They are known to abandon grandmothers in collapsed shelters,” writes Walsh, “Or to flee their houses for the woods, where falling trees pose greater danger.”

Walsh adds drily: “Neither people have contempt for cowardice, or even a notion of cowardice.”

This outlook is so unusual to us that it’s instantly notable, a marker of real difference, and this book is remarkable for its focus on this rarely discussed but — if we’re being honest — all-too-familiar phenomenon; it’s hardly an accident that John F Kennedy helped to establish his presidential credentials with a book called Profiles In Courage, not Profiles in Cowardice, but Walsh redresses the balance well here.

For instance, he sets cowardice in its starkest terms and in its severest context: Not in the world of sports or relationships, but in war, where cowardice was the “crime of all others, the most infamous in a soldier, the most injurious to an army, and the last to be forgiven; inasmuch as it may, and often does happen, that the cowardice of a single officer may prove the destruction of the whole army”.

Thus George Washington, and little wonder that armies throughout history have, by definition, regarded cowardice as such a huge threat to their very existence.

Walsh excels in how he is able to distinguish between cowardice, which is a liability in combat, and fear, which could be an asset to a soldier. This, strikingly, is something armies were aware of.

In the Second World War, the US army issued a leaflet which read: “YOU’LL BE SCARED... Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a coward if you admit you’re scared.” Fear helps a soldier, and Walsh enumerates its physiological advantages — adrenaline surges, the heart rate rises, the arms and legs are energised — and the changing nature of war, its growing savagery and industrialisation.

This all led some armies to take the approach to fear mentioned above in relation to the Second World War pamphlet.

What military strategists didn’t count on, however, was the way the esprit de corps gave that fear a slightly different focus.

In James Earl Jones’s Second World War novel The Thin Red Line, widely regarded as one of the best fictional depictions of men at war, there’s an apposite quotation about soldiers which crystallises this subtle fear: “Somewhere at the back of each mind, like a fingernail picking uncontrollably at a scabby sore, was the small voice saying, but is it worth it? Is it really worth it to die, to be dead, just to prove to everybody that you’re not a coward?”

The obvious criticism of a book focusing on cowardice largely in its military context is that it may ignore half the population, but Walsh doesn’t fall into that trap.

He points to the sexualisation of cowardice, going back to Greek times, when women refused to associate with those who showed cowardice. (Is it significant that even in the movie 300, it’s the queen who tells the Spartan soldiers heading to face the Persians to come back with their shields or upon them?)

That sexual tinge to women’s views on cowardice persisted to the 20th century, of course, and Walsh gives an interesting analysis of the white feather phenomenon, when women had the freedom to dish out these signifiers of cowardice to able-bodied men on the streets of Britain during the First World War.

Just to underline the theme of autre temps, autre moeurs, however, Walsh includes a curious poster issued by the ’60s anti-draft movement in the US, which features Joan Baez and her sister over the caption, ‘Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No’: the kind of message that just isn’t issued in today’s sexual-political milieu, no matter how passionate adherents are about their cause.

The following decade, though, brought a more significant addition to the corpus of cowardice-based work: Fans of The West Wing may not be surprised to hear that its main star, Martin Sheen, was showing his tendency to liberal roles 40 years ago as the lead in The Execution of Private Slovik, a television movie about the only American soldier to be executed for cowardice in the Second World War.

With the Vietnam War still raging when the movie was screened — to huge viewing figures — its applicability to the issues of the day was obvious.

General objections to Walsh’s book may focus on its American hinterland. The examples used are heavily US-oriented, and while the likes of George Washington may be easily identifiable to an Irish reader as a paragon of courage, referring so liberally to an American staple like the Red Badge of Courage doesn’t work as well; it’s as if an Irish author was trying to sell notions of agricultural misery to a Stateside audience by quoting from Peig.

Still, that’s a small quibble. Walsh’s perceptive dissection of cowardice is rewarding, thought-provoking, and entertaining. You could say all the bases are covered: Even the light-mustard dust-jacket is symbolic, and appropriate, in its own yellow-spined way.

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