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Cowardice: A Brief History

Chris Walsh
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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    Book Description:

    Coward. It's a grave insult, likely to provoke anger, shame, even violence. But what exactly is cowardice? When terrorists are called cowards, does it mean the same as when the term is applied to soldiers? And what, if anything, does cowardice have to do with the rest of us? Bringing together sources from court-martial cases to literary and film classics such as Dante'sInferno,The Red Badge of Courage,andThe Thin Red Line, Cowardicerecounts the great harm that both cowards and the fear of seeming cowardly have done, and traces the idea of cowardice's power to its evolutionary roots. But Chris Walsh also shows that this power has faded, most dramatically on the battlefield. Misconduct that earlier might have been punished as cowardice has more recently often been treated medically, as an adverse reaction to trauma, and Walsh explores a parallel therapeutic shift that reaches beyond war, into the realms of politics, crime, philosophy, religion, and love.

    Yet, as Walsh indicates, the therapeutic has not altogether triumphed-contempt for cowardice endures, and he argues that such contempt can be a good thing. Courage attracts much more of our attention, but rigorously understanding cowardice may be more morally useful, for it requires us to think critically about our duties and our fears, and it helps us to act ethically when fear and duty conflict.

    Richly illustrated and filled with fascinating stories and insights,Cowardiceis the first sustained analysis of a neglected but profound and pervasive feature of human experience.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5203-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 1-22)

    Before any of us knew who they were or why they had done it or what they might do next, one thing seemed certain: the Boston Marathon bombers were cowards. Overlooking the expressway leading into the city, an electronic billboard flashed the message the day after the bombing, complete with a hashtag: #COWARDS. It felt good to see and say this, a bitter and righteous rebuke to those who would terrorize us. The billboard came courtesy of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103, and everyone from president Barack Obama to governor Deval Patrick to the management of the...

  2. Chapter 1 PROFILES IN COWARDICE: A Shadow History of the Home of the Brave
    (pp. 23-44)

    A brief survey of how the idea of cowardice has figured throughout U.S. history, uniting and dividing Americans, spurring brave feats and reckless mistakes, might begin in 1758, during what was for the British side one of the darkest hours of the French and Indian War. In North America the conflict had begun in May 1754, when a twenty-three-year-old major named George Washington bungled an attempt to stop the French from building Fort Duquesne at the strategic fork of the Monongohela and Ohio Rivers. Washington and his men built a sorry stockade downriver that they called, all too aptly, Fort...

  3. Chapter 2 OF ARMS AND MEN
    (pp. 45-76)

    Why is contempt for cowardice so stubborn and powerful that it could figure so forcefully and diversely in American history? At first glance, fleeing from danger even when duty dictates that you should not seems like a good survival strategy. After Henry Fleming runs from battle in Stephen Crane’sThe Red Badge of Courage, he throws a pinecone at a squirrel and watches it flee “with chattering fear.” “The youth felt triumphant at this exhibition,” Crane writes. “There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign. The squirrel, immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs...

    (pp. 77-99)

    Before the Civil War, lieutenant Moses Powell of the First Regiment Michigan Sharpshooters had been known for his bravery as a deputy sheriff in his small hometown, and he looked every bit the stalwart leader of men—tall and with “a large, handsome head, graced with a long, beautiful beard, and altogether a very prepossessing looking person,” as one of his fellow soldiers put it.¹ Powell proved the opposite of prepossessing when battle came, however. “[W]hen we went into position” for combat, according to a witness at Powell’s court-martial for cowardice, “he was very seldom with the Company.” One of...

  5. Chapter 4 DUTY-BOUND
    (pp. 100-130)

    Against the force of fear, the idea of cowardice sets the call of duty. For each mention of fear in Samuel Davies’sThe Curse of Cowardice, for example, duty comes up three times—as when Davies calls the men to “our duty in the sight of God” and “the dreadful, but important Duty of shedding human Blood.”¹ Davies uses the termdutyin a sense common then and today, fairly expressed in the 1911Encyclopedia Britannica: “a term loosely applied to any action or course of action which is regarded as morally incumbent, apart from personal likes and dislikes or...

    (pp. 131-164)

    Having focused on the force of fear and the call of duty, we now turn our attention to what is caught between them—namely, he who acts or fails to act, and how that person and his conduct are judged or not judged. Is there a soldier in each of us? Perhaps, but it has long been recognized that when fear conflicts with the call of duty, each soldier’s ability to answer the call varies. In theIliad, Hector observes, “No one ever said men are equal in war.”¹ Aristotle noted that some people are by nature more timid than...

  7. Chapter 6 SO LONG A FILE: Cowardice Away from War
    (pp. 165-194)

    The cases of Georg-Andreas Pogany (chapter 5) and John Callendar (chapter 1) invite comparison. Like Callender, that soldier court-martialed for his cowardly conduct at Bunker Hill who later fought so bravely for the Continental Army that George Washington erased the court-martial from his record and restored him to his officership, Pogany was motivated by the shame of cowardice to act courageously. There are, of course, significant differences between the two cases. Callender was actually found guilty of cowardice, and apparently with some reason. Pogany was never officially charged with it, and even the suspicion of cowardice proved unfounded. While Callender...