The curse of cowardice; book illustrates influence of science and religion on cowardice-courage relationship

The “Shot at Dawn” memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in England is modeled on Pvt. Herbert Burden, who was shot at the age of 17 by the British Army for desertion. (Newscom/EPA/ Sam Stephenson)
The “Shot at Dawn” memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in England is modeled on Pvt. Herbert Burden, who was shot at the age of 17 by the British Army for desertion. (Newscom/EPA/ Sam Stephenson)

by Raymond A. Schroth

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08282015p11pha.jpgCOWARDICE: A BRIEF HISTORY
By Chris Walsh
Published by Princeton University Press, $27.95

At Georgetown University in 1968, a group of 15 Jesuits decided to send a letter to the archbishop of Washington expressing support for those disciplined diocesan priests who had stated their determination to respect the consciences of their parishioners on the just-published encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae. As we readied to deliver the letter, another young priest, interested in joining, studied the text.

"Is that all?" he asked.

"That's it," I replied.

But where were the famous names, power people, whose reputation, he thought, would protect us from being disciplined?

"It's just us," I told him.

"I'm not ready for this," he replied.

"When will you be ready?" I asked.

"You mean when am I going to become a man?"

I never questioned his manhood. I just felt sorry that at this stage of his career he lacked the self-confidence to stick his neck out just a little bit. We delivered the letter to the archbishop's residence, and the local newspaper gave us a headline, "15 Jesuits Defend Penalized Priests." Our punishment was to be harangued at a meeting by a conservative theologian, an adviser to the archbishop. Several of the diocesan priests left the priesthood.

I thought of those days while reading Chris Walsh's challenging Cowardice, a history of the evolving concept -- military, literary, philosophical, psychological and political -- of cowardice. The cowardice-courage relationship is a product of the culture, adapting to values constantly altered by the influence of science and religion. Historically, war has provided the ultimate test of manhood; but the more psychology has taught us about freedom and ethics, and the more history and journalism have illuminated how the trenches have shattered the human spirit, the less the definition of cowardice is clear.

Seldom have I read a book more relevant to my own life as the son of a World War I hero and myself an army lieutenant in Germany during the Cold War, and to all of us who teach literature and ethics.

As children, we listened to a recording of Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis": "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country." He concludes, "The heart that feels not now is dead."

In the Civil War, of 100,000 Union courts-martial, roughly 500 were for cowardice. Fearing that he himself was a coward, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln to redeem himself.

Walsh refers to an article in The Military Surgeon (1948) in which the author warns that cowards who flee battle and later marry will pass along the coward genes to their offspring. Therefore, those who have "faltered in the face of fear" should be sterilized.

Walsh, who teaches at Boston University, reminds us of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel (and the great 1938 Technicolor film) The Four Feathers, which defined courage and cowardice for my generation. Harry Feversham, rather than accompany his fellow soldiers to the war in the Sudan, resigns to take care of his estate. Three fellow officers and his fiancée present him with white feathers, symbols of cowardice.

To prove he is a man, Harry, in disguise, goes to the battlefield and returns the feathers one-by-one as he rescues each from disaster. Walsh traces through several centuries of association of fear with femininity, the link between the epithet "yellow" and urine, and the origin of the word cowardice from the Latin cauda (penis or tail).

In a World War I poster, a young son sits at his father's feet with his daughter in his lap, and the daughter asks, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" The father, having "missed the great war of his generation" now must answer for it.

Lyndon Johnson feared that if he withdrew troops from Vietnam he would be called a coward. In his nightmares, thousands would pursue him, yelling, "Coward! Traitor! Weakling!"

In time, the key motivation was called "duty." The logic is clear: If those called to fight fail to do so, the community will fail, beginning with the soldiers bonded with one another and extended to the home front and those "shared ideals" for which every war is allegedly fought.

In time, however, the curse of cowardice is tamed with the "rise of the therapeutic." Aristotle suggested forgiveness for a wrong action when conditions "that no one could endure" overwhelmed human nature. By the end of the Civil War, military justice used nonjudgmental terms like disheartened, nervous and melancholy to explain "cowardly" behavior.

Nostalgia was a prelude to post-traumatic stress disorder, the first official alternative to cowardice. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage depicts hero Henry Fleming as boxed in by "iron laws of tradition ... in a moving box."

In James Jones' The Thin Red Line -- the phrase comes from that front line of 18th-century red-coated British troops marching into battle -- Cpl. Fife feels he has been "trapped into bravery to be killed." When Jones described his own war-induced psychoneurosis, Ernest Hemingway referred to him as "a psycho and not a real soldier." That's the same Hemingway who put his rifle in his own mouth and pulled the trigger.

In Walsh's strongest and subtlest chapter, 20th-century culture virtually erases the word coward from public discourse as the vice goes underground and resurfaces as moral cowardice, in which we do not flee a battlefield, we just do nothing at all.

As Hannah Arendt wrote, the greatest evil is committed by nobodies, "human beings who refuse to be persons." At the funeral of a slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King said, "he was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil of segregation." It is, says Samuel Johnson, a "pusillanimity," an excessive fear in which we evade a duty to ourselves which, in effect, is a duty to the community.

Today's example is the faculty member, who in lunchtime conversations delivers scathing critiques of the college's administration, but who, in a faculty-administration meeting, sits tightlipped while a lone bolder member offers the critique. Walsh illustrates the "love coward" incapable of expressing affection, or the man who just fails to show up at the altar, or those of us who deliberately keep ourselves unbothered by inconvenient or threatening information, for whom, when it comes time to act, "desire trumps duty." They are T.S. Eliot's "hollow men," afraid "to eat a peach."

This marvelous interdisciplinary study would make a great college course -- if I had the courage to return to the classroom and teach it. As Paine said, "The heart that feels not now is dead."

[Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is literary editor of America.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 28-Sept 10, 2015 print issue under the headline: The CURSE of Cowardice.

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