Cowardice: A Brief History by Chris Walsh, book review: Through the climates of fear


Marcus Tanner
Thursday 30 October 2014 15:55

General George Patton, the legendary commander of US forces in the Second World War, had no time for those he deemed fainthearted.

Confronted with a soldier who had quit the frontline because of shellshock, he exploded that the man was a "yellow son of a bitch" who ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. In fact, the General added – while slapping him across the face – he was ready to shoot him himself.

As criticism of his action showed, Patton was having trouble adapting to a more modern, nuanced understanding of why some people choose to stand their ground while others flee. Brought up in a society that judged desertion from duty totally inexcusable, he had lived to see the concept of duty pathologised and relativised.

As Walsh notes, while horror of the coward is widespread and deep-rooted in society, the stigma has rarely been unpacked and explored in much depth. Attitudes towards cowardice were remarkably constant and unreflective for centuries. Writers pored over the ingredients of other sins, like lust. A blanket of silence lay over what made some men cowards. Note the word "men". Another distinguishing factor about cowardice: it is almost exclusively considered in masculine terms.

Perhaps we have never delved deep into the motives behind "yellow" behaviour because natural selection has hard-wired us to see running away from danger as always bad, as far as the security of the group is concerned. There is nothing to discuss, in other words.

Yet, as Walsh notes, some small, remote tribal societies in Asia see flight, not fight, as the right response to danger. They have no notion of cowardice and no word for it. So, Walsh says, nature must have hard-wired us differently: some must stand their ground for the greater good, but others need to flee. It just so happens that Graeco-Roman societies - hence ours - have evolved to believe that the former response should always trump the latter.

So, why does Patton's response to a man stricken with nerves now seem old-fashioned and too black-and-white? Walsh says it is partly because the changing nature of warfare has undermined the relevance of cowardice and bravery. Soldiers in the West no longer do much running towards, or away, from anything. They are increasingly fixed in tanks or jets, or are pressing buttons, directing pilotless drones, miles away.

Nevertheless, contempt for "yellow" behaviour dies hard. In the recent conflicts in the Middle East, the media made much of the supposed cowardice of both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, as if that particular moral failing were another argument for killing them. "A coward to the end," one British newspaper exclaimed gleefully of Bin Laden. We have not forgotten our abhorrence of cowardice. Walsh does not think we should – entirely. "If it is a dangerous, harmful idea, it is a bracing one, too," he writes. "It pushes us to wonder what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we're so afraid of."

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