Chris Walsh’s Cowardice reviewed

‘”Manning-up” in America the Brave: Chris Walsh’s Cowardice reviewed’, Honest History, 3 February 2015

Diane Bell* reviews Cowardice: A Brief History by Chris Walsh

Too afraid to finish a book on cowardice? Sounds Pythonesque, but in an article on ‘intellectual cowardice’, author Chris Walsh (2014) owns to the behaviour that is the subject of his path-breaking book, Cowardice: A Short History. We can be grateful he persevered and that, spurred on by defining moments such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the reportage of which echoed analyses of 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, he sought to interrogate the labelling of the perpetrators as ‘cowards’.

j10318It was healthy self-doubt that drove Walsh on: why was there no full-length book on cowardice? ‘Every other species of human baseness, it seems, has rated a monograph’ (17), he observes. Was the topic so taboo that any respectable writer would recognise the dangers of proceeding? And here we have the delicious dilemma: Is it cowardly to resist/deny/avoid sure death, perhaps seek other means of resolution, or is it only fear of the cry of ‘coward’ that propels men into war? How might the history of humanity read if ‘bravery’ were understood as reckless violence, if bravery were defined by reference to defending our shared humanity rather than pitting one against another? Inspired by William Ian Miller’s book The Mystery of Courage (2000), Walsh set out to do justice to courage’s uneasy partner, ‘cowardice’.

Walsh declares, ‘Cowards have something to teach us. Let us speak of them’ (22). In plumbing the depths of the coward as one who, because of ‘excessive fear fails to do what he is supposed to do’ (7-8), Walsh offers confirming, contradictory and challenging stories. He ranges across disciplines and genres, from the identification of the cowards as the most despicable souls in Dante’s Inferno, through the annals of the Civil War and the psychological portrayal of fear in Stephen Crane’s novel, The Red Badge of Courage (2000), to The Thin Red Line, James Jones’s (1962) depiction of the ‘contempt for cowardice as essential to the indoctrination’s success’ (118) and onto Tim O’Brien’s reformulation in The Things They Carried (1988) of cowardice as not fleeing the Vietnam draft (127).

Moving beyond the battlefield but still tethered to Dante as his listening post, Walsh addresses those who wait, are in limbo and fail to act. The ‘consummation of infinite waiting’ (183) of John Marcher in Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle (1996) is one of Dante’s ‘neutrals’. There is Primo Levi’s account of those Germans who ‘had the possibility of knowing everything but chose the more prudent path’ (177) in The Drowned and the Saved (1988), a path mapped by Hannah Arendt’s compelling rethink of moral responsibility and encapsulated in her phrase, ‘the banality of evil’. Beyond the theatre of war, cowards wait to be named. There is the stoking of ‘shame associated with cowardice’ in the argument of Martin Luther King Jr regarding ‘every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil of segregation’ (178).

With respect to cowardice, Walsh advises, the ‘moral versus physical distinction is a fraught one’ (174). How to write of the ‘dreadful freedom’ inherent in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist view of the locus of cowardice as the responsibility of the individual (189)? Has cowardice rebadged become the province of therapeutic regimes designed to manage post-traumatic stress syndrome? Walsh sets out the social consequences of taxonomic moves from the World War I language of shell-shock and neurosis to psychiatric diagnoses of the effects of war trauma. Nonetheless, he stresses, to own to mental illness carries its own stigma.

Following his problematising Introduction and drawing on diverse sources, Walsh addresses these thorny questions in the context of changing technologies of war and the shifting perceptions of duty, excessive fear, shame and compliance. This takes up six detailed chapters. Deconstructing the ‘diminishing significance and enduring power of cowardice on and beyond the battlefield’ (20) is his goal and the task makes compelling reading.

Walsh’s opening chapter on ‘Profiles of cowardice’ addresses the persistent problems of recruiting soldiers and the powerful evocation of cowardice as a rallying call. During the French and Indian Wars (1754-63), the efficacy of this move was demonstrated by the Reverend Samuel Davies’s 1758 sermon on the ‘curse of cowardice’. The cry can be heard in Theodore Roosevelt reminding Americans of the special place in infamy reserved for those who advocated neutrality, as in Dante’s Inferno. President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, albeit with reference to different notions of shame and honour, both wielded cowardice as a rhetorical weapon.

Shot at DawnShot at Dawn Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire, UK (Wikimedia Commons/Noisette). The blindfolded figure represents 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden, who lied about his age to enlist and was later shot for desertion. The stakes are for the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion during World War I.

The profiles in this first chapter are explicitly United States-centric; Walsh’s references concern wars that are central to American identity. How might his history have read had he, for instance, paid as much attention to the French Revolution as to the American Civil War as a defining moment? What then might Walsh say of the massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris in January 2015? I recently saw Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece ‘La Grande Illusion’ and was struck by the cross-cutting allegiances to class, the code of gentlemanly behaviour expected of his World War I officers, no matter their national and/or religious identities, the hopeful vision of care and compassion for others who are not one’s own kith and kin, and the dreadful foreboding at the rising threat of Nazism.

Class, as an analytical tool, is muted in Walsh’s survey. Where World War I in Europe marked the passing of the old order, Walsh is writing of an emerging democratic nation in the United States, of a fresh start in a new land, unfettered by entrenched class structures. What claim then does Walsh have to be articulating a concept with universal reach? And how much does the denial of class privilege as a structural principle of United States society obscure our understanding of appeals to duty and the ways in which ‘excessive fear’ might drive one to reckless acts deemed ‘bravery’ on the one hand by the propertied classes and, on the other, sure death by a property-less slave, a woman without the vote, an urban immigrant industrial worker of the early twentieth century?

Walsh recognises that cowardice is culturally inflected and in Chapter Two, ‘Of arms and men’, he moves beyond the United States to introduce us to the mountain-dwelling Buid of the Mindoro Islands, the Philippines, and the Semai of the heavily-forested valleys of Malaysia. He tells us that these two Southeast Asian tribes have ‘so thoroughly adapted a policy of fleeing from fear that they do not even have a word to condemn the behavior’ (46). Now, the absence of a name does not mean a behaviour does not exist. Racist and sexist practices existed long before the labels. Many Indigenous peoples have no autonym but simply ‘name’ each other by reference to kin terms. It is the existence of the outside ‘other’ that creates the need for a unique name, not the existence of a distinct group of people per se. Cowardice only comes into relief in contrast to more conflict-oriented peoples.

But, setting aside the matter of language for the moment, what falters is the case that Walsh makes at the genetic level for ‘balanced or balancing selection’. It’s the old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate and Walsh finds merit in evolutionary biology but then concedes that the ‘evolutionary legacy is so complicated and conflicted that it does little to explain our own moral intuitions about cowardice’ (48). Is there a ‘cowardice gene’? Are some peoples hardwired to flee, some to fight?

On the surface, it would seem those who flee will be those who survive and hence their genes will be the ones that are passed on. But Walsh suggests that, given the Semai and Buid are such a small proportion of the world population, ‘giving in to fear is not the best strategy for survival’ (46). We would need to know a great deal more of the colonial histories of the Buid, an egalitarian, violence-adverse people, and the non-hierarchic Semai before endorsing this proposition. Good, old-fashioned epidemics to which tribes had no resistance, loss of habitat, and forced removals can account for dramatic decreases in Indigenous populations. The case of the apparently conflict-adverse Buid and Semai suggests that not being punished for fleeing, and being afraid of aspects of one’s environment, is a matter of being socialised in a particular culture and a particular historical moment, that is, it is a matter of nurture not nature.

Having acknowledged he is writing predominantly about men at war, Walsh chances his arm with his foray into the field of gendered relations and representations. His case for the construction of woman as ‘other’ in the gendered regimes of compliance in times of conflict is well-made and well-illustrated. Walsh addresses gendered behaviours and the persistent fear of men that it is unmanly to be thought to behave like a woman. He examines these gendered stereotypes in so far as President Johnson, fearing his political opponents would think him a coward, an ‘unmanly man’, kept the troops in Vietnam (39), and the scorn heaped on President Jefferson Davis for wearing his wife’s shawl (34).

whiteFeather-ArnoldBennettColliersWeeklyImage from ‘The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting’ by Arnold Bennett, Collier’s Weekly 1914 ( F. Gullace)

However, Walsh is back on highly-contested ground as he frames his discussion of morality with reference to the evolutionary origins of intergroup conflict. The counter narrative by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is relegated to a footnote. Yet her shift of focus in Mother Nature (1999) – a re-orientation also pursued in much of the feminist literature on morality – from competition to co-operation throws the relationship between courage and cowardice into relief. It requires that women be repositioned as the teachers of language and the primary socialisers of children as the ‘breeders’ of the next age. Do the ‘fellow feelings’ inculcated in a co-operative frame encourage patterns of behaviour that facilitate uniting to destroy others?

Women may be brave: in the historical record and cross-cultural literature there are models that are worth further consideration. However, women are rarely designated cowards. I suspect that, as women come into focus in war zones, the charge of cowardice might be more common but, as Walsh so clearly illustrates, the technology of combat has transformed the encounter. It is now remote, on the screen, digitised, no longer hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. What then constitutes cowardice? An unwillingness to press the button, to guide a drone to ‘X marks the spot’?

Walsh briefly contemplates women in active voice with his example of the withholding of sex, as in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a story of women denying sex to men who go to war, and in the Vietnam-era reprise with the ‘Girls say yes to boys who say no’ campaign (65), but what provides traction for Walsh’s concise history is the women who use shaming tactics to spur men on to enlist. He makes much of the white feather campaign in which women played a prominent role. ‘Why are you not at the front? Not in uniform?’ asked young women who presented men with white feathers as a symbol of their cowardice. This urging of their menfolk to glory, which might also include disfigurement and death, was part of a gender regime that supported a sexual division of labour, wherein the women were protected from male violence at home – that is, as wives, daughters and sisters, as women in roles defined by their relationship to men – as long as they supported male violence in the name of a higher duty.

Recent feminist scholarship shifts the analysis from ‘woman as hand-maiden’ to ‘woman as knowing agent’ and probes the significance for women’s wartime roles in the schism within the women’s movement of the early twentieth century. There were those who supported war and were part of patrolling ‘traditional’ gender regimes. Contemporaneous with the white feather campaigns were the anti-war campaigns of the pre-war suffragettes who continued their work with their opposition to World War I. It is well to remember that, just on a century ago, in an effort to stop ‘the war to end all wars’, the Congress of Women met at The Hague and subsequently formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Still in operation, the WILPF persists as an organisation committed to world peace, not just an absence of war, but to a world that relies on connection rather than conflict as the basis of human society.

To be sure, there was a certain feistiness evident in young women who attached white feathers to men not in uniform, women who used their sexual power to shame men into service. This ‘inside the lines’ faction of the women’s movement also believed that their hopes of gaining the vote were more likely to be realised if they supported the nation at war. The United States-based women also almost certainly knew that in England feminist pacifists like Sylvia Pankhurst suffered at the hands of angry soldiers, whereas the conservative press praised militarists like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Was it cowardice, bravery, duty, conscience that drove 1500 delegates from 12 countries to risk international travel to The Hague in order to stop the war? The scholarship of feminists such as Erika A. Kuhlman (1997), Harriet Hyman Alonso (2015) and Nicoletta F. Gullace (2014) could have helped Walsh immeasurably in exploring the nuanced shifting ground on which cowardice is known and named.

What’s in a name? Walsh explores the etymology of cowardice and the Latin root cauda, meaning ‘tail’, and offers the image of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz (1939). To demonstrate the currency of the term through time, Walsh turns to Google Ngram, an online tool for measuring the usage of words and phrases which shows the currency of the term ‘cowardice’. The graph falls steadily from 1800 to 2000. Walsh tentatively attributes the slight increase of the twenty-first century to 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.

ARTV01122Australian recruiting poster, c. 1915, based on a British original (Australian War Memorial ARTV01122)

The reach and value of research by Google and concordances is limited by the sources on which they draw. For example, when Walsh turns to the Bible, Revelation 21.8, as an item in his enumeration of the disapprobation reserved for cowards, I’d ask to which volume and translation was he referring? In the English Standard Version (2008) Revelation 21.8 is translated as:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

In the 21st Century King James (1996) version there is no mention of ‘coward’:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

The naming of the key persons to be condemned to a second death is nuanced: a coward or fearful, faithless or unbelieving, the detestable or abominable. To be sure these are all persons who may be condemned to Hell/Hades but each of the terms carries different baggage. We need to know at what period and for whom was the translation made? Over the centuries, there have been various schools that offer diverse readings of Revelations, its meaning and purpose. Stylistically, it follows the conventions of apocalyptic writing at the end of the first century CE; the context was the Roman world in Asia Minor. The meaning would have been intelligible to ‘insiders’ of that period. What kind of fear would condemn one to a second death? If the ‘coward’ was the Christian, who in those turbulent times was not true to Christ and did not identify as a Christian in public, is this form of fear of the same cloth as the cowards Walsh is tracking?

There is much more to be said of Cowardice: A Concise History. I’d be interested in a discussion of the cultural resonance of the power of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ to drive behaviour in different populations, places and periods. Hopefully, the work of Chris Walsh will not be the last on the matter of cowardice. The stories keep coming. What of the 54 Nigerian Special Forces troops who have been sentenced to death for cowardice and mutiny, after refusing to participate in a raid against Islamist organisation, Boko Haram?

My comments are aimed at both fleshing out this history and also at flagging the potential pitfalls of painting with the broad brush across time and cultures. On the one hand, Walsh appears to have over-reached in introducing selective cullings from comparative materials and over-generalised women’s role as hand-maidens to the war effort. On the other hand, given that the analytic literature on ‘cowardice’ is yet to evolve, Walsh’s ‘concise history’ will hopefully encourage others to expand, refine and challenge his pronouncements.

In terms of books that speak to the unspeakable, a thirst for more is a measure of Chris Walsh’s success. His case materials are enlightening and add immeasurably to our understanding of ‘cowardice’ but, before a body of literature on the topic develops, let us not ignore the voices of ‘other’, be they other than American, other than man, other than Anglo. Let us pay attention to the contested ground on which duty, fear and moral agency are forged.

In 1758 Reverend Samuel Davis was not only preaching on the curse of cowardice, he was uniting Protestants against the Indigenous peoples of North America and Roman Catholics of the French forces. The feminists of World War I were split on the issue of war for reasons other than fear of being called a coward. The Buid and Semai are not proselytising colonising peoples. If cowardice is, as Walsh claims, that which ‘pushes us to ponder seriously what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we’re so afraid of’, then let us hear from those whose voices are excluded, muted, conflicted, contested.

quote-i-m-a-hero-with-coward-s-legs-i-m-a-hero-from-the-waist-up-spike-milligan-331191Grave of comedian and writer Spike Milligan (1918-2002), with quote from his Puckoon (1963) (IZquotes)


* Diane Bell is a writer, anthropologist and social justice advocate. She is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at George Washington University, DC, USA and Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University, South Australia. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, where she continues as an Independent Scholar to work on Native Title projects and writing. She has published widely on matters of anthropology, history, law, religion, the environment, feminist theory and practice. Her award-winning books include Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters (1987), Daughters of the Dreaming (1983, 1992, 2002), Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that Is, Was, and Will Be (1988, 2014).


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Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. (1999). Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon Books.

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Walsh, Chris (2014) ‘Intellectual cowardice’, Times Higher Education, 16 October.



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