Imperial War Museum Methods used by Americans to mark stragglers and deserters, Florent. November 45, 1918.

The Coward's Guide to History

Why We Really Fight Wars

Glory to the brave nation,
Let us band together,
We are ready to die.
Aux armes, citoyens!
We fight and give our lives
For our Union.
With courage let us all combine,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Millions with but one heart,
Braving the enemy's fire.
March on!

It takes about two minutes to mash up national anthems—in the example above, from Venezuela, Turkey, Italy, Myanmar, Australia, China, and France—to show how often they celebrate martial courage. In a couple moments more, I could have drawn on another hundred anthems to the same effect, from Afghanis singing that their “sons are all braves” to Zimbabweans “prais[ing] our heroes’ sacrifice.”

But the brave heroes who inspired these anthems were likely not inspired by the desire to be brave heroes. Very few soldiers are so motivated. Rather, much more frequently, what makes them “fight and defend the Republic” (Cambodia) is the dread of being cowardly. As Eugene Sledge wrote of himself and other young Marines in World War II, “the only thing that we seemed to be truly concerned about was that we might be too afraid to do our jobs under fire. An apprehension nagged at each of us that he might appear to be ‘yellow.’” And so they did their jobs under fire. In The Things They Carried, the famous fictionalized account of his combat experience in Vietnam, the author Tim O’Brien wrote that the “common secret of cowardice” was the “heaviest” thing soldiers carried. Worry about revealing this secret “was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor.... It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson visits with U.S. Troops in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, October 26, 1966.

Lyndon Baines Johnson visits with U.S. Troops in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, October 26, 1966.

Cowards don’t get mentioned in anthems, of course, and acts of cowardice seldom make it into

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