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

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!
Marchons,
Marchons

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.
Yoichi Okamoto

Cowards don’t get mentioned in anthems, of course, and acts of cowardice seldom make it into the historical record. In his long career as a military historian, Max Hastings noted, “No U.S. or British regimental war diary that I have ever seen explicitly admits that soldiers fled in panic, as of course they sometimes do.” As a Spanish proverb has it, “De los cobardes no se ha escrito nada” (Of cowards, nothing is written). Nevertheless it is surprising that cowardice as an idea has been neglected by scholars. To be sure, war does not happen in the absence of conflict over land, resources, or power, but as historian Robert Kagan notes in On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, considerations of honor are often decisive—honor, I’d argue, and more often, dishonor. Nations don’t go to war to show how courageous they are any more than individual soldiers do; the shame of cowardice is far more compelling. O’Brien was obliged to go to Vietnam because when Lyndon Baines Johnson became president, he was worried that, as Johnson put it, “If I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser.” 

COWARD'S POWER

General Orders of George Washington, July 7, 1775.
General Orders of George Washington, July 7, 1775. The text reads: "It is with inexpressible Concern that the General upon his first Arrival in the army, should find an Officer sentenced by a General Court-Martial to be cashier'd for Cowardice. A Crime of all others, the most infamous in a Soldier, the most injurious to an Army, and the last to be forgiven; inasmuch as it may, and often does happen, that the Cowardice of a single Officer may prove the Distruction of the whole Army: The General therefore (tho'with great Concern, and more especially, as the Transaction happened before he had the Command of the Troops) thinks himself obliged for the good of the service, to approve the Judgment of the Court-Martial with respect to Capt. John Callender, who is hereby sentenced to be cashiered. Capt. John Callender is accordingly cashiered and dismiss'd from all farther service in the Continental Army as an Officer."
Library of Congress
Despite cowardice’s tendency to hide in the shadows, it is easy to trace how the idea has figured powerfully in U.S. history. We might begin in July 1775, when two soldiers were court-martialed after Bunker Hill. Confirming their sentences, General George Washington described cowardice as “a Crime of all others the most infamous in a Soldier, the most injurious to an Army, and the last to be forgiven; inasmuch as it may, and often does happen, that the Cowardice of a single Officer may prove the Distruction of the whole Army….”

A little over a year after Washington’s pronouncement, during a time of defeat and doubt for independence forces, the English-American political activist Thomas Paine would publish The Crisis, with its famous first line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The less-famous next line injects a contempt for cowardice that runs through the rest of the document: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.”

Courts-martial for cowardice were common and often ended in humiliation, imprisonment at hard labor, and even physical branding or execution.
American revolutionaries’ worry about their own cowardice was balanced by their conviction that the British were more cowardly still. The British, for their part, considered the American colonists to be generally cowardly—a view that contributed to their belief that the rebels could be beaten with a small force. 

It is hard to overstate, in the next century, how pervasive and intense was the rhetoric of cowardice leading up to the Civil War, and during it, too. When battle came between Union and Confederate forces, the belief in the other side’s faintheartedness often faded, but as the historian James McPherson noted in his study of the motivation of Civil War soldiers, men worried a great deal about cowardice: “they desperately wanted to avoid the shame of being known as a coward—and that is what gave them courage.” Courts-martial for cowardice were common and often ended in humiliation, imprisonment at hard labor, and even physical branding or execution.

"Camp Punishments—Drumming a Coward out of the Ranks—Scene in the Army of the Potomac," Harper's Weekly, June 28, 1862. Image courtesy of the Stone Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.
"Camp Punishments—Drumming a Coward out of the Ranks—Scene in the Army of the Potomac," Harper's Weekly, June 28, 1862. Image courtesy of the Stone Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.
Stone Collection

Decades later, in 1914, Germany had complicated reasons for declaring war, but one of them was the Kaiser’s concern about being thought a coward. Just after the assassination of his friend Archduke Ferdinand, he was heard to say repeatedly, “This time... I shall not chicken out.” As the Great War raged in Europe and Americans stayed home, Teddy Roosevelt called President Woodrow Wilson the leader of a “cult of cowardice.” Wilson said that he would “not be rushed into war, no matter if every damned congressman and senator stands up on his hind legs and proclaims me a coward,” but eventually he did ask the Senate to declare war, and the shame of shirking figured prominently in efforts to drum up troops.

World War I poster.
World War I poster.
Library of Congress
 

Americans feared their enemies in World War II, but they also portrayed them as cowardly. On the eve of the invasion of Sicily in 1943, for example, General George S. Patton told his Italian- and German-American soldiers that their ancestors had bravely left Europe in search of freedom—a legacy of courage that contrasted with the enemy’s cowardly submission to oppression: “The ancestors of the people we shall kill lacked the courage to make such a sacrifice and continued as slaves.” It was during the Sicily campaign that Patton famously slapped a battle-fatigued American soldier and called him a coward (there were actually two such instances). Meanwhile the Germans and Russians were executing tens of thousands of soldiers for desertion and other allegedly cowardly acts, including attempting to surrender to the enemy.

In early 2002, during the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military dropped leaflets featuring a doctored picture of bin Laden, beardless and turbanless, and sporting a snazzy business suit.
In 1975, the United States withdrew from Vietnam—as it would from Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. In his 1996 fatwa, Osama bin Laden listed these withdrawals as evidence of American cowardice. He also declared that Muslims’ inaction against the continued U.S. military presence in their holy land was itself cowardly. “Terrorizing you [Americans], while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate and morally demanded duty,” he wrote. “The coward is the one who lets you walk, while carrying arms, freely on his land....” Not attacking the Americans would be cowardly, and because the Americans had shown themselves to be cowardly, bin Laden reasoned, there was cause to hope that attacking them would bring triumph. Then came 9/11—an act that many Americans, including President George W. Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton, called cowardly, thereby helping to set in motion a response whose logic eerily mirrored bin Laden”s: the terrorist acts were cowardly, and such cowardice meant that the terrorists could be subdued if they were attacked. Plus it would be cowardly not to attack.

The shame and insult of cowardice has figured prominently since that time. In early 2002, during the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military dropped leaflets featuring a doctored picture of bin Laden, beardless and turbanless, and sporting a snazzy business suit. “Usama bin Laden, the murderer and coward, has abandoned you,” read the message in Pashtun. The Department of Defense produced an English-language version for American consumption.

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense

Bin Laden returned the volley less than a year later when he said that Americans were using “massive air strikes... to conceal... the fear, cowardliness, and the absence of combat spirit among US soldiers.” This rhetoric also animates the propaganda of the Islamic State or ISIS. An article in their English-language online magazine Dabiq begins, “America—at its pinnacle moment of weakness and cowardice—reassured its people it would not enter into war directly on the ground against the Islamic State, but rather it would rely upon apostate proxies in the region.” The article goes on to depict the proxies themselves—the “flimsy female ‘fighters’” of the PKK and “fainthearted” Peshmerga among them—as cowardly too.

TOWARD BRAVERY

The belief that the other side is cowardly, coupled with the punishment of cowardice on one’s own side, feeds confidence and sometimes recklessness. The belief that it would be cowardly not to fight triggers belligerence. The belief that it would be cowardly to withdraw keeps one in the fight, even when prudence suggests otherwise. The pattern is so common that it seems an essential part of war. And the "blush of dishonor” that comes with cowardice affects more than just military men or commanders in chief. It was not Napoleon who said, “where there is a choice only between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” It was Mahatma Gandhi. He continued, “I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her dishonor.”

For the United States, the answers don’t come so easily—or at least they shouldn’t. Americans can sing of being the home of the brave but also know that the fear of warfare is wise.
What, exactly, is this thing that has such power? Traditions that go back to ancient times and endure today in military codes around the world define cowardice as a failure of duty due to excessive fear. But the definition brings up more questions than it answers. What is duty, and who’s to say? What happens when duties conflict? Isn't excessive fear a subjective matter?

These questions are easy for some to answer. For ISIS, for example, duty is dictated by “the law of the Lord of the Worlds," as “My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared” makes clear. “The Islamic State has arisen and the dreaded might has begun,” sing the jihadis in this, the unofficial ISIS anthem, thanks to “faithful men who do not fear warfare”—implying that any fear of war at all is excessive and, therefore, cowardly.

British World War I poster.
British World War I poster.
Library of Congress
For the United States, the answers don’t come so easily—or at least they shouldn’t. Americans can sing of being the home of the brave but also know that the fear of warfare is wise, and that when duty does require sending soldiers into combat, trauma can break even the bravest of them down, which doesn’t make them cowards. History teaches that the fear of being or of seeming cowardly can lead to terrible blunders, and contemporary experience shows that invocations of cowardice typically shed more heat than light. The “coward” label oversimplifies, insinuates that questions of policy are matters of machismo, that nuance is weakness, and that decisiveness is best, even if the decision is wrong.

Yet the same fear that can cause blunders also saves lives; worry about being “yellow” steels a soldier to do his duty. The dread of cowardice that helps to cause war can also help to win it. And yet the fear of being cowardly can itself be cowardly. If there were less fear of cowardice, wars might be fewer and briefer.

And yet, and yet, and yet: The terrain of cowardice is shifty and paradoxical. It is worth trying to navigate, though, for doing so pushes us to ask difficult, disturbing questions. Is U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan proof of bin Laden’s point about American cowardice? Can this pattern be traced back further—a history of fickle U.S. foreign policy, a lack of steadfastness characteristic of a commercial democracy largely isolated from the rest of the world, as the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago? Is U.S. readiness to go to war part of that fickleness, borne in part of an excessive fear of being cowardly—even as “going to war” means deploying an increasingly small slice of the population and increasingly large number of armed drones? Our adversaries might think the answer to these questions is an obvious yes, and knowing their view can be helpful even if we don’t share it. Contemplating the questions for ourselves can push us to think critically about our fears and how we respond to them. It can also push to think of our duties—to our own and our allies’ security, to the constitution, to “higher laws,” to history and posterity. As important as it has been overlooked, the idea of cowardice is dangerous, bracing, and illuminating. 

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