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Chris Walsh on the History of Cowardice

In this podcast edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author Chris Walsh discusses the history of cowardice and his recent article, "The Coward’s Guide to History, with Foreign Affairs Deputy Managing Editor Katie Allawala.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Allawala: You’ve done work on number of things: translation and literature and West Africa. How did you land with cowardice as a topic for your book?

Walsh: Well, I've always had an interest in war. And I've been teaching for a long time about war poetry, in the writing classes I teach but the interesting... Cowardice actually came about before that when I was casting about for a dissertation topic. And I had written som ething about heroism, and courage in the modern age and how it changed. And in the course of doing that, found that lots of people had written about that topic, about courage, about heroism, but that nobody had written about cowardice and so, I had at it. And then while I was working on my dissertation, I wrote a review of a book that had come out called "The Anatomy of Disgust" by a guy named, William Ian Miller. He's a professor of Law at Michigan and a great writer. And I sent the review that I wrote of the book to him and he had... It had been a book that followed up a book about humiliation, and when I sent him the review, I asked him what's he gonna write about now and he said, "Well I'm doing a kind of trilogy of human baseness, and my next and last topic is cowardice" and I was a bit crestfallen to hear that because he was this great writer taking my topic.

But then a few years later, out came a book called "The Mystery of Courage". And as I say in my book, I'd repeat this story, he said this book was supposed to be about cowardice but cowardice gave way. That's what cowardice always does.

So if you look up in The Library of Congress catalog under, "Cowardice in history", mine is the only book there. Of course, many writers and thinkers have had interesting things to say about cowardice, but it's also the case that there's a long tradition of... A long and fitting tradition of avoiding the topic.

Allawala: So why do you think that the fear of being labelled a "coward" is so powerful? So much more powerful even than the desire to be a hero?

Walsh: I think there's two basic reasons. One is the cost of cowardice. So in my piece for Foreign Affairs, I quote General Washington just after The Battle of Bunker Hill, he takes over as the general of the Continental Army and one of his first order of business is to confirm a court martial case for cowardice. And he says that... Or actually two such cases, and he says, he calls cowardice "A crime of all others, the most infamous in a soldier", and he says that's... "And the last be forgiven", because the cowardice of a single officer may prove the destruction of the whole army. And I looked at it. There's a debate in parliament in the 1930s in the UK about abolishing the death penalty for military crimes, like cowardice and desertion. And one of the people arguing to keep the death penalty said, "One coward can lose a battle and one battle can lose a war" so there's that.

And of course, that applies at a smaller scale, too. If you're in a small unit of fellow soldiers, one person who just fails out of fear can blow the cover or in all sorts of other ways, endanger the group. And then the other thing is, I mean you can also say that a traitor endangers the group. But at least, a traitor sort of does something, whereas the failure of the coward is kind of... Is sort of disgusting, it's almost beneath contempt.

Allawala: That's interesting. Most of the examples in the piece you wrote for foreign affairs come from the west, have you discovered... Is the fear of being a coward universal or is it experienced in different ways depending on the different cultures?

Walsh: It varies tremendously, and that's a good question, and mostly what I looked at is the west and particularly in American traditions and even there, it varies tremendously and over the course of history, it's changed. But I also look at a couple of very small groups of people, the____ and the Semai, who live in southeast Asia, somewhat isolated populations, and they don't have a word for cowardice and in fact, they think that the only rational response to danger is to run from it. Meanwhile, in, say, Japan, in World War II, the policy was simply to reject fear, that feeling fear was, itself, cowardly. At the same time, American training of soldiers, there's a pamphlet that... A sort of handbook for soldiers that said, "You're gonna be scared and just 'cause you're scared, it doesn't mean you're a coward." And so it definitely varies from people to people with history, and I talk a lot in the book about how, in the west, that what used to be thought of as cowardly, in many cases, now would be seen as a symptom of post-traumatic stress.

In drafting the piece for Foreign Affairs, one of the things I wanted to talk about but just didn't have the space to, was the different attitudes toward cowardice and desertion, among, say, in the US and in among ISIS. But then... And which I did talk about but then the third place is in Europe, where there are actually memorials to deserters, and there have been pardons of soldiers who were executed for desertion in World War I and World War II. In World War I, the British executed 306 soldiers, and they were pardoned in 2006 and there's a memorial to those soldiers. And tens of thousands of soldiers were executed by Germany and Russia during World War II, and some of them have been... The German ones, I'm not sure about the case in Russia. But in Germany, there have been posthumous pardons and memorials, and in Austria, and in Denmark and other places.

Allawala: And has it been easier for countries on the "losing side" like Germany, to do this kind of memorializing and pardoning?

Walsh: I don't think so. I hadn't thought about whether it's the losing side or the winning side.  Yeah, that's a really good question that I don't have a good answer to. What intrigued me, I guess, as an American, was the fact that it's really hard to imagine a memorial to deserters in the States. And that's in part because we haven't... We've executed one deserter in the past, 150 years, at East Slovak in World War II. Whereas meanwhile, in Russia, Germany, England, France, there were executions and living memory of the 20th century. And so, there's a sense in which they have to make up for... Re-assess.

We have been less severe and because, also, we've been protected from the ravages of war, being isolated by a couple of oceans on either side, et cetera, we don't have to reassess what we think of as cowardice, and I think that has an effect on our foreign policy. There's a great line from Saul Bellow, he says, "When I say American I mean uncorrected by the main history of human suffering.”

Allawala: I'm curious whether you think that the introduction of drone warfare, in which American soldiers are even more removed from the battle, changes the cowardice calculation even more.

Walsh: Yeah. One thing I would say about that is it sort of takes cowardice, strictly speaking, out of the equation, so, at least, by the... I don't even think it's an academic definition, but a fairly straightforward definition of cowardice is the failure of duty out of excessive fear. And what drones do is sort of take fear out of the equation, but there's a long tradition of labeling that sort of thing "cowardly", so that the Fowler's guide to usage in 1926 said that it's become so conventional to label people "cowards", when they... When what they really just doing is taking advantage of a superior position. And so bullies are often called "cowards", snipers are called "cowards." We saw, if you remember that sort of controversy when "American Sniper" came out and Michael Moore said, "In World War II, snipers were cowardly."

So in one hand it feels like saying that drones are cowardly is an inaccurate label in the same way that's saying the perpetrators of 9/11 were cowardly, because in fact they were doing what they saw as their duty and acting in a way brave or fearless, but the fact that drones are seen by many people as cowardly, including maybe especially by the people in the countries where they are being used, and the fact that we many Americans are at 9/11 perpetrators as cowardly, that's more important, and the fact that that belief is so strong has its effects on how we react to those kinds of acts.

Allawala: So, on balance, after all of these thinking and research, do you think that the aversion to cowardice has been a positive or a negative force in US history in particular? [chuckle] Do the calculations quickly in your mind, yeah.

Walsh: I like the question even as I will refuse to answer it.  By thinking carefully about this thing we'd rather not think about, we can think more critically about what our duties are and about our fears, and if our fears are justified. T he fear of cowardice does seem to be tied up with violence in a way that lead some people to think that it's basically just a barbaric, archaic notion that should be dispensed with. But to me, if we altogether dispense of it, if we throw it out with the blood bath of history, then we lose something important to our moral vocabulary, that is, it should be shameful, when you have a duty and you don't do it because of excessive fear. And so thinking about our duties, I'll quote that Lyndon Baynes Johnson in Vietnam, saying, "If I left that war, people would think that I'm a coward, and that my nation is an appeaser." He went on to say, "And then we wouldn't be able to get anything done." So it wasn't just, "Oh people would think badly of me." But I think if he had thought more carefully about what his duties are to the soldiers he was sending abroad, to American principles to the Constitution, he might have been more considerate and careful in what he was doing.

Allawala: Okay, so the last question I'll throw at you is, who's your favorite coward?

Walsh: Well, that's a good one. Who's my favorite... I never got that one. My favorite coward... I mean there's great funny cowards, like... Not the cowardly lion, he sort of a annoys me, but there's a guy, James Garner in a movie called "The Americanization of Emily", plays a man who has, who preaches cowardice.

And it's a really good movie, and it's based on a novel by a guy named William Bradford Huie, who also wrote... Really quite a good writer who also wrote the account of the one soldier who was executed for cowardice, for desertion in World War II. So I would say, yeah, I would... I wish I could remember his name. Should I Google it even as we're speaking here? And then there's other great cowards, like the characters that Woody Allen plays in "Love and Death" or Charlie Chaplin, there's a great short silent movie called... I think it's called "Shoulder Arms" in which he's trying to steal himself to go over the top, at least, to go into no man's land out of the trench. And he climbs up the ladder and then at the last second, goes back down and then he very politely tells another soldier, "Oh, after you."

[chuckle]

Walsh: So, the... He had a name, a Gardner character... And Gardner recently died, a great actor. He played Lieutenant Commander Charles Edward Madison. He's a great coward. And also, The Flashman series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser, there's a great coward for you too.

Allawala: Alright, so a few cowards we should all check out.

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