Is it odd that most of us have never thought about the history of cowardice? I’ve been asking myself whether I should write a comprehensive book about it, because nobody seems to have tried. Chris Walsh’s Cowardice: A Brief History (2014) is a start, but it concerns itself largely with American attitudes, obscuring, as one reviewer put it, “the old European honor culture.” But I wonder if there is an even older and more fundamental cowardice culture.
Of course, heroism is the more obvious topic. Should I write the other side, though? Maybe not. A university friend of mine once wrote an academic study of adultery in the French novel. I remember him mournfully relating to me over drinks one evening that everyone assumed he was working on such a project because he was himself an adulterer. He wasn’t! He just found the subject interesting. That’s the danger, I suppose. If I write a book about a hero, perhaps readers will imagine some of the heroism of the book’s subject rubbing off on its author. But if I spent a year researching and writing a book on cowardice, people around me would surely question my own bravery, doubt my manliness, peg me as yellow-bellied and despicable. A bolder man than I might face down such prejudice, but, alas, I’m too much of a coward.
And yet, there is something genuinely interesting about cowardice as a quantity, as a judgment of others and an identity. It speaks to something quite psychologically fundamental, after all. Whether we are capable of heroism is a question many of us ask and that may not be answered until some event or circumstance demands it of us. But we all already know we are capable of cowardice, or at least of fear. We can see in how a baby flinches from the loud noise or startling advance that there is a humanness in this that predates and underlies the more considered, willed action of heroism. A study of cowardice would need to go beyond examining the mere fearfulness that comes naturally, while recognizing what seems to be the fundamental psychology of cowardice in the history of heroism.
Since our culture seems so much more fascinated by heroism than cowardice, perhaps thinking about what heroism means is the more natural starting point for a history of its twin. At the moment, culture is absolutely saturated with stories about heroes, and indeed superheroes — the Marvel Comics Universe Extruded Product is the characteristic cinema style of the last decade. Heroes frolic and fight and heroize across our cinema and TV screens in prodigious numbers. It’s all about strength, courage, and action. In many cases it’s about self-sacrifice.
But perhaps heroism is actually a way of thinking about cowardice, a photographic negative, as it were, of our real fascination. I say so because it seems to me that heroism is not the opposite of cowardice so much as its consummation. True bravery, after all, is not a simple blank absence of fear — that’s delusion, or psychosis, the berserker dissociation from reality. True bravery, as we are often told, is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. A history of heroism can’t be separated from a history of fear, and what more proper perspective is there for a history of fear than that of the coward?
Of course, there are complexities in the balance between the two quantities. One person’s heroism is another person’s recklessness, endangering oneself and others. One person’s cowardice is another’s prudence, keeping one’s powder dry, retreating from the battle so as to win the war. Heroism is romance, but cowardice is realism. Discretion, as the coward’s maxim famously has it, is the better part of valor. We might think it as straightforwardly good and honorable to act heroically and straightforwardly bad and shameful to act cowardly. The reality is more complicated.
Hero is a Greek word: ἥρως (“heros”) originally referred to semi-divine individuals, descended in some part from a deity, combining godlike strength and beauty with human mortality. Homer’s Iliad is full of these characters: Achilles, whose mother is the goddess Thetis, and Aeneas, whose mother is the goddess Aphrodite; in both cases their fathers are mortals. The supposed tombs of such “heroes” often became shrines, sites of cultic worship. Because there are so many of them fighting in the Iliad, the term came into wider European usage with its modern-day meaning: a brave and fearless warrior. Beowulf is a hero, undaunted, rushing in to fight terrifying monsters without a second thought. Edmund Spenser wrote of chivalric knightly heroes in The Faerie Queene: figures who feel no shudder of fear, who never flinch from danger, who ride heroically to battle enemies and monsters, to rescue damsels, to undertake perilous quests. All that.
But Homeric heroes are not heroes in this later sense of the word. Hector (descended from the river god Scamander on his father’s side) is perhaps the greatest hero in the Iliad: noble, dedicated to defending his city, true to his wife, strong and great in war. In the Renaissance it was common to read the Iliad not as the epic of Achilles but as the tragedy of Hector. Achilles has no family, few friends, sulks in his tent, puts his lovers and allies in danger and disregards the requirements and courtesies of civilization. Hector, by contrast, is a mirror of princes: dutiful to his father, devoted to his wife and children, a great leader and protector of his city. And yet, though Hector fights unflinchingly across much of Homer’s poem, when he finally encounters the mighty Achilles he turns around and runs. Overcome with fear, he flees and Achilles chases him right round the city walls, three times.
In the world of the poem, Hector loses no prestige because he ran away. He feels no shame. Fighting Achilles would mean great glory — an intensely valuable quality for heroes — if he beat him. But Homer’s warriors are not robbed of glory, shamed or shunned, if they abandon the fight. Actually, they do it a lot, throwing down their weapons and begging for mercy when overmatched. Early in the Iliad it is agreed that the whole war will be decided by single combat between the Achaean King Menelaus and Paris, Prince of Troy (who had stolen away Menelaus’s wife Helen and so started the whole shebang). The two men fight in front of both armies, but as Menelaus gains the upper hand Aphrodite, who has a special fondness for Paris, whisks him magically away and back into the bedroom of Helen. Here Helen rebukes him: “How you used to boast, year in, year out, that you were the better man than fighting Menelaus in power, arm and spear!” But Paris is not shamed:
No more, dear one — don’t rake me with your taunts,
myself and all my courage. This time, true,
Menelaus has won the day, thanks to Athena.
I’ll bring him down tomorrow.
Even we have gods who battle on our side.
But come —
let’s go to bed, let’s lose ourselves in love!
Never has longing for you overwhelmed me so.
Far from feeling abashed or guilty at his cowardly retreat, Paris feels randy. His view of battle is: some you win, some you lose. This is so not least because combat is more than just two men fighting one another — it is also the combat of the gods and goddesses who favor those men, over whom mortals of course have no power.
There seems to me something aboriginal in this version of heroism and its concomitant cowardice. It goes back a long way, I feel sure. When I get out the vacuum-cleaner, my dog, Luna, gets very agitated. I think the noise scares her a little, and I’m sure she considers the humming, burbling device an intruder in her space, which outrages her. At any rate, like many dogs, she gets terribly excited and barks at the hoover as I push it around the carpet. To be precise, she will stand off, barking excitedly, until I pull the hoover toward me; then she will dash forward and try to bite the plastic carapace — until I push the hoover back in her direction, when she will skitter away to a place of safety.
This latter “cowardice” does not shame her (and, as any dog owner will tell you, dogs are capable of shame). It is in its way a perfectly Homeric gesture: running away from the overmastering threat, dashing into combat when it seems your enemy is weakening.
Later ideas of battlefield heroism were different than this. As war evolved, the most successful armies — the Greek hoplites in their phalanx, the Roman legionaries locking shields in their tortoise formation — relied on collective discipline rather than individual bravado to win battles. In such a circumstance, the most important thing is that your soldiers overcome their fear and stay in the formation. If even one runs away, the whole formation crumbles. Military training, all that lockstep marching up and down, all those exercises, are fundamentally about conditioning out the natural human desire to run into, or away from, the fight as circumstances offer, and instead training up human beings to stay in line no matter what, to follow orders, even if it means death.
This training can be extraordinarily successful. At the Battle of Borodino in 1812, when Napoleon advanced on Moscow, Russian and French troops alike endured artillery barrages of cannonballs and explosive shells, patiently waiting for orders to advance. The men simply stood there, lined up, while shells rained down upon them. As Tolstoy recounts the scene in War and Peace, “Without moving from that spot or firing a single shot the regiment here lost another third of its men.” Adam Zamoyski writes in Moscow 1812 that veteran Russian soldiers laughed at untrained militia who tried to dodge the cannonballs, knowing that each one had someone’s name on it anyway.
Is this bravery in any meaningful sense? Standing and waiting as your comrades are blasted to pieces around you, waiting for the shell that might have your name on it? It sounds more like insanity. A rational person would surely undertake to move away. Of course, for centuries armies enforced obedience by executing any who flinched and fled. Staying put at Borodino, or “going over the top” at the Somme, might be lethal, but — as officers reminded their troops — running away certainly would be. Bravery was enforced punitively, and cowardice was both personally and publicly shamed. During and right after World War I, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for cowardice and desertion. Their names were not recorded on war memorials, their families were shamed, their widows denied military pensions. This provides, or so the logic runs, a rational balance-of-eventualities motive for a soldier to stay and fight, even if the cult of heroism and the erasure by training of his individual decision-making capacity didn’t keep him in line.
Attitudes to “cowardice” in this sense have changed during the twentieth century, at least in the West. When General George S. Patton, touring a military hospital in Sicily in 1943, met Private Charles H. Kuhl, the general was incensed to discover that the soldier’s only injury was “battle fatigue.” Patton slapped the man and dragged him out of the hospital tent. In another instance, Patton slapped a battle-fatigued Private Paul G. Bennett and yelled: “You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. In fact, I ought to shoot you myself right now, God damn you!” But times had changed. Patton was forced to apologize for his actions and was removed from command for eleven months — only President Eisenhower’s personal support meant that he was given command of the U.S. Third Army in time for the Normandy campaign. In 2001, the Shot at Dawn Memorial was erected in Staffordshire, England to honor the 306 men executed by the British Army in World War I. These men were now seen as victims, many underage, inadequately defended at their courts martial, all suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, something now recognized as a legitimate and debilitating condition.
Cowardice becoming seen less as a moral failing and more a psychopathology has some interesting implications. Psychological health, of course, is as real and material a matter as physical health. It has no one single benchmark, but a psychologically healthy individual will have the capacity for happiness, self-control, the ability to love and work, and also the capacity for rational self-preservation. It may be the business of military training to override this latter quality, but it remains perfectly rational and psychologically healthy not to want to stand motionless in a column of people while artillery rains down upon you for hours.
So here’s one way of framing a history of cowardice. From being an occasional, not especially remarkable specie of self-preservation, mixed in with bravery in ways that go more or less unremarked, cowardice became something specifically singled out for disapprobation, something for which the person who succumbed would be reviled, mocked, in some cases killed, and for which his family and loved ones would carry the burden of shameful association. As cowardice was increasingly stigmatized, so heroism became increasingly valorized, reaching today’s hyperbolic levels. Consider Captain America, the lead Avenger in the staggeringly successful Marvel movie sequence, a potent, unironic model of heroism as radical good, not just in the physical bravery and fearlessness he manifests, but in the moral courage always to “do the right thing.”
This stark division between cowardice and heroism is of course a fantasy. It cuts across the realities of human psychology and behavior with an absolute dyad: be a hero and subordinate your wellbeing and even survival to the requirements of battle, or be a coward and protect yourself and be vilified. Human nature is not so starkly binary, but this dyad has a long history. Shakespeare’s plays are full of heroic, valorized warriors, and it is to Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, that we owe perhaps the most famous perspective on cowardice:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
As an exhortation to heroism and bravery, this addresses what we might call the pragmatic case for cowardice — under which the “c”-word becomes euphemized as prudence, caution, discretion, and so on — namely that the coward at least preserves his life. Not so, says Shakespeare: the shame, self-disgust, and terror to which a coward gives way doesn’t cheat death, it is death, and in some ways is worse than physical death because it can be endlessly prolonged. Death cannot be evaded, ultimately: better to conquer your miserable fears and embrace the valiant life.
For centuries, art and culture have celebrated and represented this notion of the splendor of heroism and the despicability of cowardice. Nor has this been merely a matter of simplistic propaganda. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, one of the most wonderful and influential novels ever written, is a portrait of an elderly madman who falls under the spell of chivalric romances. The Don is often absurd, comical, and lunatic, but no one could doubt his courage. When he believes windmills are giants he does not flinch or retreat; he charges right at them. Hurrah! Is Cervantes ironizing this kind of courage, suggesting that it is a function, actually, of insanity? By which I mean: Is this way of framing heroism actually an ironic critique of it as madness, a fable, a lie?
This, I think, would be the trickiest part of my History of Cowardice to write: the place of irony in our sense of the concept. A simplistic account might link heroic courage with martial success, but most accounts of courage are more complex than that. Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” celebrates as superb the bravery of the cavalry officers who charge the Russian guns during the Crimean War, even though their order to attack was a blunder and the action destroyed the brigade to no strategic benefit. But the poem urges us to celebrate them anyway:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Can we imagine Tennyson writing a poem about the Russian troops standing motionless at Borodino as the shells rained down? Unlikely. I’d say this panegyric needs the forward propulsion of the riders, replicated in the horse-gallop rhythm of the piece, to defang the sense that such a sacrifice in the name of “heroism” is wasteful, pointless, and indeed absurd.
Questions of activity and passivity are very much to the point. Heroism is active, it is taking charge of one’s emotions and exercising the powers of self-command, whereas cowardice is a contemptible passivity, abandoning the self to base instincts of self-preservation. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), though comedic and satirical, takes its source material seriously. For all their various ridiculousnesses, the Arthurian Knights in the film are all brave — to a fault, really — except for the cowardly Sir Robin. The minstrels who prance alongside him do not spare him:
Brave Sir Robin ran away.
Bravely ran away, away!
When danger reared its ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
Sir Robin’s screechy denials — “I didn’t! Ooh, I never!” — only reinforce the rank absurdity of his cowardice in such a heroic medieval-romance idiom. It’s not just contemptible, it’s laughable to be a coward and belong to King Arthur’s chivalric order. But the flip side is also comedic, and in an interesting way. Because although faultlessly brave, King Arthur and his knights are exceptionally stupid, really extraordinarily dim: easily gulled, unable to perform tasks as simple as kindergarten-level counting (handed the Holy Hand Grenade, Arthur is told to count to three, and goes: “one, two, five”). And perhaps bravery in this mode, as the movie suggests, is actually a kind of holy stupidity, quixotic in the proper sense.
In Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth (1828), set in medieval Scotland, the handsome young Highland chief Conachar courts Catherine Glover, the lovely young woman of the title. For a time Conachar is Catherine’s father’s apprentice, but he goes back to his Highland tribe because he inherits the chiefdom on his father’s death. Catherine is also courted by the strong, manly Henry Gow, a blacksmith and a brave, fighting fellow. Which man will she marry? It’s Henry Gow. Conachar turns out to be inadmissible as a suitor. This is what he tearfully confesses to Catherine’s dad as they discuss their experiences in war:
“Father, — for such you have been to me — I am about to tell you a secret. Reason and pride both advise me to be silent, but fate urges me, and must be obeyed. I am about to lodge in you the deepest and dearest secret that man ever confided to man….
Father, I am — a COWARD! It is said at last, and the secret of my disgrace is in keeping of another!”
The young man sunk back in a species of syncope, produced by the agony of his mind as he made the fatal communication. The glover, moved as well by fear as by compassion, applied himself to recall him to life, and succeeded in doing so, but not in restoring him to composure. He hid his face with his hands, and his tears flowed plentifully and bitterly.
That capitalized “COWARD!” is a major dramatic reveal, a kind of novelistic coup-de-théâtre. It depends, for its force, on the idea that the protagonist of a historical romance would of course be the story’s hero, which would of course require that he be heroic rather than cowardly — an idea we still have, with “hero” and “protagonist” effectively interchangeable terms. In Scott’s other novels this is the case: The main character acts heroically, bravely — and The Fair Maid of Perth balances out this shocking truth about its hero by including a second hero, the brave smith Henry Gow, who ends up getting the girl. But Conachar’s confession of cowardice doesn’t banish him from the novel. On the contrary, he haunts the story — literally at the end, as a kind of revenant or specter in the Scottish Highlands, unable to die. He is much more interesting, and much more alive, than the pasteboard hero and heroine.
What’s going on?
Here, I think, we touch on an alternate narrative to my notional History of Cowardice, complexifying the linear development of the concept I sketched above. Shakespeare ringingly declares that the coward dies a thousand deaths, true; and he populates his plays with heroic warriors like Henry V and Coriolanus. But Shakespeare also gives us the most celebrated and wonderful coward in literature: Falstaff. Whatever else he is, Falstaff is not merely a contemptible and shameful figure. His shamelessness is a glorious part of who he is, and there is something simultaneously comedic and profound in his instincts for self-preservation and self-gratification. The Henry IV plays are in part about heroism — Hotspur’s bravery too reckless and self-destructive, Falstaff’s heroism non-existent, Prince Hal hitting the sweet spot of bravery and caution. But the scene when we hear of Falstaff’s death, offstage in Henry V, is so powerful because it is so genuine in its assessment of the man: he is, as the hostess says, “not in hell! He’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”
How can a rank coward like Falstaff be the hero? Isn’t that just a contradiction in terms? Shakespeare suggests not, and the twentieth century has seen a number of hero-cowards, inheritors of Falstaff’s mantle, figures ironically heroic in their cowardice, and vice versa. Perhaps this comes about as a reaction to the way both world wars drew not just professional soldiers but millions of ordinary people into crazy danger against their will. George MacDonald Fraser’s character Flashman, an unscrupulous British officer; Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind, the cowardly wizard of the Discworld novels; Captain Jack Sparrow, played with rock-star mannerism by Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. These are more than merely comic foils: they are a new kind of hero, whose heroism is predicated on precisely not rushing stupidly into danger. They sense, together with their audience, that life is precious, not to be thrown away, and that there is a complex, ironic kind of vigor and worth in the cowardly urge to keep oneself alive.
We might say that this is a bourgeois ethos — Flashman, Rincewind, even Captain Sparrow are middle-class rather than aristocratic figures. And we might contrast this with the older feudal model of society, the warrior code by which military success and personal bravery are absolutes, and cowardliness, as their repudiation, is the lowest failing. Yet Scott’s Conachar is not the novel’s bourgeois; he is the feudal Highland chief. He is indeed rebuked by Simon Glover, the Perthshire burgher, for his cowardice. And Falstaff, of course, is a knight of the realm, a courtier and friend of princes.
It strikes me as interesting that Prince Hal, whose path leads him away from venal and demeaning self-interest and dissipation to a properly kingly honor, bearing, and courage, rebukes Falstaff’s cowardice in terms of human indebtedness to the Creator.
Why, thou owest God a death.
’Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him
before His day. What need I be so forward with
Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter.
Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me
off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a
leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a
wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then?
No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word
“honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning.
Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth
he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible,
then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the
living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore,
I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And
so ends my catechism.
There’s a fascinating shift in this passage. Prince Hal means “debt” in the older feudal sense of due, in the way that a vassal owes his or her lord service; but Falstaff reads debt in a more modern, banking-system sense — the sense in which I owe my mortgage provider a large sum of money but I’m certainly not about to pay it all off at once, thank you very much. Such debt is a matter of contract, not honor. In Falstaff’s speech, honor is “a word,” in a play that is (of course) all words, all the time. But there’s an inversion here as well. As one learns in David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, one’s word is more valuable than money. I can exchange the former for the latter — by promising to pay you back, I can borrow money from you (this promise is literally written onto the banknotes in the U.K.). But I cannot exchange money for a word.
Falstaff’s word “honor” is at once worthless and of the highest worth. Calling honor “a trim reckoning” plays on this, I think, since “trim” means both “thin” or “meager” and also (from Old English trymman) “to make firm,” “to strengthen.” There is a similar pun at work in calling honor “a mere scutcheon,” which is at once only a decoration, a coat of arms, and the warrior’s shield and strength, bearing that coat of arms.
The problem with heroism, we might say, is that it is often a bit stupid. And conversely, the thing about cowardice is that it is, in its way, clever: that it understands debt as something to be leveraged rather than simply paid, that it balances the passivity of standing waiting for death to strike you with the agency of taking charge of your own fate. Sometimes Captain Jack Sparrow is a laughable figure, a comedy-coward running from danger; but sometimes he is brave and determined, wielding his cutlass and battling his enemies. Falstaff is a self-confessed coward, yet he still goes to war, facing the prospect of death on the battlefield with everyone else.
This, then, would be the main throughline of my notional History of Cowardice: that cowardice is an ironic iteration of courage. If courage is heroism straightforwardly, then cowardice is ironic heroism, and as such suits modern warfare.
“Every war is ironic,” says Paul Fussell in his influential study of World War I poetry, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” Fussell argues that all wars are ironic to some extent, but that World War I was ironic to a new intensity and degree: the first massive, industrialized, global war, a wholly new mode of social–existential trauma. This brute fact — combined with other factors, such as the “ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home,” the absurdity of millions dying over the assassination of the Austrian archduke, and the complete reversal of the myth of progress — meant that “the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.” All war since then has been conducted in the shadow of that epochal conflict: all war now is mechanical, disproportionately lethal and dehumanizing, the arena of heroized bravery and ironized heroism both, for both are versions of the same thing.
This, I think, is key. We think of mechanized warfare as a recent development: from the big guns of World War I to today’s remote-controlled drones and cruise missiles. But in fact human beings have been complaining about the “new” technologies of war for a long time. Euripides’ play Heracles (416 b.c.) includes a complaint that the bow and arrow has taken true heroism out of war. Meet your enemy face-to-face, spear and shield in hand, and you’re really fighting; but lurking hundreds of yards back and firing an arrow is, Euripides suggests, a cowardly way of prosecuting war. Similar complaints greeted the coming of cannons and rifles, of planes and missiles. Fighting war today includes sitting, safe, in an air-conditioned room and pushing a button. How can that be heroic? There’s a reason why Hollywood action films are so fond of the fistfight: the hero has to be there, within arm’s reach of his enemy, to register as heroic.
But a real fistfight will as likely break your knuckles as knock the other fellow out. That’s not how canny people fight: slip on a knuckle duster, take a cosh out of your pocket — or grab a club, or a gun, or better still, send someone else to fight on your behalf.
King Amphitryon, in Euripides’ play, has to concede that the muscular, fearless Heracles is brave. But at the same time he mocks him: “you disparage that clever invention, an archer’s weapon,” he says.
Come, listen to me and learn wisdom…. A man, after discharging countless arrows, still has others with which to defend himself from death, and standing at a distance keeps off the enemy, wounding them for all their watchfulness with invisible shafts, and never exposing himself to the foe, but keeping under cover; and this is by far the wisest course in battle, to harm the enemy and keep safe oneself, independent of chance.
Heracles is the hero of the play, and Amphitryon’s advice is that of the self-interested coward. But at the same time Euripides understands that Amphitryon, though speaking ironically, has a point.
Think of James Cameron’s 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s warrior robot, implacable in its mission, is the anthropomorphic figure of modern war: a machine programmed to kill. Does it make sense to call the Terminator “heroic”? It certainly never manifests cowardice, never runs away or doubts its purpose. But the Terminator is no more brave, no more heroic than a cannon-shell, a missile, or a drone.
Heroism itself in the modern arena of war becomes machine-like, inhuman — and, conversely, we rediscover the humanness of cowardice. The hero-coward, that Homeric figure, endures.
Who’s Afraid of Cowardice?