Coward. It's a grave insult, likely to provoke anger, shame, even violence. But what exactly is cowardice? When terrorists are called cowards, does it mean the same as when the term is applied to soldiers? And what, if anything, does cowardice have to do with the rest of us? Bringing together sources from court-martial cases to literary and film classics such as Dante's Inferno, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Thin Red Line, Cowardice recounts the great harm that both cowards and the fear of seeming cowardly have done, and traces the idea of cowardice’s power to its evolutionary roots. But Chris Walsh also shows that this power has faded, most dramatically on the battlefield. Misconduct that earlier might have been punished as cowardice has more recently often been treated medically, as an adverse reaction to trauma, and Walsh explores a parallel therapeutic shift that reaches beyond war, into the realms of politics, crime, philosophy, religion, and love.
Yet, as Walsh indicates, the therapeutic has not altogether triumphed—contempt for cowardice endures, and he argues that such contempt can be a good thing. Courage attracts much more of our attention, but rigorously understanding cowardice may be more morally useful, for it requires us to think critically about our duties and our fears, and it helps us to act ethically when fear and duty conflict.
Richly illustrated and filled with fascinating stories and insights, Cowardice is the first sustained analysis of a neglected but profound and pervasive feature of human experience.
Chris Walsh is associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.
"[W]e want to be told that the standards by which people used to be judged have to be re-examined--as cowardice has been in the last century, mainly on therapeutic grounds--if not abolished altogether. Those who are interested in such standards, whether pro or con, will find this book an indispensable addition to their libraries."--James Bowman, New York Times Book Review
"For all the insult's might, and how frequently it is leveled in a number of circumstances, there is hardly a consensus about what constitutes a coward. Walsh offers a cultural biography of the term, researching attitudes toward it throughout American history, as well as accounting for the damage the label has wrought."--Joumana Khatib, New York Times Book Review
"[A] philosophical meditation on behavior usually considered too contemptible for serious consideration . . . Cowardice: A Brief History is most valuable . . . for the way it refuses to settle any . . . issues. Like a geologist turning over a fragment of igneous rock, Mr. Walsh considers his subject from every angle, and then considers it again. . . . Clearly, cowardice is an indispensable concept for living a life that we may bravely face."--Randall Fuller, Wall Street Journal
"Walsh's well-written and wide-ranging study of cowardice offers some valuable insights into one of the military's--and society's--last taboos."--Australian
Table of Contents:
Chapter 1 Profiles in Cowardice: A Shadow History of the Home of the Brave 23
Chapter 2 Of Arms and Men 45
Chapter 3 The Ways of Excessive Fear 77
Chapter 4 Duty-Bound 100
Chapter 5 The Rise of the Therapeutic 131
Chapter 6 So Long a File: Cowardice Away from War 165
Illustration Credits 277