Cowardice on the War Front

Faculty Insight

Chris Walsh

Chris Walsh

Director, College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program, Boston University

In a recent book, Walsh explores cowardice throughout history, with a particular focus on soldiers in times of war. 

Walsh is fascinated by cowardice. “I’m a bit of a contrarian,” says Walsh. “I’m interested in bravery, like everyone is, but I was also curious about its opposite. Cowardice helps us negotiate when fear and duty conflict, and I’m also very interested in duty.” This interest led to a wealth of research and the book Cowardice: A Brief History.

The book begins with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The day after the bombing, a large digital billboard in Boston began displaying the word “COWARDS” in bold, capital letters. The word resonated profoundly with the community, quickly evolving into “#COWARDS,” and went viral online. The term caught Walsh’s interest, he says, because the context is very different from how it was used centuries ago.

“We use the word ‘coward’ today for something alien and villainous, like the 9/11 terrorists or the marathon bombers,” he says. “We don’t think about it in relation to ourselves, and something we might be.”

Cowardice throughout history

Walsh’s book explores cowardice throughout history, primarily as applied to individuals put under the most stressful and demanding of challenges: soldiers at war.

“The archetypal cowards are soldiers who were cowardly, and so I look at how they have been treated through time,” Walsh says.

“If you were to flee from battle in 1700, you would have been branded a coward and you would be punished: humiliated, shamed, perhaps even executed. Today, the same behavior might be understood psychologically: you were suffering from PTSD. And of course I’m not saying that people who suffer from PTSD are cowards but, rather, that we now have a better alternative for understanding those reactions.”

While Walsh’s research explores the harrowing terror of cowardice, it’s not without its dark humor. Among the favorites he discovered in his research was “Stumpy” Williams, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He received his nickname because he hid behind a stump whenever the shots began flying. “He said, ‘I can see as well (from) here,’” Walsh says.

The criminal implications of cowardice

Today, American soldiers can still be charged with cowardice and executed for that crime. Fortunately, Walsh says, only one soldier has experienced that outcome since the Civil War. That was Private Eddie Slovik in 1945. But Walsh points out that “tens of thousands” of Russian and German soldiers were executed for cowardice during World War II, showing that the contempt for cowardice is still current.

The primal conflict of Walsh’s book is immediately evident from its cover. The picture is from the perspective of a firing squad aiming their rifles at soldiers convicted of cowardice. The picture brings home the real-life quandary in having to execute one of your own—someone who fled danger and duty, and whose place on the front line would have to be taken by another soldier.

“The photo really puts you in the position of the firing squad,” Walsh says. “You’re holding the gun, aimed at one of your fellow comrades, and you’re ordered to kill him. It really makes you ask, ‘What would you do?’”

— by Jennifer Doody

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