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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: December 20, 2021

Podcast #763: The Perils and Powers of Cowardice

There have been many books written about courage. About cowardice, however, there has only been one. The author of this lone book on cowardice joins me today to talk about why cowardice, though much ignored, is at least equally important to understand as courage, and how the fear of the former may actually serve as a stronger motivator towards doing daring deeds.

His name is Chris Walsh, and his book is Cowardice: A Brief History. Today on the show, Chris explains how a coward can be defined as “someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do,” and yet how the assumptions behind this definition can be hard to pin down. We discuss why cowardice has been so condemned through time, so much so that in the military it was long considered a crime worthy of execution. We also discuss why the fear of being a coward is so tied into manliness, and why that label constitutes the worst insult you can level at a man. Chris delves into the way external checks on cowardice, the depersonalization and mechanization of war, and the rise of the therapeutic lens on life have diminished the moral heft of cowardice. He then argues that despite this fact, and the way that cultural contempt for cowardice and a personal fear of it can lead to negative effects, it remains an important prod towards doing one’s duty and a foundation of moral judgment. We end our conversation with how we can use the fear of cowardice as a positive motivator in our lives.

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Read the Transcript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to an edition of The Art of Manliness podcast, now, there’ve been many books written about courage, about cowardice, however, there’s only been one. The author of this lone book on cowardice joins me today to talk about why cowardice, though much ignored, is at least equally important to understand as courage. Now, the fear of the former may actually serve as a stronger motivator towards doing daring deeds. His name is Chris Walsh and his book is Cowardice: A Brief History. Today on the show, Chris explains how a coward can be defined as someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he’s supposed to do, and yet how the assumptions behind this definition can be hard to pin down. We discuss why cowardice has been so condemned through time so much so that in the military, it was long considered a crime worthy of execution. We also discuss why the fear of being a coward is so tied into manliness and why that label constitutes the worst insult you can level at a man. Chris delves in the way that external checks on cowardice, the depersonalization and mechanization of warfare, and the rise of the therapeutic lens on life, have diminished the moral heft of cowardice.

He then argues that despite this fact and the way that cultural contempt for cowardice and the personal fear of it can lead to negative effects, it remains an important prod towards doing one’s duty and a foundation of moral judgment. We enter conversation with how we can use the fear of cowardice as a positive motivator in our lives. After show’s over check out our show notes at

Alright, Chris Walsh, welcome to the show.

Chris Walsh: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you’ve got a book out called Cowardice: A Brief History and you note in the beginning of the book that there haven’t been any books written about cowardice. Why is that? And why did you feel like you needed to do a deep dive into the history of cowardice?

Chris Walsh: Yeah, surprisingly, it is, I think, an extraordinarily important idea, thing, phenomenon, and last I looked, my book was the only text on the subject in the Library of Congress catalog. And there’s a long history of saying, “Let’s not talk about cowardice”, going back to Socrates. Dante, I know, the man who catalogued human sin and baseness, spends very little time on cowards. In fact, he doesn’t actually quite put them in hell. As Dante and Virgil get into the lobby of hell, Dante notices this sound and sees just hoards and hoards of ghosts, entities, people, racing along, chasing a banner and says, “Who are those people?” To Virgil and Virgil says, “Well those are the cowards, those are the neutrals, the people who never participated truly in life”, and then he says, “Let us not speak of them.” And Kierkegaard who maybe talked about cowardice more than anybody, any modern philosopher, also kind of makes short work of it and says that the very term, it’s sort of evasive and it’s so terrible that we try to talk about it but we can’t.

And then when I was actually in the course of writing the dissertation that became the book, I got wind of a man named William Ian Miller, who had written a book about disgust and he’s written some really interesting books, and I wrote a review of his book, The Anatomy of Disgust, and then wrote and asked him what’s he working on now, and he said, “Cowardice”, and my heart fell because there I was a graduate student and there he was this eminent writer whom I very much admired working on my topic. But then he wound up publishing a book called The Mystery of Courage, and in it he said he tried to write a book about cowardice but a cowardice gave way, that’s what it always does. And so in a way, I kinda backed into the topic, I started to write about courage and then found myself intrigued by the idea of cowardice. Finished the dissertation, abandoned it, ran away from it for five years and then finally went back to it.

Brett McKay: But yeah, I think it’s interesting, like, philosophers, they’ve talked about cowardice, and we’ll talk about how they defined it, they don’t wanna talk about it, but as you make the case in the book, cowardice often looms larger in our psyche than courage.

Chris Walsh: And studies have shown among soldiers, for example, and the kind of quintessential place and the place that I spend the most time examining the phenomenon of cowardice is in the military context, and it’s been often reported that soldiers worry much more about cowardice and about being thought cowardly than they aspire to be courageous or held up as a hero, and what ultimately motivates soldiers is that sort of fear, the fear of being cowardly and the shame that would go with it.

Brett McKay: Okay, I wanna dig deep into that, before we do, let’s be Socratic, and let’s do some definitions. How’ve philosophers defined cowardice throughout the ages?

Chris Walsh: In fuzzy ways, I kind of run through a couple of things in the book that relate to… So for example, Aristotle talks about there being a kind of spectrum between excessive fear, which characterizes the coward, and excessive confidence, which characterizes somebody who’s reckless. And in between, in that goal, the mean is somebody who is proceeding courageously. And he talks about, but not kind of explicitly, in the Nicomachean Ethics, as I recall, that the coward is failing to do something he’s supposed to be doing. And that is an element of the definitions that actually, the sort of a standard military definition really makes crystal clear, that is that a coward is someone who fails to do something he is supposed to do, fails to do his duty because of excessive fear.

Brett McKay: And does fear need to be present for there to be cowardice or courage, according to philosophers and according to your definition?

Chris Walsh: Yes, according to my definition, definitely. And in most of the philosophers that I looked at, yeah, there’s an element of fear. Even to the point where they question sometimes somebody who is fearless. If somebody’s not feeling fear and they do some daring feat, it’s a fair question to wonder “Are they courageous?” There are examples of soldiers who just did amazing things and did so with fear. And if they don’t have fear, I guess it’s fair to question whether they needed courage to do what they were doing. And that’s where I think actually courage can be a slipperier concept and cowardice is not, in part because cowardice makes clear that the matter of duty and the matter of fear always figure in the calculations and in our evaluation of conduct and of character.

Brett McKay: Making cowards even more slippery, even Aristotle observed that people who are reckless, says, usually are cowards. So that’s kind of weird because you think, “Hey, if you’re reckless then you’re not cowardly.” But Aristotle is, “Yeah, maybe in some cases the reckless man could also be a coward because he’s maybe hiding… ”

Chris Walsh: Yeah.

Brett McKay: “He’s showing his bluster to hide his fear.”

Chris Walsh: Yeah, it’s a curious kind of loop where you can put it out on a page on a continuum, the reckless on the left and the cowardice on the right, but they kind of meet behind in the phenomenon where we have somebody who’s reckless. Maybe, I think, there are some who might say because they’re actually what they fear is being fearful or seeming fearful and so, act recklessly, causing as much damage sometimes as a coward might. Although like Samuel Johnson notes that while those two things seem like, in a way equals, if opposite matters, recklessness and cowardice, there’s something self-checking about recklessness that if somebody behaves recklessly, reality will get them. Somebody launches an attack or something when they’re not supposed to, they’ll get shot down, whereas the coward can keep running and spreading fear as he goes. So there’s curious wrinkles to trying to dissect the philosophical foundations of this stuff.

Brett McKay: And it’s often very situational too, which makes it hard. Because for Aristotle’s definition of cowardice, it depends on the circumstances in often cases. Like, what’s the psychological status of the person who we’re labeling cowardly or courageous?

Chris Walsh: Right.

Brett McKay: And what’s the situation they’re in? So I think that’s probably why it’s so hard to pin down, even I think Ian Miller, he said that a unitary concept of cowardice can never be sufficiently refined to get the moral call right. So it’s a slippery thing.

Chris Walsh: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But you have a working definition that you used throughout your book, is that a coward is someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do. And that “Supposed to” is sort of duty-bound, and we’ll talk about that here in a bit. But let’s talk about this, like the state of the word cowardice today, in our modern world. So, people talked about it some throughout history, but you have this great graph of how often cowardice gets used in books. You can do this on Google. And it’s been declining since about 1800, and this just drops. What do you think’s going on there? Why has there been a decline in our referencing cowardice in our moral vocabulary?

Chris Walsh: I think in part that’s a kind of a piece with larger trends in our language and thinking where we’ve become less moralistic in the way we judge things, more apt to understand failures of conduct or character as the result of psychological ailments, medical issues, rather than sinfulness or flaws in character. And so that’s, I think, a general trend. In cowardice in particular, I think has been pressed down or displaced by the horrors of modern war, the industrialization of war, and war being its quintessential home, as I said before, it’s one thing to talk about cowardice when men are meeting in combat individually or in small groups or whatever, but when you have giant armies contending against each other from miles away or nuclear arms in play, it makes cowardice seem less relevant. And so that, coupled with the growth of a more of a sort of a psychological mindset that displaces or delays moral judgment, explain it in part. But it’s also the case that, the graph, and using this Google Ngram tool, goes pretty steadily down from 1800-2001, but then it goes up. And that was, I think, mostly or entirely because of rhetoric after 9/11, when the terrorists were held to be cowards, and the idea of cowardice came into play when we were debating what would be the best reaction to the terrorist attack.

And it’s something I, actually, in preparation for this discussion, I googled it because I hadn’t googled it for a while, and it’s kept going up. And I think actually during the Trump administration, it was a kind of a keyword that came up a lot and not just relative to war.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting, how it started going up around 2001, and you highlighted, I remember when this happened, the controversy, we started calling the terrorist cowards.

Chris Walsh: Right.

Brett McKay: And then there was this debate, famously, this is what got Bill Maher act, his show Politically Incorrect, actually. He made the case “No, the terrorists, they weren’t cowards, they got into a plane and flew into it. That’s not cowardly.” And so again, it’s that slipperiness of the word. It’s a hard… Like, you know it carries moral weight. We wanted to throw it at people who we don’t like. But then there’s just like, “Well, was what they did cowardly or not?” And it causes a lot of debate even still today.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, and I think the word coward as opposed to the word cowardice has been, especially if you look at the graphs, the usage of the word coward has gone way up in the past 20 years, but the word cowardice, not so much, and I think that’s because the word coward is a great insult. The Urban dictionary defines it as the worst insult known to man. But cowardice, this abstract concept, it’s not so easy to throw around and requires some thinking, which I obviously think is worthwhile.

Brett McKay: Okay, so as you said in the book, you use military history to explore the cultural history of Cowardice, because that’s where it’s most salient and most visceral, and as you’ve noted earlier, you note that if you look at letters from soldiers or speeches by military leaders, there was more of a concern for cowardice than there was for being courageous, so that is, soldiers would write home, especially in the Civil War, they would write home their family and say. “I wanna make sure that I’m not a coward.” They didn’t talk about, I’m gonna be brave, to bring glory. I don’t wanna shame my family by being a coward, so what’s going on there? Why is it that this negative attribute seems more of a motivator to do things that you’d feel like you’re supposed to do than this more positive courage? What is going on there?

Chris Walsh: Yeah, and I think partly, we can look at sort of the evolutionary history. George Washington actually gets at it, one of his first acts when he took over the Continental Army, and he came, and I actually used this as an epigraph of the book, but he comes to marshall the troops and he’s faced with a couple of cases of cowardice and he calls it the worst thing that can afflict an army because the cowardice of a single officer may prove to be the destruction of the whole army, so there’s just the danger of the coward and how much harm they can inflict on one’s own side. That helps explain why it’s so condemned, but the evidence is just all over the place, as you said in the Civil War, it was especially salient maybe in part because soldiers were serving with men from their hometowns, stories of their conduct would be published in local newspapers, so James McPherson talks about how common the fear of cowardice was expressed in letters, he also says that that fear is what gave them courage, and so there is a sense in which the worry about cowardice, it’s kind of the sort of dark side of duty of what is going to happen to you if you don’t do your duty, and that is, you will be thought a coward, and the people you care about most in war, meaning the people who are your immediate comrades in arms, are going to think ill of you and not trust you. And that is something we just don’t want and human nature did not want to be despised by those closest to us.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and if you look also one thing that military stories have noted is that when you look at diaries or letters or interviews, and what compelled men to fight, they didn’t say these sort of aspirational things for, well, for country or some ideal. It usually just got down to like. “I didn’t wanna let the guy next to me down. I didn’t want them to think less of me.” That’s what it was.

Chris Walsh: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And again, so yeah, cowardice, and from a military perspective, it was feared because if a leader showed cowardice or soldier started running away from battle that could spread, we would call it social contagion today with our idea, but they understood that if people started running then it would cause everyone else like that fear would spread and that would be disastrous. And so they really punished it hard, and since early human history and militaries, the punishment for cowardice has been harsh, can you walk us through the history of military punishment for cowardice?

Chris Walsh: Sure, yeah, it could indeed be harsh in ancient times, the Greeks, the Romans, you probably know the term decimation, what it originally meant was the execution of one-tenth of a group of soldiers, when that group of soldiers had behaved in a cowardly fashion, and that was often done by the term is Fustuarium, very dramatic, in which the head of the unit would gently touch the accused with a cudgel and then the other soldiers would then come at him and kill him. And so these soldiers who were doing the punishing were also getting a vivid up-close experience of what could happen to them, also going back to ancient times, cowardly soldiers would be dressed up as women, branding of soldiers has a long history that faded out, at least, in the American context in the Civil War, and also other kinds of humiliation putting is one instance in the Civil war of a bunch of soldiers who had fled battle being put in barrels and one barrel said. “I skedaddled,” another said “coward,” another said, “deserter” or something like that. And they were just required to stand and rotate in front of their comrades in arms to be shamed.

Brett McKay: So you have a lot of shaming during the Civil war if you were convicted of cowardice, oftentimes there was a report published in your local newspaper saying what you did. It’s a lot of humiliation, but the ultimate was death. It was an executable offense, so you could die as recent as World War II in the United States. I think there’s only one person you talked about.

Chris Walsh: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You can be executed for showing cowardice.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, and certainly in other countries, this happened much more in World War I, Great Britain executed 306 soldiers for cowardice or related offenses, the Germans and the Russians executed many, many more in World War II, and yeah, that’s the ultimate penalty. It’s gone for the most part, out of use, and we can talk about why the Germans and the Russians and the British might have been slower to relax the punishments, but yeah, it’s the worst thing a soldier can do, and so it was punished accordingly.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, let’s talk about that, ’cause the US used the threat of execution as a deterrent for cowardice. ‘Cause they picked that up from old war militaries, like George Washington was trained in the British military and he brought that in when he took over the Continental Army. But as you know, there really weren’t that many US executions for cowardice during the Revolutionary War. In the Civil War, there were executions for cowardice in America, but oftentimes, they were commuted, you just did hard labor. And then World War I and World War II, the US didn’t execute for cowardice as much as European countries. What happened there? Why did the US didn’t use execution for cowardice? Why did they use it less compared to the European countries?

Chris Walsh: Yeah. In a way I think ’cause they didn’t have to. Well, I’m thinking of… Actually, my dissertation advisor was Saul Bellow, a novelist, and he has a line about, he says something, “When I say American, I mean, uncorrected by the main history of human suffering”, and the European powers were not only fighting the war, but their countries were the battlefields, and they didn’t have the luxury of being gentle with those they thought were cowardly. And in the States, I think, we could be that way, and there are also because of American consideration for individual difference, maybe being greater than in those other places in some ways, also another reason that cowardice was so punished was as there’s the social contagion of fear. There also can invite aggression, people have to be trained to fire on somebody, but they find it much easier to fire on somebody whose eyes they can’t see, and so somebody fleeing is actually a more inviting target than somebody who’s not. And then also the reputation for cowardice on one side can give confidence and momentum to those on the other side, and so then obviously those are considerations for American soldiers and American military authorities, but I think they were even more important and pressing on the other side of the Atlantic. And not to mention Japan and other places.

Brett McKay: And the last person that was executed for cowardice in America, was it in World War II, the private Slovik?

Chris Walsh: Right, right.

Brett McKay: What was it about his case where they’re like, “Yeah, we’re gonna make him the only one we’re gonna execute for cowardice.”

Chris Walsh: Yeah, technically, he was executed for desertion. And he is a hard luck case in all sorts of ways. And he was also not his own best witness. He wrote a defiant note about why he left and he said if he has to go out there again, he’s gonna run away again. And I think there are a couple of other similar cases where given reprieves and he was just that one case. There’s actually quite an affecting movie about him and his case called The Execution of Private Slovik with Martin Sheen playing the lead role. Grueling movie that was aired on TV and to great acclaim and very widely seen in the early ’70s as America was trying to figure out how it would get out of Vietnam without feeling cowardly in the process.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Let’s talk about this: The idea of cowardice and courage in a military context. The most famous book that explores the complexity of courage and cowardice on the battlefield is a book, if you grew up in the United States, you probably read, I think I was in 10th grade when I read this, the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. What insights about cowardice does Crane extract in that book?

Chris Walsh: Yeah, it’s an amazing book, and it is the book that everybody was telling me when I’m writing about courage. “Oh, you’re talking about Red Badge of Courage.” Yep, I am. Although the book actually never quite mentions that word, but it makes eminently clear that there is this what, Crane, calls this eternal debate going on in the youth in Henry Fleming’s mind. He was 17-years-old or whatever when he joins, about whether he would run or whether he would prove to be someone of traditional courage. And then he gets his Red Badge of Courage, as you might remember, not in some heroic charge, but in the course of a kind of chaotic retreat where he’s trying to talk to it, a fellow Union soldier who gets agitated with him and smacks him with his rifle butt on the head, but then he’s got this kind of what in Word War II would be called a million dollar wound. And then when he does charge the enemy later in the book, the depiction of his charge is that it’s almost identical to the depiction of when he’s running away from the enemy.

And so Crane, when he was writing the book, he called it a psychological portrait of fear, and I think that’s what the book does. It insists on holding at arms length, the traditional ways of judging and depicting battlefield behavior that glorified it, that evaluated it in moralistic terms and Crane is not having that. He holds all that stuff at a bit of a distance in the book, and we just kind of experience what this youth is experiencing and hoping for.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, what’s interesting too, when the kid makes the first retreat, he realizes that no one saw.

Chris Walsh: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And so he starts doing this and he’s like, “Well, it wasn’t cowardice”, and I think what Crane was trying to get at there was that cowardice and courage, it’s a very social virtue. It needs an audience for it to really hold moral weight.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, he made his mistakes in the dark, I think as he puts it, and so he was still a man, that’s what he thinks about it. Yeah, and so if anything is that dependent on social perceptions then how real is it. I think Crane wants us to consider and I don’t think he dismisses, he doesn’t say cowardice doesn’t exist, courage doesn’t exist. But the traditional ways we think of it, and certainly the kind of naive ways that Henry Fleming ponders it, do very much get questioned in the book. And then he wrote actually a story called The Veteran, fast-forwarding 30 years later, and we get Henry Fleming as a grandfather looking back and kind of making a joke about running away. And then actually, if I’m remembering correctly, heroically going into a barn to save some animals and dying in the process and Crane was certainly celebrating that act, even as his grandson was scandalized by the grandfather’s, by Henry’s making light of a traditional notion of cowardice.

Brett McKay: It’s kind of a proto-Ernest Hemingway. Kind of Ernest Hemingway got cynical about cowardice. So yeah, maybe it’s not really a thing, it’s just words.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, one of those abstract words that means nothing. I’m sure you’ve talked about that when you talked about honor.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, well, Shakespeare even talked about that.

Chris Walsh: Sure.

Brett McKay: What is honor? The word. So you mentioned the character in Red Badge of Courage when he discovered that no one saw him running away. He’s like, “I’m still a man.” This raises my next question. Courage and cowardice is inherently tied up with manliness and unmanliness. Why is that? What’s going on there?

Chris Walsh: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I gotta start that inquiry by just thinking about the evolutionary picture again and why we might be naturally inclined to condemn fearfulness and failures of, you know, born of fearfulness in men more than in women. And one is just that men are bigger than women, and they’ve done studies of 10 month old kids who can tell that difference and react differently to the physical abilities of a bigger person or figure than in a smaller person, so without being sort of a determinist about it, evolutionarily speaking, there is a sense in which, because men are on average, significantly larger than women, we’re more likely to judge them negatively if they show fear. And also men’s lives are cheaper, given that eggs are much rarer than sperm, and there are studies of primates, non-human primates, where the males are sentinels in a band and they face greater risks, and if they die, that’s too bad, but better that they die then a precious female. So I think it’s sort of at the foundation of why it’s more associated with a masculine framework. And then build on that, you know, thousands of years of culture, with its own wrinkles in the states.

Brett McKay: And what I think is so fascinating about that cowardice and courage’s connection to manliness and how gendered it is, I feel like us in the modern age, we think we’re above that, like we’re beyond that, but it’s still interesting. Whenever we want to get a dude to do something, what do you do? You call him a chicken.

Chris Walsh: Right.

Brett McKay: And if you call a woman a coward that doesn’t have the same sting.

Chris Walsh: Yep.

Brett McKay: But we know if you call a guy a chicken, that’s gonna sting.

Chris Walsh: Yep. Yeah, it’s deep.

Brett McKay: It’s funny, we think we’re above that, but there’s some vestiges of that still in our little primal brain where we know the things that can needle people.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, and again, culture does affect that. There is an interesting study comparing southern and northern college students and their reactions to insult, and the southern students were more likely to react in a strong way to offenses to their honor, but even in the north you call a dude a chicken, and that can be a motivator.

Brett McKay: It can be a motivator, right. That like in Back To The Future with Marty McFly.

Chris Walsh: Right, right.

Brett McKay: You call him a chicken, and that’s what needled him. That’s what got him to do something he shouldn’t have done.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about the intersection of cowardice and duty, ’cause your definition of cowardice is, you don’t do something out of excessive fear, and that’s something you’re supposed to do. Militaries enforce punishments of dereliction of duty with death, but this is kind of weird because you’re coercing someone to not be cowardly. So, do you strip away the moral heft of cowardice by telling someone you have to do this thing?

Chris Walsh: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I talk about the paradox of duty, that it is something compulsory we feel, but it’s also something that is performed voluntarily. Duty-bound, we are bound to do this duty and that if we’re bound to it, then it sounds like we’re being forced to. And yeah, it does apply some pressure, in the Red Badge of Courage, Steven Crane talks about Henry Fleming feeling like he’s in a moving box and that box constrains him. It pushes him back and forth, right? It pushes him to the front towards battle. And if he’s in a moving box, he’s not responsible for what he is doing, and that theme goes back a long ways, the idea of the Greek or these ancient phalanxes would put soldiers in groups of whatever, I don’t even know what the exact number typically would be, something like 64 soldiers in an eight by eight box, and each one of those soldiers maybe is theoretically free to do what they want, but they are in this phalanx that has a power greater than any one of them, and is forcing them to go in certain places.

Brett McKay: Well, you also talk about the ancient generals picked up like, we gotta put the really fearful people in the middle, so they don’t have a choice. So it’s like, are they actually being brave or cowardly? They’re not doing anything. There’s no agency involved.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yeah, that question, Does that take away some of the moral heft, yeah, I think it does. And I think one of the big critiques of cowardice, and especially in the past century and a half or whatever, is that the forces constraining human beings and especially soldiers, especially soldiers at war are so great that ideas like courage and cowardice really don’t mean anything, we are subject to these greater forces, modernized weaponry and tactics, industrial war, and also there’s been greater understanding of human psychology where we know that some people are differently configured, right? It simply we’re gonna naturally be more fearful or less fearful. And so that makes us think. “Really is cowardice really relevant?”

Brett McKay: No, yeah, that’s what Hemingway like what he saw in World War I. And a lot of that lost generation, that’s what caused them to question the whole idea of courage and cowardice, they saw it didn’t matter what you did, you’re just gonna die and you had no choice, there’s nothing involved, there’s nothing glorious about it. You just be sitting in a trench and then just a shell hit you from two miles away.

Chris Walsh: Right, right. Yeah, James Jones is great about this stuff too, in the Thin Red Line.

Brett McKay: Yeah that’s something he explores as well. Alright, so this paradox of duty makes cowardice even harder, particularly with modern warfare where there isn’t oftentimes any agency involved. I mean, even you talk about the threat of a nuclear annihilation, it’s like that you’re in the box, you can’t escape the box, and so how do you be courageous or a coward in that situation?

Chris Walsh: Right.

Brett McKay: It makes it even fuzzier. So another argument you make, sort of the decline in… Our talk about cowardice, so the changing ways of warfare made cowardice a little fuzzy to talk about, it’s sort of harder to convict someone for cowardice when they might not have had a choice, there wasn’t any moral action or agency going on. But you also talk about in the past, I would say 50, 60 years, there’s been what Philip Rieff wrote, he said, “We are living in an age where the therapeutic has triumphed”, How has the triumph of the therapeutic taken some of the moral heft out of cowardice and courage?

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah. Rieff’s book is really compelling kind of critique of the phenomenon of the therapeutic, and especially in the modern age, although when it comes to cowardice, it’s not as if there was some time in primeval era when people thought about these terms in totally in black and white ways. The Iliad, the Old Testament, Aristotle, they all acknowledged that different people were different, men especially were differently constituted. And Deuteronomy advises to keep the faint-Hearted men at home rather than sending them to war and tainting the troops in that way. But those were observations that didn’t have what we have now, which is a kind of officially sanctioned institutional medical vocabulary for understanding what might otherwise be understood as cowardice, and so I trace it back to what was called nostalgia in the civil war and then in World War I famously shell shock and then battle fatigue and on to post-traumatic stress disorder. And these are all ways of understanding this transgressive behavior out of fear without judging it and thinking of those behaviors as cause for therapy as opposed to punishment.

And I think that certainly has reduced the amount of contempt that we have for cowardice in some cases, and it’s reduced the scope of application of the term as well, we just simply don’t apply it or consider applying it. Even as at the same time, we already talked about it, it’s still a term that has great power, and nobody, especially no man likes to be called a coward, and there is a great stigma still attached to psychological terms like post-traumatic stress, especially among soldiers. And soldiers generally did not want to be known as a victim of shell shock or of battle fatigue because of the undying stigma attached to those ways of speaking. So it’s complicated. I don’t think that the therapeutic has quite triumphed. Rieff’s son, David Rieff, is writing a book, I think it’s called “The Triumph of the Traumatic”, and that I think is gonna take a similar angle. In the book, I do talk about the excesses of the therapeutic culture, the fact that more soldiers applied for a sort of post-traumatic stress diagnosis and attendant benefits after the Vietnam War than actually saw combat.

And now the definition of trauma at the heart of post-traumatic stress has become so broad that one may not have experienced trauma firsthand, but just have heard about it to be able to lay claim to being traumatized, and you take that far enough, and cowardice could be displaced completely. We can’t expect anybody to do their duty, no matter the fear or the tiny cause for fear, because they have been traumatized or they are predisposed to fear excessively.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it is like that concept creep that’s happened with that word trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. And it’s interesting too, you see in some instances where someone who admits, “I’ve got this… I’ve been traumatized,” they actually get praised like, “You’re so brave for admitting you have this problem.” So it’s sort of like a Nietzschean inversion of values. It’s like, “Well, this is something that 100 years ago, we looked down with contempt.” It’s like, “Well, this is actually a good thing.” And that just mucks up the whole idea of cowardice and courage even more.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And instead of hiding one’s weakness, 100 years ago they thought of weakness, we exhibit it proudly even. And I see benefits of the larger trend, certainly, I think we’ve become more humane about a lot of things and about human difference, but cowardice still has the power to, I think, motivate us in good ways. It’s done untold amounts of damage on the sort of global scale when wars have been fought because of offenses to honor, because of the worries about seeming cowardly. We escalated in Vietnam in part because LBJ was worried about that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he had dreams where he was being called a coward.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: And it shook him. He’s like, “I gotta save Vietnam, so I can’t be a coward.”

Chris Walsh: Yeah, right. And then in a smaller scale, people, whatever violent street corner acts or just the deep shame that some people feel about their beliefs that they’re being cowardly can lead to violence against themselves, against others. So there’s definitely reasons to be critical and skeptical about applying cowardice, but I don’t quite want to throw out the term entirely because I think if we don’t have to fulfill a duty because of fear, then I don’t know what kind of morality we can really have. It seems that that’s a foundation to moral judgment where we can actually judge some act based on the questions that the idea of cowardice, rightly understood, makes us ask, which are, “What is our duty? What shouldn’t we do? And why aren’t we doing it? And if it’s because of fear, is that fear justified, or is it excessive?” And I think those are good moral questions that the idea of cowardice keeps in play.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think at the end of the book, you try to explore the role of cowardice in just our day-to-day life or moral lives outside of the military, and I think the question you’re grappling with as you were just talking about there, is how do you get the benefits of the fear of cowardice? That, as you said, can compel us to do terrible things, go to war, get into fights, do immoral things. That’s oftentimes like, if you look at when people do something stupid, it’s like, “I didn’t want them to think I was a chicken.”

Chris Walsh: Right.

Brett McKay: But as you said, you don’t wanna get rid of it completely ’cause it can be rightly understood, it can be used as a motivator to do good. So have you figured out how to get the benefits of the fear of cowardice without the downsides?

Chris Walsh: I think part of it is just entirely not using the term coward about other people or about yourself, in part because it sheds far more heat than light. It’s a great insult, but insult really doesn’t do much good, I don’t think, in the world. But if we contemplate the concept of cowardice and think about those questions that we’ve just been talking about that the concept of cowardice pushes us to ask given that it’s focused on duty and fear. “Okay, what is our duty?” The Google Ngram for duty goes down from 1800 to the present day as well like cowardice, and so I think it’s something that we can usefully think about more than we do, and then thinking critically about our fears, and there’s a lot literature out there about how typically… And Aristotle says that we fear the wrong things at the wrong time. And looking at the fears that 2021 Americans have as what we fear and what we should fear are two different things, I think. A banal example is fear of flying versus fear of getting in a car. Everybody knows, or most people know that you’re far more likely to die in a car accident than you are in a plane accident, but most people, I think, are a little more fearful of getting in a plane.

Brett McKay: No, I think you make this good, great case I like that I thought was useful, was when you explore why you didn’t do something, whether you didn’t quit your job and go after another job that you thought would be better, or you do something morally gray and questionable. Oftentimes we come up with reasons like, “Well, it would be too hard, or it would cause problems or it would financially hurt my family.” You suggest maybe you’re acting cowardly and use that as a brace, sort of a gut check for yourself. Instead of relying on those self-justifications, maybe say, “Well, maybe I was being cowardly, and what can I do to change that?”

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, and partly given what we were talking about, the social nature of this phenomenon of cowardice and for that matter of courage, the next move would be often to put yourself in a kind of phalanx where you can use the power of your comrades to help get you where you wanna go. If your fears aren’t gonna disappear, but soldiers by banding together can do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do, be more courageous or less cowardly, thanks to the bracing company of others. And yeah, that’s my kind of self-help pitch for using cowardice to help get you where you think you should go.

Brett McKay: Even Dante, Dante had Virgil the entire time he was in purgatory. And Virgil was pretty much there telling him, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be a coward.” He says that. I like how you ended this in the book, talking about how Dante saw the inscription over the gates of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who went to here,” and he hesitates. And then he tells Virgil, “This is just really hard. I don’t understand. This is scary.” But Virgil says, “You need to go through this,” and Virgil tells him, “Here you must put all cowardice to death.” And that braced Dante for this thing that he did, and he was able to get to paradise because he put cowardice to death.

Chris Walsh: Yeah, yeah, and that’s his spiritual journey, and I think it applies in other realms of life as well, in love and friendship, asking those questions and of yourself, “What should I do? Why am I afraid of doing it?” can be a useful thing.

Brett McKay: Well, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Chris Walsh: One of the things I’m especially cowardly about is social media.

Brett McKay: I think that’s brave.

Chris Walsh: So I don’t have much of a presence online, but I’m glad to respond to emails. I’m at Boston University at [email protected], C-W-A-L-S-H at B-U dot E-D-U. And I’ve written about cowardice and international affairs for the magazine, Foreign Affairs, about cowardice in academia for The Times Higher Education and a few other things that people might be interested in looking at, and I’d be glad to hear from anybody.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Chris Walsh, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Chris Walsh: Thank you, Brett. Really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Chris Walsh, he’s the author of the book, “Cowardice: A Brief History”. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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