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Book Asks: Are Terrorists Cowards?

BU assistant professor Chris Walsh breaks ground with Cowardice: A Brief History

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Chris Walsh, Author, Cowardice: A Brief History

Chris Walsh says he’s written the first scholarly book ever on a vast topic: cowardice. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

What is a coward? Many Americans called the 9/11 hijackers and the Boston Marathon bombers cowards, with no clearer proof than the photo accompanying this story of a labor union’s sign after the Boston attack. Chris Walsh, an assistant professor at Boston University’s College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), disagrees, and he can claim considerable credibility: he’s written what he says is the first scholarly book on pusillanimity. Walsh’s book argues that the misuse of “coward” has caused enormous harm throughout history. But properly understood, Walsh says, the word and the idea behind it are essential to promoting ethical behavior.

Cowardice: A Brief History, published by Princeton University Press, is Walsh’s “first and last” book, he says, referring to his volume’s prolonged gestation (it began as his PhD dissertation at BU). Walsh (GRS’00) now directs the CAS Writing Program and is an assistant professor of English.

With no previous academic foragers in this field, his research plumbed diverse disciplines and sources. These included fiction such as Dante’s Inferno, which consigned to hell those souls too cowardly to live life fully, and Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Nonfiction informed him, too—in particular The Execution of Private Slovik, a 1954 account of the titular World War II soldier who was the last American executed for desertion.

BU Today spoke with Walsh about his exploration of the use—and misuse—of the problematic word.

BU Today: How did you go about researching as unwieldy a topic as cowardice?

Walsh: I did it in an unwieldy way. It was my dissertation back in the ’90s. I abandoned it for five years and went back to it [in 2005]. The dissertation was what one of my friends called “intellectually diapered,” looking at a selection of American fiction and asking, what does it tell us about cowardice? I decided if it were to be a book, it would have to look into history and become more philosophically informed and informed by psychology.

I focused it [by] concentrating on the military context on the battlefield. I argued that the archetypal home for the coward was the military. I did tons of Google searches, but I started this before Google existed. There were books that were models, especially a book called The Mystery of Courage [by William Ian Miller].

This sign, put up by a labor union about the Boston Marathon bombers, spoke for many, Walsh writes.Photo by Michael P. Monahan, Business Manager, Local 103, IBEW, Boston

This sign, put up by a labor union about the Boston Marathon bombers, spoke for many, Walsh writes. Photo by Michael P. Monahan, Business Manager, Local 103, IBEW, Boston

Why does this topic matter?

The fear of cowardice has led to wars and all sorts of violence—the fear of being [cowardly] or the fear of being branded it. LBJ was having dreams about being called a coward and did say, “if I left that [Vietnam] war, I would be considered a coward and my country would be considered cowardly, and nobody would trust anything we do again.”

The American history of cowardice starts in the French and Indian War with a preacher saying, “These French and Indians are killing our countrymen, and you people in Virginia are too cowardly to do anything about it.” His sermon, “The Curse of Cowardice,” got a bunch of people to join a company, and they marched on Fort Duquesne [in modern Pittsburgh] and the French scurried. But the British authorities did not think much of the colonial soldiers and thought them cowardly come the 1770s, when the colonists start to rebel.

You write that people misuse the word “coward.”

You’ve got that hashtag COWARDS from the Boston Marathon bombing, and the word was thrown around after the 9/11 attacks about the perpetrators. It’s understandable; it was used because, without uttering an obscenity, we could lash out as harshly as possible. But I give a definition of cowardice, drawing on Aristotle and the Uniform Code of Military Justice today: the failure of duty because of excessive fear. That means it’s hard to see how the 9/11 perpetrators were cowards. They may have been guilty of what I call the “cowardice of their convictions,” where they wouldn’t recognize things that [might] change their views, because they were afraid of new ideas, of tentativeness, of not acting. But I don’t think that’s the way most people used it. The problem with using it that way is it makes it seem something villainous and spectacular, and therefore cowardice has nothing to do with us, and it’s not something that needs to inform our own ethical decision making.

That military code [definition] offers a clear message. Much of the book is about how the term has become less applicable to war, because we know more about human psychology, and we rightly attribute failures in battle to things like post-traumatic stress disorder. The world would be a better place if some people worried less about being cowardly. If only LBJ was not worried about being cowardly.

A version of this story was originally published in BU Research.

3 Comments
Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Book Asks: Are Terrorists Cowards?

  • Joel Weymouth on 01.20.2015 at 9:44 am

    Coward is the conventional view of guerrilla warriors or “irregular elements” in combat. They are usually outnumbered and outgunned and unable to “stand up” against regular elements. They use tactics of subterfuge and ambush, otherwise, they would immediately be wiped out. Coward could be argued because they are embarking on soft targets, not military targets. For example, the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor was called cowardly (a wrong assessment), thoughit was against a purely military target and was almost thwarted. A funny side not: the Japanese had done the same type of sneak attack against Russia in 1905 and the US (Roosevelt) thought it was a “pretty smart idea”.

    I have read that ISIS considers the US cowards because we rely on air power and do not go “toe to toe” with them. The point is, if ISIS had air power, they would use it. When you fight a war, there is no such thing as “fighting fair”. The side with the advantage and uses it, it usually called a coward.

    The only point I would say about “irregular warfare” – is that if a group or individual embarks on it, there should be recognition that the Geneva Accords nor the Hague Convention should not apply to them. The US has used summary execution to “discourage” irregular warfare (see the occupation of Germany post World War 2). Technically, they do not have the right to claim the protections as prisoners of war. If we chose, we could execute them on the spot and adhere to international law. The fact that we give them the benefit of a civilian trial shows a level of civilization on our part. The fact that they attack civilians and not make attacks against police or military may indicate cowardice. Also the fact they make attacks in states and places where it is unlikely a private citizen will be unarmed, like Massachusetts or Fort Hood (Military installations have all arms locked up). I recall a couple of attacks – like Montana – where an armed citizen killed the assailant before he could do much damage (Montana – mall shooter a Bosnian). The point is there are indications that show bravery and others that show cowardice. They are definitely enemies and it would be a very stupid thing to “underestimate” them and assume they are cowards.

  • August Corneles Tamawiwy on 01.28.2015 at 5:49 am

    For me, the act and the victim of terrorism usually have symbolic significance. Bin Laden referred to the Twin Towers as “icons” of America’s “military and economic power.” The shock value of the act is enormously enhanced by the symbolism of the target. The point is for the psychological impact to be greater than the actual physical act. Hence, we can conclude that terrorism is indeed a weapon of the weak. The most common terrorist act is a bombing, and it is not hard to see why. It is cheap. It is easy to get away from the scene of the attack. Moreover, it is dramatic and often indiscriminate. With anger and arrogance, they use this violent weapon to redeem their unjust world and turn a compassionate person into a cruel terrorist. Even terrorists do not like the label. An al-Qaeda statement put it this way: “When the victim tries to seek justice, he is described as a terrorist.” In Osama bin Laden’s words, “… if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.” These examples show that these people began to get involved in terrorism because of their anger against injustices that they saw in the everyday life of their society. It is clear for them that are easier to justify killing oneself for a cause than killing oneself as a means of killing others, especially when those others are civilians going about their daily lives. Anyone could be a terrorist. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Most terrorists consider themselves freedom fighters. I think it is not the point if we inquire about cowardice nor bravery. Terrorists are sub-state actors who violently target noncombatants to communicate a political message to a third party because their anger to injustice world and arrogance to redeem such world but impotent to do that. They fight for a range of different causes. Some are fighting for the same goals that have motivated wars for century, such as control over national territory. Some are trying to overthrow the state system itself. They come from all religious traditions and from none. Brave or coward, yet one thing they do have in common: they are weaker than those they oppose yet they believe that their aims can be achieved only through violence.

  • sp on 02.01.2015 at 2:26 pm

    The US military are cowards for torturing prisoners.
    Let’s be real. Terrorist is a coded word used to vilify the “other”.
    NYPD recently got machine guns to “protect against protestors and terrorists”.
    In 2015, civil disobedience is on the same line as terrorism.

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