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?
These are some of the provocative questions raised by Chris Walsh‘s Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton University Press, 2014). Walsh gave the keynote talk at the James Jones Literary Society’s November 2015 symposium in at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
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, Walsh reviewed the great harm that both cowards and the fear of seeming cowardly have done, and traced the idea of cowardice’s power to its evolutionary roots. But he also argued 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, Walsh contended, discussing a parallel therapeutic shift that reaches beyond war, into the realms of politics, crime, philosophy, religion, and love.
Walsh’s work won the 2015 Bronze Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category. He is associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University and has also taught at Emerson College, Harvard University, and the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. His work has appeared in Civil War History, Essays in Criticism, Raritan, and the Yale Review.