‘One coward may lose a battle, one battle may lose a war, and one war may lose a country.’ This was Rear-Admiral and Conservative MP Tufton Beamish speaking to the House of Commons in 1930, giving voice to an idea that must be as old as war itself. Caring only for his own safety, blowing cover, attracting fire, the coward can be more dangerous to his own side than a brave enemy. Even when he doesn’t run, the coward can sow panic simply by the way he looks – changing colour, as Homer observed in the Iliad, unable to sit still, his teeth chattering. Cowards are also known for soiling themselves.
No wonder soldiers in the field worry about being cowardly far more than they dream of being heroic; or why cowardice is often counted the most contemptible of vices (not just by soldiers): while heroes achieve fame, cowards are often condemned to something worse than infamy – oblivion. As Dante’s guide Virgil says of the cowardly neutrals who reside in the anteroom of hell: ‘the world will let no report of them endure’. Virgil himself doesn’t want to speak of them. Yet speaking about cowards and cowardice can help us judge and guide human conduct in the face of fear.
‘Fear,’ Beamish went on to say, ‘is perfectly natural. It comes to all people. The man who conquers fear is a hero, but the man who is conquered by fear is a coward, and he deserves all he gets.’ But things are not quite so simple as that: some fears are unconquerable. Aristotle said that only the Celts do not fear an earthquake or flood, and we are right to think them crazy. The coward, he said, is ‘a man who exceeds in fear: he fears the wrong things, in the wrong manner, and so forth, all the way down the list’.
We typically judge someone cowardly when his fear is out of proportion to the danger he faces, when he is defeated by such fear, and in consequence fails to do something he should: his duty. We also typically reserve the cowardly label for men, as Aristotle’s and Beamish’s sexist language suggests. Even today, the term sounds strange when it is applied to women, and seems to need some explanation.
If, as Beamish tells us, a coward deserves all he gets, what exactly does he get? Beamish was speaking against a proposal to end the death penalty for cowardice and desertion. His logic was clear. If a coward can cost a country its existence, the country needs to be willing to deprive the coward of his.
The practice of killing cowards has a long and varied history. The Romans sometimes executed cowards through fustuarium, a dramatic ritual that would begin when the tribune touched the condemned with his cudgel, at which signal all soldiers in the camp would bludgeon the man to death. The preferred modern way is the firing squad. The British and French shot hundreds of soldiers for cowardice and desertion in the First World War; the Germans and Russians, tens of thousands in the Second World War.
Humiliation is a much more usual punishment for cowardice, as Montaigne noted in ‘Of the Punishment of Cowardice’ (1580). Quoting Tertullian’s observation that it is better to make the blood rush to a man’s face than flow from his body, Montaigne explained the thinking: a coward who is allowed to live might be shamed into fighting courageously. The ways of humiliation are even more various than those of killing – from dressing up the coward as a woman, to branding or tattooing him, to shaving his head and making him wear a placard that says ‘coward’, to naming him and recounting his ignominious deeds in his hometown newspaper.
Whether the coward dies or lives, his punishment must be public if it is to fit his crime. In trying to run and hide, the coward threatens the group by setting the worst sort of example and spreading fear like an infection; one coward makes 10, as a German proverb has it. The spectacle of the coward caught and exposed serves as a kind of inoculation for those who witness it, complete with a stinging reminder of the price should they themselves give in to cowardice.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-s-brave-and-prudent-to-think-like-a-coward