Cowardice: A Brief History by Chris Walsh - review by Joanna Bourke

Joanna Bourke

Surrender Junkies

Cowardice: A Brief History


Princeton University Press 292pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

In October 1964, audiences all over America gathered to watch a film entitled The Americanization of Emily. Directed by Arthur Hiller, it starred celebrated movie personalities Julie Andrews (playing Emily, who enjoys living a decadent, ‘American’ lifestyle), James Garner, Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn. The film is a playful defence of cowardice.

Set in wartime London in 1944, its main male character, Lieutenant Commander Charles E Madison (played by Garner), is proud to admit that he is a ‘practising coward’. He is defiant, stating that cowardice is ‘my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world.’ How? Cowards ‘don’t fight wars. They run like rabbits at the first shot. If everyone obeyed their natural impulse and ran like rabbits at the first shot, I don’t see how we could possibly get to the second shot.’ Predictably, he wins Emily’s love in the end, but only because of an act of moral cowardice.

For a light comedy, The Americanization of Emily is surprisingly complex, so I found it helpful to turn to Chris Walsh’s Cowardice: A Brief History for guidance on the subject at its heart. From the most despicable souls flailing about in Dante’s Inferno to terrorists caricatured as spineless fools, cowards

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