Commentary Magazine

On Cowardice

In the old days, fat young boys with nothing to do used to stand around drugstores talking excitedly of picking up girls. They now have other choices—they can pick up guns or protest-signs. I tend to take the druggist’s view: have an ice cream and forget the choices. I intend to give in neither to the army nor to the peace movement.

I am now certain of my reason for thinking this: I am a coward.

It has not always been this way. I used to think I was a person of high principles. The crooked thing about high principles is that they can live in thin air. I am fairly sure mine did. For the past five years my reaction to anything military was based on borrowed shock.

I still believe that war is degrading, that it gets us no place, and that one must not hurt anyone else. The pacifists say this and the government calls them cowards. The pacifists protest that they are not cowards. I feel no kinship with the government. I have some sympathy for the folk who call themselves pacifists because I believe many of them to be as cowardly as I am. But I see no reason to be defensive about it. Certainly they should not have to put up with all that humiliation on the sidewalk. As cowards they should be entitled to a little peace. They should not have to waste their time and risk arrest scrawling slogans on the subway or walking for hours carrying heavy signs. Guns may be heavier, but why carry either one?

A soldier shuffled nervously in front of me while I stood in line at the East Side Airlines Terminal in New York almost two years ago. He turned abruptly and told me that he was going to Oakland, California. I told him I was going to London and then to Uganda. Harmless talk—the kind that travelers make with ease. He surprised me by breaking convention and continuing what should have been an ended conversation. After Oakland he would be going to Vietnam. I clucked at his misfortune and as we both thought presumably of death he said, “Somebody’s got to go.”

But not me, I thought. I got my ticket confirmed and a week later I was in Africa, far from the draft board, even farther from Vietnam. Five years ago I would have hectored the soldier with some soul-swelling arguments. I was a pacifist and a very noisy one at that.

When I was told that I must take ROTC at the University of Massachusetts in 1960 I refused. Then I tried to think why I had refused. I had no friends who were pacifists but I did not need a manual to tell me that I hated violence. I dreaded the thought of marching or taking guns apart; I quietly resolved never to go into the army, the ROTC, or anything that was vaguely military. The thought of wearing a uniform appalled me and the thought of being barked at frightened me. I wanted to write a big book and be left alone. In two hours I was a pacifist, a month later I was the only healthy non-Quaker at the University exempt from ROTC. A few years later I was arrested by the campus police for leading a demonstration (that was in 1962 when demonstrations were rare and actually bothered people). I bunched together with a dozen more pacifists, organized some more protests, and, the year I graduated, ROTC was put on a voluntary basis by a faculty committee. Although the committee was composed of friends of mine it was not really a put-up job. ROTC was just not consistent with high principles.

Before I was excused from ROTC I had to meet an ad hoc committee: the colonels of the army and the air force ROTC, the chaplain, and the provost. The army colonel, a man with a passion for writing patriotic letters to the student newspaper, listened to my woolly tirade against the military (quotations from Jesus, Norman Mailer, Tolstoy, and, if I am not mistaken, Eugene V. Debs). He rose, his medals jangled at me, and he thundered: “What do you know about war!”

It couldn’t have been plainer, but for a pacifist it is an easy question to answer. “Nothing, but. . . .” And then the atrocity stories, a smattering of religion, and a few abstract nouns. I could have appealed to the governor if they had not let me out of ROTC. The governor was coming up for reelection and would not have not have wanted to appear a jingo by making me take ROTC or a Communist by excusing me. The committee quietly released me from my obligation.

If I had told them I was a coward they would not have wasted a minute with me. I would have been given regulation shoes and told to keep them clean; I would have been expected to know all the parts of an M-1 carbine; I would have had to stab sandbags with a bayonet every Tuesday after entomology class. So I did not tell them I was a coward, although that would have been the honest thing to do. The colonel, a man experienced in these matters, insinuated that I was one, but good taste prevented his speaking the word.



The ROTC has never done much more than bruise a man. Its contribution has been to teach college boys marching. Ironically, the people who object to ROTC end up marching many more miles than the sophomores on the parade ground. Peace movements are successful usually because they are so militaristic in organization and attitude. The language of the peace groups is always military-sounding: fighting, campaign, movement, ranks, marches—even freedom awards for valor. There is keen envy among the groups: which college has the most picketers, the bloodiest and most agonizing signs, which men have the handsome beards. Tempers are short among demonstrators; they have ridden a long way to be grim. The protester from the Amherst area gets off near the White House and begins grousing: “Jesis, we just got here and they expect us to start picketing!”

I was persuaded by a friend to picket in Times Square against nuclear testing one cold night in 1962. We had to report to a cigar-smoking gentleman who gave each of us a sign and instructions: “Walk clockwise, single file around the army recruiter booth. Remember, don’t talk, don’t stop walking, and if you want to leave just raise your hand and I’ll get someone to carry your sign. Let’s practice walking without the sign first, then we’ll start. Okay, everyone line up here. . . .”

The little man did not carry a sign. He was the sergeant, we were the privates. He marched beside us and used his big cigar as a swagger stick. Every so often he would tell someone to pipe down or walk straight. We got off to a rough start, but soon got the hang of it, convincing me that, if nothing else, we responded well to discipline and would all have made pretty good soldiers.

Many pacifists I have known are scared out of their wits that they will be drafted. Is this fright caused by seeing moral laws broken and all Gandhi’s hunger strikes made worthless by a man’s head—or let’s say, a pacifist’s head—blown apart? Is the fright a fear of death or a fear of failed principles? Is the refusal to join in the slaughter inspired by feelings of cowardice or moral conviction? I am thinking of pacifists who have been taught their fear after being beaten up, threatened by armed boys, and seeing brutality up close.

I lived in a crowded suburb of a large city in the United States and I had to pass through an alley—the lights at the opposite end: salvation—to get a bus when I went to the movies. The last time I passed through that alley five figures came toward me. I knew they wanted to beat me up. I stood still and hoped they would pass by, although what I imagined—being surrounded, having the youngest one push me down in the snow and punch me while I curled up and groaned, hearing them laugh, and then running away until my throat ached—actually happened, and the next ten minutes were a blur of cruelty.

There have been other occasions. Once I was walking along a street in San Juan, Puerto Rico with a pregnant girl. An American sailor about the same size and age as myself stood in front of us and said to me, “Did you jam that broad?” His friend laughed and some people stopped to see what I would do. I slid away, glancing at his fists, and then hurried off, halfheartedly dragging the girl behind. I think if there had been a fight I would have torn myself away and left the girl to fend for herself. I brought the subject up later. I told her that I did not want to cause trouble in a large crowd, in a strange city. But she knew that I was frightened and that I would not let anger take the place of my fright.

This is really what a coward is, I believe: a person who is afraid of nearly everything and most of all afraid of anger. His own anger is a special danger to him. He accepts his solitary hardship and pays the price of withdrawing. He knows that each attempt to deal with violence may require summoning all the inhuman bravado he can contain. The bravery is a cover. Its weight intimidates the flesh beneath it. Since bravery implies a willingness to risk death, the fear to be brave becomes the fear to die. I am unable to understand what could make me risk death: neither patriotism, a desire to preserve anything, nor a hatred of anyone could rouse me to fight.

I have always wondered how people do things which require risk, whether there is not a gap in their consciousness, a suspension of judgment while the dangerous act is performed. I have never felt this release, even momentarily, from the consequences of risk. Remembered incidents intrude: street fights I could not bear to watch, threats I walked away from, vicious glares that made me sick, and some time ago being in a bar in Washington, D.C., where a woman on a stool kept calling the dishwasher a nigger. She leaned on the bar and slobbered: “You a nigger, ain’t you? You know you are; you nothin but a nigger. You ain’t no Creole like you say. You a nigger. . . .” And the Negro behind the bar whistled and looked at no one. I wanted to shout at the woman. But with a fear that quickly became nausea I left.

Leaving is a cure for nothing, though if one goes to the right spot he may have time to reflect usefully on why he left. Almost four years ago I joined the Peace Corps, was sent to Malawi, in Central Africa, and taught school. Unlike most people in their early twenties, I had personal servants, a big house, and good public relations. My relatives said I was really sacrificing and doing good work (there is a school of thought that assumes if one is in Africa he is, ipso facto, doing good work). I was happy in my job. I was not overworked. And I had joined the Peace Corps for what I now see were selfish reasons: I had thought of responsibilities I did not want—marriage seemed too permanent, graduate school too hard, and the army too brutal. The Peace Corps is a sort of Howard Johnson’s on the main drag into maturity. Usually life is pleasant, sometimes difficult, occasionally violent. A good time to find out whether or not you are a coward.



Violence in Malawi became common. The resignation of several high-ranking politicians and the firing of a few others threw the country into a nightmare of suspicion late in 1964. Many people suspected of collaborating with the ex-cabinet members were choked or hacked to death. One day I was walking home along the dirt road that led to my house. I saw smoke. Up ahead I saw three Youth Leaguers dashing into the bush. I knew they had just burned something, but I was not sure what it was. I was sure that it was serious and became worried. Just over the hill was a truck in flames. The cab of the truck was crackling and I could make out stiff black shapes in the holes of the flames. I detoured around the burning truck and went home. At home I had a drink, locked the door, and went to bed.

About a week later I was on a train and going North to the lake shore. At each stop, boys, Youth Leaguers anywhere from ten to forty years old, got on the train and demanded to see the party cards of the African travelers. If a person did not have a card he was beaten. An old man next to me was dragged out off his seat, thrown to the floor, and kicked. Just before they dragged him out of the seat he looked at me (we had been talking about how terrible it was that this thing was happening and I said that it made me very angry) and his hand reached out for my sleeve. I moved—a timid reflex—against the window and he missed my sleeve. They quickly got him onto the floor. His screams were terrific and he wept as they kicked him. No one in the car moved. Several minutes later, another and another were thrown to the floor and beaten. Outside the train a man was being chased and punched as he ran through a gauntlet of people. His hands were pushed against his face for protection. He reeled across the platform and bumped into a fence. I saw him huddled against the fence—the boys hitting him with sticks—as the train pulled away. I could not tell if he was screaming. I had closed the window. By the time the train had gone about a hundred miles, the car was almost empty; most of the occupants had been dragged out and beaten. I stepped out at my station and walked to a taxi. It was hard to suppress an intense feeling of relief. The cards that the men were being asked to produce were sold by the Youth Leaguers for two shillings. Many refused to buy them because they did not believe in the present regime and would not compromise their principles.

In August of 1965 I drove a car through the Northern region of Malawi. I passed through fourteen roadblocks and reached the border-post at about ten in the evening. The gate—the customs barrier—was closed. I saw some men standing near it. My headlights were still on and the windows of the car were rolled up. The men appeared to be saying something but I could not hear them. Only after a few moments did I realize that my headlights were shining into their eyes. I shut off the engine and rolled down the window. As soon as the window was open a crack I heard the loud shouting of the men. They stood where they were and ordered me out of the car. They raised their rifles to my face. When the guns were pointed at me my body started to shake, my legs felt as if they had gone suddenly boneless. I was numb. I knew I was about to be shot. I was waiting to be murdered. If they’re going to shoot me let them do it quickly! flashed through my mind. The feeling of standing there on that border—a border that had been raided four times resulting in the deaths of many more people than even the large number reported in the press—in the darkness, the bullets crashing into my shirt, bursting through my back with a fist-sized collop of flesh and clotted blood, my body dropping into the sand by the light of a fizzing lantern, the men standing over me and firing into my inert body, my head broken open. . . . It was unbearable. And I had done nothing. I was innocent, my papers were in order, my passport was in my hand high above my head. But the guns! The shouting! I was so afraid that I think I could have been moved to action—I felt capable of killing them, or attempting it. Yet this would have been absurd because I had done nothing wrong. The guns remained pointed into my face. The feeling persisted: I wanted to shoot them or be shot. I wanted something to happen, something violent that would settle the whole affair.

They told me I must walk toward them. This I did, all the while trying to prevent myself from lunging at them in an attempt to incite them to shoot me and get it over with. But they did not shoot me. They swore at me and took me into the police station. I pleaded with them to let me through the barrier (I felt that as long as I remained on their side of the border I was guilty of something). I convinced them and that night drove until two in the morning along the narrow bush track into Tanzania.

When my Peace Corps stretch was over I decided to stay in Africa. I realized that there was violence in Africa, but I had started to understand it. I had reached two conclusions: one, the violence was either tribal or political—I had no tribe and was not involved in politics and so the violence was not directed against me; two, life in Africa is simple, provincial, dull generally but with stirrings here and there, evidence of growth that I might help with. Day-to-day life in Africa is much like day-to-day life in New Hampshire: people strolling through a clutter of flowers or standing around the local bar spitting on the sidewalk; there is gossip about love affairs and car-buying, there is time for talking or reading or writing. Sometimes there is trouble at the castle and the gunshots echo down through the huts. Trouble happens around powerful people, politicians and chiefs. I live among neither.

On my way to work, gliding through the green in my car, I think: you can be drafted today. I am twenty-five; I have bad eyes, but am otherwise physically fit. I have no wife. My job as a teacher here in Uganda may exempt me from the draft, but there is no guarantee of that. My draft board knows where I am. The President has said that he will again increase the number of troops in Vietnam. The war is a jumble of figures: the number of troops and planes, the number of bombings and raids, the number of dead or wounded. The numbers appear every day in the Uganda papers as cold as football scores. I add flesh and blood to them and I am afraid.

As a coward I can expect nothing except an even stronger insistence that I go and fight. Fight whom? A paradox emerges: the coward recognizes no enemies. Because he wants always to think that he will not be harmed (although he is plagued by the thought that he will be), there is no evil in his world. He wills evil out of his world. Evil is something that provokes feelings of cowardice in him; this feeling is unwelcome, he wants to forget it. In order to forget it he must not risk hating it. Indeed, the coward hates nothing just as he loves nothing. These emotions are a gamble for him; he merely tolerates them in others and tries to squash or escape them in himself. He will condemn no one when he is free from threat.

The word coward is loaded with awful connotations. It does not ordinarily lend itself to inclusion in logical discourse because it quickly inspires two assumptions. The first is that cowardice does not indicate how we really feel; the second is that we have principles which are in no way related to, and always more powerful than, our feelings, our flesh. The first assumption implies that the feeling of cowardice is somehow fraudulent; a coward is discounted as authentic because of the word’s associations: it is allied to “tail” (Latin: cauda), one of its synonyms is “fainthearted” or, more plainly, “womanish.” To accept this definition is to reach the conclusion that the coward’s head will clear, that he will cease to become woman if he thinks a bit. The second assumption is that one’s principles will overcome one’s feelings. I would suggest, if my flesh is any indicator, that this is not the case.

Talking a mixture of rubbish and rhetoric to get out of ROTC, picketing the Military Ball, sympathizing with those Californians who were dragged down cement stairs by the police, their spines bumping over the edges, seeing some logic in Wolfgang Borchert’s simple advice to pacifists (“Sag, ‘NEIN!’ ”)—these are ego-inspired feelings; the ego fights for air, rejects absorption, anonymity, and death. Since we have perhaps far less dogma cluttering our lives than any other people in history, these ego-inspired feelings which can move us to acts of protest may prove essentially good, the principle of non-violence made out of a deep feeling of cowardice may prove the truest. It is bound to have its opposite motives: Cardinal Spellman’s blessing of the war in Vietnam was one of these acts of the ego and certainly not the result of any biblical dogma he had been taught.

All of this goes against existing laws. It is illegal to be afraid to go into the army. If I tell the draft board to count me out because I am afraid they will answer, “That’s impossible. . . .” But it is not impossible, it is only illegal, I will say; I saw a man die, I saw a man kicked to death, I held the crumbling blue body of a drowned man in my hands. . . . This is feeling; I will be asked for principles, not feelings. Fear is selfish and so no amount of fear, even if it stems from observed violence, is acceptable grounds for exemption.

Yet ours is not a military-minded nation; this is clear to everyone. The president of a Chicago draft board was quoted as saying a few months ago: “I’ve been threatened half-a-dozen times. Guys say they’re gonna kill me if they see me on the street. . . .” Is it the thought that war is degrading and immoral that makes this half-dozen take the trouble to threaten the life of their draft board president? Or is it something else? We know we are terrible soldiers, that we are not bold; we have placed our trust in the hardware of war. (“Thank God for the atom bomb,” my brother’s sergeant said when he saw the platoon marching higgledy-piggledy across the parade ground.)

I say “we”—I mean “I.” If I allow myself to be drafted into the army I will be committing suicide. The army is to a coward what a desert is to an agoraphobe, an elaborate torment from which the only escape serves to torment him further. The coward marches with death; the agoraphobe stalks the rolling dunes in search of an enclosure.



I sit here in a cool dark room in the middle of Africa thousands of miles from the people in the city hall who want to draft me. I sit down in the middle of it all and try to decide why I do not want to go. And that is all anyone can do, try to be honest about what he feels, what he’s seen or thinks he’s seen. He can offer this disturbing vision to those who are not sure why they are unwilling. Folksongs and slogans and great heroes are no good for us now, and neither is the half-truth that is in every poem or every melodious sentence that hides the barbaric notions.

When I think of people trying to convince themselves that high principles result from merely hugging answers I think of the reverse of the old fairy story: a princess in her hunger kisses a handsome prince and turns him into a toad. The answers will not come by forcing ourselves upon dogma. The issue is that we should admit once and for all that we are frightened. We will not have told ourselves a lie and, after this truth which is a simple one, maybe even ugly, we can begin to ask new questions.



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