Most people dislike wars and feel the world would be a better place without them. Yet contempt for cowardice seems to move them on a far deeper level. After all, desertion—the tendency of conscripts called up for their first experience of military glory to duck out of the line of march and hide in the nearest forest, gulch, or empty farmhouse and then, when the column has safely passed, figure out a way to return home—is probably the greatest threat to wars of conquest. Napoleon’s armies, for instance, lost far more troops to desertion than to combat. Conscript armies often have to deploy a significant percentage of their conscripts behind the lines with orders to shoot any of their fellow conscripts who try to run away. Yet even those who claim to hate war often feel uncomfortable celebrating desertion.
About the only real exception I know of is Germany, which has erected a series of monuments labeled “To the Unknown Deserter.” The first and most famous, in Potsdam, is inscribed: “TO A MAN WHO REFUSED TO KILL HIS FELLOW MAN.” Yet even here, when I tell friends about this monument, I often encounter a sort of instinctive wince. “I guess what people will ask is: Did they really desert because they didn’t want to kill others, or because they didn’t want to die themselves?” As if there’s something wrong with that.
In militaristic societies like the United States, it is almost axiomatic that our enemies must be cowards—especially if the enemy can be labeled a “terrorist” (i.e., someone accused of wishing to create fear in us, to turn us, of all people, into cowards). It is then necessary to ritually turn matters around and insist that no, it is they who are actually fearful. All attacks on U.S. citizens are by definition “cowardly attacks.” The second George Bush was referring to the 9/11 attacks as “cowardly acts” the very next morning. On the face of it, this is odd. After all, there’s no lack of bad things one can find to say about Mohammed Atta and his confederates—take your pick, really—but surely “coward” isn’t one of them. Blowing up a wedding party using an unmanned drone might be considered an act of cowardice. Personally flying an airplane into a skyscraper takes guts. Nevertheless, the idea that one can be courageous in a bad cause seems to somehow fall outside the domain of acceptable public discourse, despite the fact that much of what passes for world history consists of endless accounts of courageous people doing awful things.