I’m not completely sold on the whole concept of cowardice. Certainly I bandy the word about in relation to my own failures to face the fear and do it anyway, but I don’t remember ever thinking of anyone else as cowardly.
Courage is bravery in the face of fear. It was obviously a highly desirable quality when you needed to sally forth each day to bag a woolly mammoth in order to eat. It came into its own as the ultimate shining star in and of itself in times of war, adding a touch of glory to debacles like the charge of the Light Brigade, and reached its zenith during World Wars I and II when there was no time for shilly-shallying, every able-bodied man was needed and the lure of valour (and the fear of the infamous white feather) spurred on those less than enthusiastic about putting their live on the line.
But war is a special case in terms of courage or cowardice. How can anyone who wasn’t there in that moment possibly know what it was like? what pressures, fears, traumas, obstacles or expectations influenced the actions or inactions of those making decisions in the depths of hell? Who has the right to sit on their self-righteous backsides and pass judgement on people facing situations the armchair critics cannot possibly understand?
Or is it a special case? Doesn’t the same thing apply in some degree to all of us every day? Which of us can possibly understand the depth and substance of another’s fears? I swim in the ocean very happily every summer’s day, so I can’t possibly know how terrifying it looks and feels to someone not used to its ways. But I have my own triggers for panic that I’m reliably informed are incomprehensible to most of the population, so who am I to judge what constitutes cowardice?
Every reasonably normal person is afraid of something, and as far I know, there is no scale quantifying the validity of fear. So perhaps cowardice is really just one of those crafty concepts initially developed as a means to an end – to shame people into doing what others wanted – that took on a life of its own when it proved so effective.