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April 19, 2013


Erick Erickson writes:

On Monday, two young men planted bombs in Boston and last night killed a policeman before one of them was, himself, killed. The other remains on the run.

Politicians have thrown around the word “cowards” to describe these guys.

Do they not know what the word means?

The basic definition is “a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.”

Actually that may be the simplified definition, but the real definition -- the definition used throughout history -- isn't that.

The use of violent force has throughout history attracted a certain code for restraining its use. The code of chivalry, Bushido, the code of the US fighting forces... those who are trained to use violence professionally create a moral code which specifies its permissible use and forbids its impermissible uses.

It is this code that separates a soldier from a brigand, a knight from a knave.

"Cowardly" has been employed to describe all deviations from a martial code. The most obvious deviation -- the one Erick is thinking of -- is the departure from the code of courage, that a soldier should be willing to risk his life in honorable (permissible, sanctioned) combat and should not shy away from the hazards of combat.

But the in the long history of the term, it is also applied to many other departures from the code of the soldier -- such as the use of violence against the weak, defenseless, weaponless.

Murderous knights of the Middle Ages were not called "cowardly" because they were fearful of combat. Most often, they weren't more afraid of combat than any other knight.

They were called "cowardly" because they employed tactics contrary to the code of martial honor -- taking unfair advantage of an opponent (such as using a crossbow to kill an opponent in range, when that opponent invited an honorable hand-to-hand contest) or using the power of violence against non-combatants.

Many Wild West criminals weren't "cowardly" in the sense of shying from physical violence. They were instead called "cowardly" for shooting men in the back, raping women, killing old unarmed men.

They were cowardly not for fearing death -- most people who become murderers don't fear death all that much because they give little value to life, including their own.

They were cursed as cowards not from running away from a fair fight (though most cowards would do that, as they don't like fair fights; that's what makes them cowards) but for not adhering to the moral code of the Soldier, the moral code of the Strong, the moral code of the Brave, which limits the uses of violence to certain tactics and ends judged morally acceptable (and of course even morally laudatory).

That code, note, puts the Soldier's own life at risk. The soldier, by using violence in a highly regulated way and being careful to not attack non-combatants, actually puts his own life in greater danger than it would otherwise be. By restricting his own Rules of Engagement and choice of tactics and targets, he increases the likelihood he himself will be killed.

Delay equals death in battled, after all.

And that makes adhering to the code all the more laudatory -- not only is violence being held to certain purposes, but the soldier who adheres to such a code is increasing the chances of his own death in order to reduce the danger to non-soldiers.

Did these cowards seek a fair fight? Did they choose for their opponents other armed men? Did they adhere to the basic rules of combat -- such as announcing there will in fact be a combat at all?

Of course not.

A poisoner might take certain risks -- such as being arrested or even killed by police -- but no one calls the poisoner a brave man for having slipped a deadly dose into his wife's coffee. His use of violence is not only towards an impermissible end, but deployed via impermissible tactics.

I agree that words should have meanings. But we should also be mindful that words have long histories and long memories.

Hey! Lay off Erick! He's not trying to defend the terrorists. He just doesn't know what "cowardly" actually means, and how it's been used throughout history.

This is an etymological failing, not a moral one.

The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor was called "cowardly" not because the sailors and pilots of the Japanese fleet were afraid to fight, but because they violated the basic rule of combat (declaring a war before you begin it) in order to disadvantage their opponents and advantage themselves.

Honor has a cost. Honorable men pay that cost in their own blood.

Murderers are not willing to pay that cost. They are willing to kill but not willing to expose themselves to the full danger that honor sometimes requires. That's why there aren't many statues honoring murderers.

Although Robert Redford and other Hollywood types who hate the "extremism of the right wing" do make lots of sympathetic films about them.

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posted by Ace at 04:59 PM

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