A tale of cowardice…

Where the hell did this one start? Ah yes, I forgot to mention the movie The Four Feathers in my last article about the number ‘4’.

This 2002 movie starred Heath Ledger & that in itself warrants a second look.

The story follows the shock waves created when Harry Faversham, a British Officer withdraws from his regiment before a set to, because he cannot see how fighting half way across the world can be of benefit to Queen & Country. As a result he is labelled a coward & presented fourthwith, with four white feathers from his friends & fiance. All this I must confess, I found by taking the easy route & clicking on the Wikipedia link.

For some strange reason I opted to click on a certain word in that article & was transported in the blink of an eye to a page where no man or woman, in their (programmed) right minds would ever boldly go – to ‘cowardice’ & there in that shameful link, my eye was caught by a subheading & paragraph I was not expecting –


followed by this – “Terrorist acts are often described as cowardly. Ronald Reagan called the 1983 United States Embassy bombing “cowardly“; Bill Clinton called the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1998 United States embassy bombings “an act of cowardice” and “cowardly,” respectively; and George W Bush called the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon “cowardly.” Janet Reno also called Timothy McVeigh a “miserable little coward.” McVeigh responded, “Coward? This label would make Orwell proud – it is doublethink at its finest

Having become a shade sceptical of these, cough cough, great leaders I felt inclined to make like a blackbird on the trail of a worm, and see what I could dig up.

So what exactly is cowardice & why is this word so powerful, that a plethora of Presidents evoke it’s name in connection with some of the most questionable doings in recent history.

Here are some dictionary definitions for cowardice:

lack of courage or resolution

Ignoble fear in the face of danger or pain

lack of courage; esp., shamefully excessive fear of danger, difficulty, or suffering”

Wiki says this:

Cowardice is a vice that is conventionally viewed as the corruption of prudence, to thwart all courage or bravery.” In case you are a ignorant of vice, it is “a practice or habit that is considered immoral, depraved, and/or degrading in the associated society…from the Latin word vitium, meaning “failing or defect”. Vice is the opposite of virtue.” For a full list of vices click on link & scroll down: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vice then off to the confessional quick smart (I’ll be joining you).

Returning to the story The Four Feathers we find the sick world that a belief in cowardice generates. Such is it’s stigma that those who professed to love Harry Faversham were willing to assign his friendship & love to the rubbish bin because, like all of us, they have been thoroughly schooled in the ‘Way of the Warrior.’

Why are heroism & bravery so very important in our world & why is cowardice such a crime. Certainly the more I look it, the more it seems to me that cowardice is a made up word that has no value, except as a foil to the concept of heroism & I’ve been wondering if we as a society have not been the dead horse that has been well & truly flogged by this ideal.

Heroism is a concept that came from the Greeks (why am I not surprised). It had quite a different meaning to that of the media marketed version that we have today. If you were going to be a hero in ancient Greece you needed to have the determination of today’s ‘terrorists’ because your not very lengthy future consisted of undergoing numerous ordeals followed by death – sorry but you only get hero status when you snuff it – still interested then dial 0800 HERO for an application form.

If you look to the Greek heroes to find role models don’t expect to make many friends & don’t ever turn your back on one either (unless you have life insurance).

A hero in Greek mythology & folklore was originally a demi-god, the offspring of a mortal & a deity, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.” from wiki

And from a more ‘learned’ site:

First and foremost, the ancient Greek hero was a religious figure, a dead person who received cult honours & was expected in return to bring prosperity, especially in the form of fertility of plants (crops) and animals, to the community…The hero who is mortal must suffer & must die. Only after death can the hero receive immortalization in cult & in song…The hero must struggle against the fear of death, in order to achieve the most perfect death. Such a perfect moment must be recorded in song” – I’m guessing here that the lack of this leads to the term ‘unsung hero’. The ‘Most Perfect Death’ sounds a little like a category in the Oscar nominations – perhaps we have the makings of a new reality TV show! Full learned article here if interested http://athome.harvard.edu/programs/nagy/threads/concept_of_hero.html

The lives of the heroes were tied (handcuffed?) to the gods, who like circus trainers do seem to have had them jumping through an awful lot of strategically placed hoops. Like actors, their modern day counterparts, we can view them as a group of physically attractive puppets on short strings enshrined in an arena/film screen while living an apparently golden existence while their audience gazes in awe. Heroes must have an audience/worshippers & remember too that heroes need to die young (just in case that rings a bell or two).

So how do the controllers of a society market the concept of heroism – I mean really, how many of people in the street, are going to jump at the idea of heroic death? It’s just not natural.

Much of today’s marketing (& I include politics here) works on the principle of ‘scare the shit out of the people, & then offer them a solution.’ Really clever marketing is also cost effective – so use what already exists but put a fearfully good ‘spin’ on it. To market a brand new product called Heroism, ‘consumers’ must be made to believe that a condition exists that it overcomes.

So let’s listen to a secretly recorded conversation from a ‘Do’ at Mt Olympus:

Zeus: “Is it just me or is anyone else getting bored with all this humility & worship crap. I dunno I just feel something is missing from my immortal existence.”

A plethora of immortals chime in: “Here, here. You go god.”

Zeus: “Splendid, I thought you’d see it my way. Well then, here’s a little something I came up with earlier.” (Sounds of scrolls being unrolled). “Now I haven’t got a name for it yet, but I think you’re all going to find this very exciting. I propose we create a game of super human chess – with real pieces, err I mean people to play with. These pieces, sorry people will in fact be half gods, which means that we will have to seek out very attractive human women to have sex with. Now Hera, I’m not suggesting that I’d enjoy it, it would be strictly a business arrangement (sounds of snickering in the background).

Hera: (sounding very frosty)And what makes you think that the humans would pay any attention to these ‘pieces’, I mean I presume you’ll need plenty of humans to use as ‘pawns’!

Zeus: “Ahh, now that’s what I’m particularly proud of.” (A loud ahem ahem sound in the background)Well of course I couldn’t have come up with this without Hermes help. Our plan is to trick, I mean re-educate the pawns, I mean humans into believing that their instinct for survival is shameful & immoral, & that glorious death is, well… to die for!”

Poseidon: My god, that’s dashed cunning. So what are you going to call this ‘re-education’?

Zeus: “well umm err

Unknown god: “Come on Zeus, are you just going to stand there all day yapping- it’s your turn to pin the tail on the donkey!”

Zeus: “Hmmm…’tail‘ you say! … well why not, they’re all blind anyway & it’ll be a good ‘tale‘ to tell at parties.”

Actually I just made this conversation up – well you can’t get onto Mt Olympus unless you’ve got a ‘hero’ pass).

Etymologically, the word coward simply means ‘tail‘.

Assumption jumpers leap in a single bound to the conclusion that this refers to ‘turning tail’ or ‘tail between the legs’ – despite the fact that the the word turning or between the legs is entirely absent. Checking out tail in the dictionary we find that, as well as the dangly thing common to many animals, it also means to trail behind – if I imagine a crusade type scenario where I am an unwilling conscript (& I would be), I would certainly choose the ‘cowardly’ position, as movies have taught me that those up front get turned into heroes real fast.

When I first read the story below, I nearly fell into the trap of going aha that’s better, the honour of these men has been restored. Another cunning trap. The family of one man spent a lifetime trying to get his name cleared (cleaned?) & it seems they have resolution at last. But hang on a minute, all that’s happened is some word shuffling. The actual crime is the murder of these men for for a word that translates as ‘tail’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/aug/16/military.immigrationpolicy

Going round in circles by turning cowards into heroes (with the help of war memorials) – here’s a 10ft high statue of Private Herbert Burden, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who had lied about his age to join up and was executed for desertion, aged 17. And lest we forget the importance of symbolism; “A semi-circle of stakes around the statue follow the seating pattern of a Greek theatre to symbolise “tragedy”.

Here are some Oracle/Media headlines that they made up earlier – a word of caution – beware of that deep pit just ahead of you camouflaged by cleverly sprinkled words:-
HEROES NOT COWARDS: PARDONS FOR MEN SHOT IN WW1″ – “Pardon plea for shell-shocked Somme hero shot for cowardice” – “UK Battle to clear the ‘cowards’.” – “Fresh call to pardon war ‘cowards’.”

Here lies the first paragraph of one of the completely objective reports;

DEFENCE chiefs were last night under renewed pressure to pardon hundreds of soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War after it emerged that several officers were spared the firing squad for the same offence.”
So what did you think – ‘bastards’ because there’s always some who wangle out of things OR did you baulk at the word ‘offence‘. It seems there’s been a change in attitude of the public (that’s you & me) “now that it is understood so many deserters were teenage boys and more is known about the psychology of trauma, people take a different attitude.” Marvellous so you & I at last understand that in certain very trying circumstances it’s ok to be just a little less heroic.

I have, over the course of this year, had cause to look at heroes by looking back over WWI. In the process I have been freeing myself from many beliefs that were instilled in me as I grew up. In NZ we have our heroes – the ANZACS (likewise in Australia) – our two nation’s identities, in many ways, sprang ‘fourth’ from the epic re-enactment of Troy known as Gallipoli (& afterwards on the Western Front). The pride in these myths is enormous. It does seem to revolve around the willingness of soldiers to ‘give their lives’. You will find the term ‘gave their lives’ on many a war memorial.

Those wishing to keep or take back their lives risked being legally murdered by their comrades (I am presuming that anyone reading this has seriously questioned the ‘inevitability‘ of wars of the last hundred years & so).

We may look up to heroes, but I’m not sure that we can love them – it’s a bit hard keeping warm in that superhuman shadow they cast.

……………… ‘Valour & Cowardice’ ………………..

I find however that I can & do willingly like ‘cowards‘ – who doesn’t love two of the greatest cowards in TV history – I’ll let Eddie Izzard do the talking;

Shaggy and Scooby are interesting characters, two of the most major characters in American literature. I think it’s fantastic, because they are cowardly characters. They believe in cowardice and sandwiches. Can you think of any in the realm of English-speaking literature, cowardly characters that you identify with? You’re with them all the way -“Go, Shaggy! Go, Scooby!” The rest of the guys who drive the van? “Fuck off.” Scrappy-Doo – a Magnum. Boom!

Sorry just had to leave in that last bit for educational purposes – it does show that we love those who have our own ‘weaknesses’. The tough, unperturbed (or down-right irritating) characters are just plain forgettable (or shootable).

In the Jacki Chan movie Shanghai Noon, Owen Wilson played a character I enjoyed, because he’s completely self interested & does all he can to avoid danger & maintain his own life. I have always enjoyed & believed in characters who value life so much that they actively seek to enjoy it & prolong it.

I’m not sure how long the late Steve Irwin was a TV star, but in his time he turned around a lot of ideas I’d been schooled in, regarding dangerous animals & insects. Far from attacking at the drop of a hat, I saw them seek avoidance of confrontation again & again, even at times when I was sure they’d be provoked (well I would have been in their place). I remember seeing many a Western when I was growing up, from them I learned how dangerous snakes were – kill or be killed. Now I am embarrassed by that attitude & while I’d give them a wide berth, I know that many of them are ‘cowardly’ creatures at heart – they prefer the sensible life-enhancing approach of avoidance to the heroic show-down.

I am a student of the martial art Aikido, our number 1 rule is avoidance. If at all possible avoid confrontation or do the minimum required to get away. The ‘heroic’ stuff is really a last resort. Aikido means ‘the way of harmony’ – I wonder if this could be translated to ‘the way of the coward’ – that’s ok by me.

I’ve also been chatting with my son to get a teenager’s view of cowardice – he suggested that it was “the natural attempt to prevent pain & suffering” & I agree. He went Paint-Balling a while back & said that he’d probably have been shot about 17 times for cowardice – I do admire honesty.

One method I like to use in my search for truth is to look at those who are most free of programming – young children – to see how they deal with whatever the topic is in question. I do not see heroism anywhere, only a splendid curiosity & thirst for knowledge that seems to drive them ever forwards. They seem to possess in equal measure the ability yell their lungs out & seek protection (run away) when they feel threatened. Nowhere do I see the ‘will to self-sacrifice’ – all in all a magnificent bunch of cowards.

I think the concept of heorism pulls us away from our powerful human intuition & humour & natural drives, while the concept of cowardice frightens us away from them. Are they perhaps nothing more than the cunning use of words – an ancient & well marketed method for swelling the ranks of willing sacrifices while underminining the natural human desire for enjoyment, self preservation & removal of pain.

Just to finish I have a small story of my own. Last night a couple guys were having quite a set to in the street outside my home. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the ‘f’ word used so many times in one place. I was a little concerned for the lesser of the two who seemed to be bearing the brunt of the word bashing & wondered what would happen if it got worse & what could I do. I didn’t actually want to do anything. I may be a student of Aikido but I prefer the avoidance approach. Anyway I started feeling a bit bad about being frightened by the situation when I remembered what I have have been writng about. I realised that I was feeling bad mostly because I had labelled myself ‘cowardly‘ & the instant I made the connection I smiled & felt much better.

and now some cowardly tails for your viewing pleasure…

September 19, 2008. Uncategorized.


  1. Missy replied:

    I’m gonna have to check out The Four Feathers.


  2. Ben Emlyn-Jones replied:

    There are three or four versions of that movie. I rather enjoyed the story, but it’s a shame that the protagonist went to such lengths to get the others to take back the feathers. Despite his act of rebellion he still felt a need for approval from his peers. In his position I hope I wouldn’t do that. I hope I’d stand by my ground without going up to conventional ethics with my cap in hand, begging for acceptance.”Conshies” being called cowards is a terrible irony. By standing up for their beliefs in the face of Conformist emasculation they showed real courage. They were the bravest men in the war.


  3. Ben Emlyn-Jones replied:

    Great article, WW! It’s easy to see how young men are chivvied into the ranks of the military. Hit a bloke in the balls and you can make him do anything! Doing it metaphorically hurts worse than doing it literally!


  4. wise woman replied:

    Hi MissyThanks for dropping by.Hey BenI've not seen the movie & didn't realise about the 'taking the feathers back' angle, so it's the turning 'cowards into heroes' scenario, which is all part & parcel of the same trick of the mind.I do see men as the target of the hero/coward trap. Women aren't really targeted by those labels – they're locked in a different trap. In 1914 admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather so women could hand out feathers to men to shame them into joining in the WWI hero party. It got so out of control that 'public servants' were targeted too, so they brought out King & Country lapel badges to protect them from that onslaught(er).ATB


  5. Ed replied:

    I found this Comic cover that goes with this post.http://www.comics.org/coverview.lasso?id=40729&zoom=4Humans (and animals) are programed by years of evolution to "fight or flight". If escape is impossible even the biggest coward will fight. Example, I have a Jack Russel that chases a certain cat through the house. She cornered her once, and the cat scratched the crap out of her.Good post.


  6. wise woman replied:

    Hi EdThat was a great picture thanks – really telling.I’m just not sure that there are ‘cowards’ – we all have things that challenge us, things that we need extra ‘motivation’ to deal with. When you watch the out-takes of movies the ‘heroes’ are revealed as humans who make loads of mistakes – to create a hero you have to hide ‘humanity’ – I wonder if a hero is someone who is afraid to be human?Thanks for your comments – your knowledge of comic books is pretty awesome!


  7. Know Nothing replied:

    A quote I love goes as such “There is no such thing as human nature, there is only human behavior” Why are we so manipulated? And what are the true origins of this mass manipulation? Keep asking questions! From, A fellow coward.


  8. wise woman replied:

    Hello Mr Know & fellow coward :)Nice quote!I do not consider myself a 'brave' person but I am hungry for answers. It seems to me 'hunger' is a far more potent tool than heorism & I sense & am cheered by, a bloody big appetite amongst bloggers & readers.


  9. Michael Skaggs replied:

    Wise,Well done my friend! Ahh what a refreshing read as I am back to the “virtual net” finally after some computer, vehicle, and people woes.Thanks for the hard work and loved all the connections. I absolutely adored Scooby and Shaggy on SATURNday mornings!Keep up the excellent work.Be well!


  10. wise woman replied:

    Hi MichaelWelclome back to the 'real world' :)I always loved Scooby Doo too. My son got into it when he was little & I re-enjoyed them all over again. Before he understood the concept of time I used to explain times frames in terms of Scooby Doo episodes – so one Scooby Doo was 20 mins & 3 equalled an hour.


  11. aferrismoon replied:

    Oddly ‘brave’ originally means ‘savage’ so it too has a twisted etymology


  12. Michael Skaggs replied:

    Aferris’ savage comment synch winks to Ed at Mercury’s Garden with his “Vandal Savage” post. Neat!Also wanted to thank you for the intimate personal tie ins! An Aikido master!! Wowza! For those readers not familiar with Aikido, Steven Seagal is probably Hollywoods best publicist on that form of martial arts.Thanks again for that wonderful flowing muse.Peace my friend.


  13. wise woman replied:

    Hi AferrismoonThanks for the reminder – I'd meant to mention that – am getting very interested in the twisting & turning of words.Hi MichaelI haven't read Ed's article yet, but that's interesting. I must admit I do like to see Steven Segal in action, he is a 7th Dan, as is my teacher. My teacher's wife who is a 4th Dan (& lethal) reckons that if someone broke in to her house she would probably throw something at them first – avoidance yet again (although I pity anyone who didn't run away from her!!)


  14. annemarie replied:

    Hallo Wise :)Fun and in’eresting read. Ta muchly.Inre the word *coward*, when you break it into syllables you get *co* and *ward*. And one literal, albeit archaic take on it is *co/with protection* or *co/with defense* or *co/with care*. Sounds good to me and without any neg connotation. I’ll take co-wards over he-roes anyday. heeheeOnce had a teach who said that we were all descendants of cowards, people who hid or ran away from fighting (and who clearly had to be good hiders/runners too). When my ego stopped being offended at the notion, I had a good agreeable laugh with her.Hurrah for cowards ;)


  15. wise woman replied:

    Hi AnnemarieThat’s great thanks.Yes makes heaps of sense about cowardly ancestors – maybe all the great athletes in the world are descended from some of the greatest cowards in history LOL.Hmmm perhaps the true beginnings of the Olympic Games have been ‘tweaked’ a little – they may have all been ‘running away’


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