Hornstein: Terror and Cowardice

This piece ran in Newsday on Sunday, October 22, 2006.

By Gail A. Hornstein

Is it "brave" to get on a bus in Tel Aviv or an airplane in London? Is it "cowardly" to decide not to? Is blowing yourself up in a crowded marketplace "cowardly," as politicians claim, or does it take courage to do that?

We can get some insight into these questions from Britain, where the government is struggling with the meaning of "cowardice." Defense Minister Des Browne has recommended that Parliament grant posthumous pardons this fall to the 306 soldiers shot as cowards by military firing squads during World War I.

Browne says that executing these men in 1916 and 1917 was "unjust," because they were suffering from shell shock and should have received treatment, not a bullet through the heart.

The larger question he's raising is: Where do we draw the line between reasonable fear and cowardice? It's as relevant in the post-9/11 world as it was in the trenches of war 90 years ago.

Consider Harry Farr, the best-known of the British "shot at dawn" soldiers, as they have become known. Farr enlisted in the army and fought in some of the most vicious battles of the war's first year. But in May 1915, his hands shaking so violently he couldn't hold his weapon, Farr was evacuated to a hospital with symptoms of shell shock.

He was not alone. Ten percent of British officers and 4 percent of enlisted men already had been removed from battle because of shell shock. But Farr's case was severe enough to warrant five months in hospital, far longer than typical.

He returned to the trenches and over the next year was treated twice more for "nervous symptoms," but he never got a leave.

On Sept. 16, 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme--a four-month bloodbath along the River Somme in northern France that killed 125,000 British soldiers, close to 20,000 on the first day alone--his battalion was ordered "over the top." Farr said he couldn't do it. He was dragged back toward his post by two burly guards, but he screamed and struggled so frantically they couldn't go on.

His court-martial took just 20 minutes. No medical evidence was considered. Pronouncing the verdict, the commander said: "The charge of cowardice seems to be clearly proved. ... The man is no good."

At 6 a.m. Oct. 18, 1916, Private Farr was brought before a firing squad, composed of members of his own regiment. He was tied to a stake, a piece of flannel pinned to his heart. Farr refused the blindfold. His grave is unmarked, its location unknown.

Families of these soldiers have been fighting for posthumous pardons for many years, but Browne is the first defense minister to back them.

His support comes at a key moment. As the terrorist threat rises, and civilians going about their ordinary lives become targets on a new kind of battlefield, we all confront questions of courage and cowardice.

We never know when danger suddenly will confront us. And if the building behind you explodes, what do you do? Who are today's cowards?

Funk and Wagnall define courage as "that quality of mind which meets danger or opposition with intrepidity, calmness, and firmness." Thinkers since Aristotle have tried to identify attributes of the "courageous" person. But beyond the individual, might certain conditions bring out the courage or cowardice in any of us?

Research conducted after World War II showed that when British civilians exposed to repeated bombing took on socially responsible tasks - staffing shelters, providing first aid, reuniting scattered families - they behaved with more courage than earlier. Perhaps terror threats will lead today to the same kind of solidarity and conviction.

Of course, we all have psychological limits, beyond which our minds won't go. As George Orwell chillingly showed in 1984, specific terrors can cause each of us to break down.

But when Harry Farr, the convicted coward, stood unblinking as his fellow soldiers prepared to fire straight at him, wasn't he showing a kind of courage? Was he so different from the Londoners who went back to work on public transport the day after the 7/7 subway bombings there?

Today, even the most ordinary decision can force us to confront questions of courage and cowardice. How will we each decide where our limits are?

Gail A. Hornstein is professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and author of To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.