Cultural Caviar

A Question of Courage

July 21, 2017

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A Question of Courage

John Lodwick was a British author—Anglo-Irish, really—who had an adventurous war, to put it mildly, wrote a dozen or so novels, and was killed in a car crash in Spain when he was only 43. A good biography by Geoffrey Elliott has just been published with the title A Forgotten Man. Fair enough—like most dead authors he has slipped out of sight and almost of memory. I read a couple of his books when I was young, enjoyed them, and have forgotten them. For a number of elderly people his name may still tinkle like a distant bell. This is as much as most writers may hope for.

To say that Lodwick had an adventurous war is an understatement. Self-willed, truculent, insubordinate, he would never have made a good regimental officer, but he was well suited to the Special Services. Actually he began by enlisting in the French Foreign Legion, as the quickest way to get some action, and indeed he saw some in a hopelessly ill-equipped battalion in the last days of the disastrous Battle of France. Making his way to England, he was recruited by the Special Boat Service (though there were doubts about his character and suitability). His first mission to occupied France was a flop, but later he was transferred to the Commandos, and fought in Crete, mainland Greece, Bulgaria, and finally Yugoslavia. He was taken prisoner more than once, beaten up and tortured, but came through—having acquired lots of material for the novels he would write.

“Even if you believe that you are heading straight for your religion’s idea of paradise, it surely takes courage to strap on a suicide belt and pull the cord.”

Later in an uncompleted autobiography he wrote that he had never thought he would be as brave as his father, a naval officer, or his great-grandfather, an East India Company general, but “I trusted that I would be adequately brave, and in the first year this hope was realised, but later rather less than realised and at the last not realised at all. I began my war as a young fire-eater of conventional rather than Homeric proportions. I finished it six years later as a coward sustained only by fragments of pride.”

His biographer suggests that from what we know of the records, he was being unfair to himself, and this is probably true. To some extent he was striking an attitude; there’s defiant courage in proclaiming yourself a coward. Yet it’s also surely fair to accept that he meant what he said, and that he believed that after years of danger and hardship his well of courage was running dry. The supply is not inexhaustible. Actually, of course, even those of us who would never claim to be particularly brave know from experience that courage ebbs and flows. One day on the football field you may tackle bravely, the next find yourself funking a tackle. There are plenty of examples of boxers who find their courage deserting them. Lots of those who went into the ring against formidable opponents like Sonny Liston or Mike Tyson were brave men who nevertheless were then ready to chicken out.

Nowadays we are—rightly, I think—reluctant to brand anyone a coward, either physical or moral. In war we have learned to recognize “battle fatigue,” and I doubt if any general today would call a nerve-shattered soldier a coward and slap his face. Indeed there is only one set of people who are regularly branded as cowards by politicians and the press, and these are terrorists. It’s satisfying, even comforting, to call them cowards, but this is principally, as I think John Lodwick would have recognized, of our moral disapproval of their acts.


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