Our Age of Cowardice

AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan

Something sinister has beset Americans: a malignant disease, its origin now untraceable, contaminating nearly every aspect of our culture. We all experience it, we are all guilty of it. We have even come to accept it as a normal part of life. After a weekend of watching the horrific news out of Afghanistan, much of which disturbingly mirrored those images of 9/11 so many of us held quietly in the back of our minds for decades, the national scope and international devastation caused by this disease of ours was thrown squarely in our faces. With Biden’s speech yesterday afternoon, coming far too late and far too short after much hesitation and silence by the administration, many of us were unified in the visceral disgust and revulsion at the words we heard. The lack of accountability, the passing of blame on all parties except on the man holding what ought to be the greatest leadership position in the world, and the strenuous avoidance of any honest communication out of fear of accepting failure are the unsightly symptoms of this disease that none of us would want to ever behold. But now, here it is, and we can’t look away. We might have been able to ignore a culture afraid of failure, a culture of cowardice and cowards, but we can no longer ignore the consequences of doing so. 


Have you ever been abandoned? Perhaps in small ways, those daily occurrences you pass off as normal acts of life, though they might twinge your self-esteem, you come to accept. A new romantic interest stops responding, the Uber driver who is supposed to pick you up cancels without notice or reason. Just part of life, caused by anything or nothing, leaving you with a tiny slice of limbo that is actually quite easy to live with. What about a bigger abandonment? The sudden silence of a life-long friend? Family and loved ones of years throwing you overboard with no explanation – or, worse, explanations that make no sense, leaving you with a broken and confused sense of reality? Have you had someone take everything from you, or leave you to have everything stolen, and then told you it was your fault? They don’t owe you an explanation and never did, while the promises they gave you and trust you had in them crumbled around you. If so, multiply this by thirty-one million. You might begin to comprehend what the abandonment of a whole nation must feel like. 

There has not been a question of whether we should leave Afghanistan for more than a year now. It has been a bipartisan, shared position that a withdrawal would eventually take place. That is the fig leaf Biden immediately turned to in his speech, deflecting the actual subject of criticism – not the fact of withdrawal, but its manner. Everyone might have agreed that the United States should leave Afghanistan, but few would have condoned the reckless, dishonorable, and inhumane way this has been conducted. Biden expectedly points his finger at Trump, but also at the Afghan people. On them be it, he says, as he blames their lack of action and their lack of fight for the fiasco that has unfolded this past week. The same people who required our support to keep their air force flying – support that Biden pulled out, leaving their best bet of avoiding a wholesale rout of Kabul dead on the ground. The same people Biden accuses of lacking fight have lost over seventy thousand lives since this war began to keep their country from the Taliban. The same people who trusted American promises and risked their lives – and often that of their families and loved ones – to help are now thrust out into the night and amidst the baying wolves, being ripped and torn apart as we speak: not because we failed, but because we refused to accept that we failed and to take responsibility for what that means. Accepting failure could have paved the way for an honorable exit, but of course, that would have required humility and courage. It takes courage to accept that the best thing we can now do is to live up to our obligations to those who trusted us, to leave in a way that does not put us to shame and the sacrifice of so many lives – ISAF and Afghan alike – in vain. Biden’s cowardice in dodging responsibility was astonishing, and we all felt that pang of guilt, humiliation, and shame on the inside. 


Leaders take responsibility and ownership – even if the failure isn’t theirs but of their subordinates, their peers, their country. The coward passes on this responsibility. All the blame, he says, lies with others, not himself, and he was powerless to ever change fate and he can only passively tread these evil waters, as they inevitably carry him – and us – down to our mutual doom. The fault, he says, lies with those who trusted. Fate cannot be changed, he proclaims, and we are all victims of inevitable failures – of others, of ourselves, but of course never, ever, of the coward. And now, the leader of the free world has revealed himself as a coward, in a way that even those who have been unwilling or unable to recognize the reality until now could no longer deny it. 

Yet, we did not elect a coward out of chance or by accident.

We elected a coward because we are a nation of cowards. Our culture accepts and even promotes the absolute avoidance of honest communication, of having the hard and uncomfortable talks that require us to open our eyes and ears, hearts and minds. In fact, these disagreeable feelings are to be avoided at all costs. We outlaw and restrict speech that might offend, even if it is honest or earnest. We treat our relationships as interchangeable and as disposable as our wardrobe. We soak ourselves in a pool of performative responsibility and action, when all we do in reality is float down a lazy river that will only ever have one possible destination. Sometimes, it is obvious that that destination will be failure, and so performative action without risk – sold as high moral courage – is optimal. We are rewarded for our loud and boisterous positions, our thrashing about in the water without getting anywhere, and are satisfied with the outcome because we were always sure of it. A failed outcome and lack of change are preferable to honest action with a failed outcome, as the latter means we lose something in the process. We might lose face, lose respect, lose power or position, lose some idea of our self in our minds or the minds of others. But without risk, there is never reward, and without action, there will never be change – only cowards content and safe in feeling as though they are free of all blame, as the world burns and rages around them, and as those who ever had hope and trusted in them are left with only souls of despair. 


We are all cowards, in some way. Just as we all fail.

The difference is, if we can recognize this we can take action. We can accept the risks, find pride in the rewards, and if we mess up we can own up. This is what America once was, what the American individual was once known for — someone who believes in something at all costs. It made us unique in the world, more unique than most of us will ever know. On the night before the Normandy landings, General Eisenhower penned a quick statement he intended to release if the operation failed. “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” 

That is what an American used to be. He was not a coward, because he was also not the product of a society of cowards.

That shame we felt as we heard Biden’s words while picturing in our minds the Afghans falling from the planes — accepting a death in the air with the impossible chance of escape over the certainty of a captive death on the ground – was the sharp, intuitive realization that the world no longer can, or will, think of Americans as creatures of hope and conviction. We are a nation ruled by a coward, and therefore, a cowardly nation. We brought up cowardly leaders, by promoting cowardice and promoting cowards. Our leaders gambled hard-won gains for the coward’s prize – shiny pebbles, social media clout, and an incessant stream of approval. But they, themselves, are of course merely the products of the wider sickness, the cowardice that has been carefully inculcated in them from their first baby steps through their college years to their fourth star or the White House.


This is our reality now, whether we accept it or not.

And accept we must, if we are to change for the better. The only way to stem the tide of cowardice is to refuse to make excuses for it any longer. No more shall cowardice hide itself in the flag, the uniform, or the robes of academia, disguising itself as moderation or sophistication. We must see it, recognize it, and refuse to tolerate it – wherever it is encountered.

Even if that is the highest office in the land.


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