Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War – A Review

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War
Dora L. Costa & Matthew E. Kahn

I didn’t like the title to begin with. A book about war, especially one by social scientists, should not be called Heroes and Cowards. One, because hero is over used, and cowardice, like heroism, is so fluid it is hard to really say what is heroic at times. Yet the second bit of the title suggests the book will delve deep into what it means to be a soldier, or more accurately, what a soldier’s experience is, since what it means to be anything doesn’t explain much it just an analysis placed on experience. Had the authors stuck to the second part of the title the book might have been a more interesting read. Unfortunately, it is a sociological study that tries to be prescriptive when the best that can be hoped for is the descriptive.

What the authors of Heroes and Cowards attempt to do is explain why some soldiers deserted and why others did not. Unlike historical works that use diaries, letters, and other primary sources as a tool to determine why their subjects behaved in a certain way, they used a data set culled from government enlistment, pension, and other records that represented over 30 different regiments who fought for the Northern side. While the data set is impressive and is useful for explaining trends among soldiers such as enlistment rates, distance from where they lived to the enlistment location, and ethnic make up, the research really doesn’t seem to be particularly useful. For example, in one analysis they noted that desertion rates among soldiers who were all from the same area and, therefore, new each other, versus those who were drawn from a larger group and did not know each other, were 8% for the former and 10% for the latter, suggesting group cohesion means less desertion. At another point in the book doing a similar comparison the numbers seem to flip. In either case, the I don’t know if percentages are really that different. Wider variation in numbers would have made these numbers more telling and meaningful.

The authors are at their best when they take a look at the literary evidence available in journals, letters, etc and use it to illustrate what they think the data show. The literary evidence, though, has the advantage of saying why soldiers deserted or not. The statistical can only say that they deserted and perhaps it was for this reason. While knowing desertion rates and other statistical data is important as part of a whole picture, it turns the war into a numeric puzzle that is incomplete at best. A descriptive history of war is, in an industrial era, natural, but it also takes away context and turns motivation into a mathematical equation: recruitment is high here + tight-nit community = strong cohesion.

Finally, the authors at times seem to over apply the term desertion. Writing about one battle they note that when one unit began to running from the front and cross paths with another unit, the second unit began to run also. The authors called it desertion, but that is too simplistic a read of how battles tend to function. Fortunately, their statistical analysis wasn’t that detailed so they could analyze a moment like that.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War has some relevant information even if it doesn’t seem statistically interesting, but to make it through the book it is best to skip over some of their analysis or you may become mired in an analysis that isn’t particularly astounding.