The lesson of the ‘Broward Coward’

Police officers continue their work outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 17.
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Police officers continue their work outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 17.

In 1947, Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall published a small book with shocking findings about the citizen-soldiers that had just helped save the world. Only one in four infantrymen in the Greatest Generation had actually fired their weapons during combat, the journalist-turned-soldier declared in the book “Men Against Fire.” The book set off a scandal: Why were there so many cowards?

On Thursday, a man named Scot Peterson resigned as a sheriff’s deputy in Broward County, Fla., after it was revealed that he had taken cover behind a concrete column outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, rather than enter the building as a gunman massacred students inside. Peterson was, in the words of President Trump, a “coward.”

At the root of the way we think about guns is a distinctly American notion: the idea that real men dispatch bad men with a pull of the trigger. But this is directly at odds with how real people behave.


And that chasm between the mythology and the real world has profound implications for how to keep the country safe.

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Peterson’s resignation prompted author and combat veteran Matt Gallagher to tweet: “There’s little my beloved country (and I say that earnestly) deals with more poorly than the convergence of complexity and violence. This Broward County deputy sheriff is going to have a rough go of it.”

Another soldier, Michael Stahlke, put it this way: “There’s a reason that combat is a team sport. I’ve seen folks freeze up during exercises that fired nothing more harmful than blanks. That’s when an NCO or one of your buddies whacks you on the head and tells you to get moving. One man alone? They don’t have that external support.”

The notion of cowardice and its intersection with fear and responsibility is complicated, and the “Broward Coward” will be forced to grapple with it for a long time. It is also something that the rest of the country needs to start grappling with as well. America is home to the brave, but it is also home to a great many people who would not have rushed headlong to confront a mass murderer alone — whatever weapon they happened to have at hand — and would not have shot him even if they’d managed to get him in their sights.

“Too often, conduct is wrongly judged cowardly when it is really prudent or even courageous,” writes Chris Walsh, a professor at Boston University and author of “Cowardice: A Brief History.” Those misjudgments have done irreparable harm, he writes. “Less obvious but far more pervasive harm has been caused by those who fear being judged cowardly and so behave recklessly. Were it not for such fear, history would be a much less bloody affair.”


By throwing around words like “coward,” that punch the gut, Americans avoid looking at complex problems in a clear and comprehensive way. And once we accept that stopping a massacre is merely a function of individual character, simple ideas start to look like panaceas.

Trump offered up a proposal this week that the National Rifle Association has been advocating for years: arming teachers to stop school shootings. Twenty percent of American teachers, armed with guns, Trump tweeted, would “immediately fire back if a savage sicko came to a school with bad intentions. Highly trained teachers would also serve as a deterrent to the cowards that do this.”

The president himself, critics have noted, had the opportunity during the Vietnam War to take up arms and go into battle, and he declined to do so on five occasions. Trump’s proposal now could put a great many Americans in Scot Peterson’s shoes. Indeed, if the country’s weapons makers had their way, we’d all carry guns that we might — or might not — bring ourselves to use if the moment came. Maybe students, too.

Would universal lock-and-load empower heroics? Surely. But would the fear of being labeled a coward compel reckless shooting? Just as certainly. Trump’s plan would also make it the duty of classroom teachers to open fire, with the implicit threat that they’d be branded cowards if they did not.

As the saying goes: Courage is simply running in the right direction. Walsh writes about how this dynamic plays out in the “Red Badge of Courage” — a staple of high school reading lists, that chronicles the story of a Civil War soldier who runs from battle, rather than towards it: “Cowardice and courage become merely arbitrary names we give to physiological reactions to environmental conditions.”


Extensive training can, to a certain extent, help harness the physiological reactions that humans have to killing and the threat of being killed. But not as much as you’d think.

As it turns out, SLAM, as Samuel Marshall was known, wasn’t exactly a rigorous social scientist when calculating what he called “fire ratios.” Studies as recently as late 1980s showed that, when under fire, perhaps only 20 percent of soldiers fail to pull the trigger — not Marshall’s debunked 75 percent. But SLAM was on to something about the motivations of the troops who didn’t shoot.

It wasn’t so much cowardice, Marshall surmised, though that was a factor. Rather, it was simply against human nature to kill another human, regardless of the circumstances or preparation.

This was a particular problem for the military, which trains civilians to become warriors. “The army,” Marshall wrote, “must reckon with the fact that [the soldier] comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. . . This is his greatest handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him.”

The cultural impact of Marshall’s work left one other mark. The military changed the way it trained soldiers, trying to get them to shoot more reflexively. The idea was to condition out inadvertent cowardice. Rather than static geometric targets, shooters were given human-shaped targets that appeared and disappeared on the range. Police departments and the FBI changed their training over the years, too. The idea was to make the act of pulling the trigger more automatic, to condition muscle memory.

The actual science behind this physical and psychological conditioning is controversial and not well understood, yet it has come to dominate the way we train the Americans whose job it is to carry guns.

Arming teachers or average citizens forces them to sign the same social contract — protect society or die trying. Should it be the duty of every teacher to shoot down an armed intruder if the situation arises? Would teachers be heroes if they succeeded in their counterattack? Would they be cowards if they wouldn’t or couldn’t?

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @AlexKingsbury.