High rates of desertion and surrender during the battles in North Africa in the summer of 1942 were a major factor in Eighth Army’s poor combat performance. At the time, some suggested that these problems were symptomatic of a lack of courage or even of cowardice. There are two broad strands to the conceptualization of courage and cowardice. One focuses on the willingness of the person to fight; the other puts emphasis on how actions express an individual’s ability to cope with fear. Whichever conceptualization is used, high morale motivates the soldier to fight and shields the ordinary recruit from his fear, preventing it from overcoming him in battle. Where morale fails, the soldier is left demotivated and burdened with his terror and, therefore, and is therefore prone to desertion or surrender. Because it is extremely difficult to maintain morale at a continuously high level in an environment governed by chance and managed by humans, all soldiers can find themselves in situations where their actions may be judged as cowardly. Alternatively, if they are properly motivated to fight and prepared by the state and military to deal with the unavoidable fear of combat, all soldiers can be labelled courageous. Accordingly, emotive terms should be avoided when attempting to describe rationally explainable outcomes. The undoubtedly negative connotations attached to cowardice in battle and the positive ones attached to courage are, therefore, arguably unhelpful in understanding Eighth Army’s performance in the summer of 1942 and the human dimension in warfare more generally.
Jonathan is the author of Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge University Press, 2011)