[March 30, 2020] I do not write enough about cowardice, nor about treason. It is my sincere belief that both behaviors demonstrate an inherent, elemental weakness in all humans. In the religious world, we call these weaknesses by the name “sin.” And while these transgressions against others are odious, some are worse than others. My question is, “What is most contemptible, cowardice or treason?”
Confucius once wrote that “To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.” Cowardice is defined in many ways but is always something gutless, cravenness, and spinelessness. It is a shallow and despicable form of behavior, rarely tolerated, and never praised. A coward puts others in harm’s way and shows that their being is somehow superior.
Ordinary people will confess to murder, arson, false teeth, or a wig, to misquote Frank Moore Colby, but how many of them will own up to treason. To use old-army thinking, cowardice puts the military unit in danger, and treachery puts the nation in peril. Treason is an act that destroys the very fabric by which humans successfully interact. Treason destroys trust.
Midway through my military career in the U.S. Army, I sat as an officer at Courts Martial for the trial of other soldiers.1 Initially, I resisted the assignment because I saw no value in rendering judgment on those being my peers. What I discovered, however, was that I found each case intellectually fascinating. Still, I also saw how the Army (and I’m sure all the other services) viewed cowardly conduct versus treason to the nation.
Cowardice and treason come in many forms, but at the most extremes, each is unique and, therefore, punishable as separate entities. Treason (including espionage, a form of treason) is the only conduct that lawfully authorizes, either a sentence of death or imprisonment for life. The U.S. military draws a clear line. While cowardice is loathsome and may lead to evil acts, only treason is by itself evil and thus subject to higher levels of punishment.
Looking back over the history of nations, the names of those that stand out are those who betrayed their countrymen. Cowards are forgotten. Treason is remembered. We still refer to Benedict Arnold (Revolutionary War) and Judas (of the Bible) as premier examples of traitorous behavior. John Walker and Hanoi Jane Fonda are famous modern-day examples.
I began this article by asking a simple question, “Which is more contemptible, cowardice or treason?” Like Italian write Dante Alighieri discovered in his quest to understand sin and evil, he found that the lowest part of hell, where punishment was greatest, was reserved for treasonous behavior.
For a more detailed understanding, one may read the latest edition from the U.S. Military. It is found in the Manual for Courts-Martial United States (2016 Edition) at this link. https://jsc.defense.gov/Portals/99/Documents/MCM2016.pdf