What is Most Contemptible: Cowardice or Treason?

By | March 30, 2020

[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

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

25 thoughts on “What is Most Contemptible: Cowardice or Treason?

  1. Harry Donner

    This article made me think! Wow, I never really gave this much thought. The whole idea that cowardice and treason can be compared and them treason come out on top as the worst of the worst is absolutely fascinating (intellectually that is).

    1. Greg Heyman

      Yes Harry, I found it a little twisted. It’s been a long time since I read Dante’s Inferno or this entire Trilogy. I’ve reordered the series from Amazon and will make time for a re-reading.

  2. Bryan Lee

    Excellent article today. Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Keep ’em coming our way. Now that I’m unemployed, I will have more time to read, study, and think. I know that this is what you would want me to do. Thanks for your blog.

  3. Georgie B.

    News on the Coronavirus that the US govt now projects betw/ 100k and 200k will die from it. Scary stuff but this is why we need strong, steady leadership. In times of crisis, there is no time to go off the rails and act stupidly like our mass media is doing.

    1. Ruth M. McMasters

      I think, Georgie, that the greatest disgust from this whole pandemic issue (other than the deaths) is the gross and utter failure of our new outlets. They have shown themselves to be working AGAINST the American people. Why? Just for ratings and Trump Derangement Syndrome.

      1. JT Patterson

        Sadly, I have to agree with you both. Our media’s most basic job is to inform the public in an unbiased way. They are NOT doing it but using it to assault America. The blame-American crowd is rooming the streets and we Americans see them for the hacks they are.

      2. Jerome Smith

        Yes, this is an unfortunate trend. I watch President Trumps daily briefings with the COVID19 Task Force and see the whackos in the media continue to embarrass themselves. CNN is the most stupid of them all. When we get out of this, i sure hope people write more about the failure of our media.

    2. Kenny Foster

      The US media have betrayed the citizens of America. That is just too sad.

  4. Linux Man

    Cowardice or Treason? Interesting but I think these two go together more than we may initially think. People who are willing to betray others are, almost by definition, cowards too. I’d be interested in hearing what others think about that.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      Good point. When you are on the “wrong” side of normal, then you are more likely to do those things that deviate from what keeps groups of people together. That is why leadership at the lowest level is so important to teach and exercise.

    2. Darryl Sitterly

      Are they the same? Obviously not. What most of us know, seemingly inherently, is that treasonous behavior is very very bad and should be punished.

  5. Eric Coda

    General Satterfield, great article today, so thanks. While I’m self-isolating in my home, I find that I’m spending more time on the computer and talking with friends and family (on the telephone and thru various video apps). I will be happy only when I get back to work.

  6. Wilson Cox

    This is what “leadership” can do in the time of crisis, “Coronavirus Response Sends Cuomo’s Popularity Surging” from the Wall Street Journal (behind a for-pay firewall). The point is that NY Gov Cuomo is out front talking to people every single day and giving his thoughts (mostly good but some stupid). At least he is out front unlike the other presidential candidate. WHERE IS JOE BIDEN?

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Good comment, Wilson and great question, “Where is Joe Biden?” The last I saw of him, he did a terrible interview with CNN suckups that tried to save him but failed spectacularly.

  7. Joe Omerrod

    It will be interesting to see how people act in a time of crisis like we have today with the virus pandemic. Will some people act selfishly or heroically? We already have the “most irresponsible generation” of millennials. Now we have some politicians who have some weird motivation to go against what is being done to reduce the numbers of deaths that may occur due to this horrible pandemic. All betray their fellow human beings for notoriety. How disgusting!

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      She’s a typical liberal who lives in an intellectual bubble where young folk fawn over you and say you are so ‘great’ while you know that you are just being an ass. Nancy P. is a piece of sh**. I don’t like her because she doesn’t know how to play on a team.

  8. Army Captain

    Thanks for the article, Gen. Satterfield. I searched the Internet and couldn’t find anything written about comparing cowardice and treason. Most of them combined the two and sometimes conflate them. Well done!

    1. Max Foster

      But we have all believed that betrayal (treasonous behavior) is always the worst of the worst. That is why, I think, that Dante’s Inferno is such a magnificent piece of literature. His works give us a new dimension of thinking into why and why not “betrayal.” Time again and again, throughout human existence, betrayal/treason has always existed and always punished the most severely.

      1. lydia

        Great comment, Max. That is why “divorce” exists even when resisted (to force us to be responsible). Divorce is a way out of a relationship that has failed due to betrayal (altho morphed into something else).

      2. Gil Johnson

        Once again, Max, you have put your finger on the issue. Dante believe that the greatest punishment of all was to have committed some form of betrayal and now get your just desserts.

        1. Dennis Mathes

          Yes, Max is always giving us something to think about.

    2. Scotty Bush

      Army Captain, that is very interesting. Usually I can find stuff out there that backs up what Gen. Satterfield writes about but not this time. He has a good argument and has supported it well … within the limited space he has. Thanks also for your service and be safe.

  9. Ronny Fisher

    Confucius once wrote that “To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.” Spot-on. I should be reading more by Confucius.

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