What is cowardly conduct?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 7 2003 6:38 PM

Are You a Coward?

When being afraid is a crime.

Earlier today, a military court dismissed charges against Sgt. Georg Andreas Pogany, who had been accused of committing "cowardly conduct as a result of fear" while serving in Iraq. Pogany's commander then charged him again, this time with "dereliction of duty." What is "cowardly conduct" and how does it differ from other insubordinations?

Cowardice is "misbehavior motivated by fear," according to Article 99 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs military conduct in the presence of the enemy. The article notes that fear is natural when going into battle, but it specifies that any member of the armed forces who becomes frightened and refuses to obey orders or abandons duties when foes lurk nearby can face death or other punishments.

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Cowardice charges are very rare. The last recorded conviction occurred in 1968, when Pvt. Michael Gross was found guilty of running away from his company in Vietnam and sentenced to two years in prison. Officials say there have been only four or five formal cowardice charges since 1950. (Informal cowardice charges, including playground taunts involving poultry, are more common.)

Pogany, who served as an interrogator for a squad of Green Berets in Samarra, Iraq, told the New York Times that after seeing an Iraqi cut in half by machine gun fire, he had a panic attack and told his superiors he was not fit to work and needed help. The official charge sheet from the incident claims Pogany refused to join missions and interrogate captured Iraqi suspects. Pogany says that although a military psychologist recommended he rest a few days and return to work, a senior officer told him he was a coward and he was sent home. Army officials decline to discuss the case.

"Dereliction of duty," the charge Pogany now faces, is a more frequent and easier-to-prove crime, punishable by discharge, forfeiture of pay, and up to six months of confinement. Article 92 of the UCMJ explains that dereliction of duty occurs when a member of the armed forces refuses to perform a task either explicitly assigned or reasonably known to be a duty. The crime has nothing to do with fear or the presence of adversaries.

Since cowardice must occur at a time and place where an enemy either has already appeared or may yet turn up, servicemen in peacetime—and ordinary civilians—can breathe a sigh of relief. If you are yellow-bellied back home, you're not technically a coward.

Explainer thanks Maj. Michael Shavers of the Department of Defense and retired Capt. Mark O'Hara of the Judge Advocates Association.

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.