The type of people that enlist in the army are usually very brave men and women, who are willing to protect and defend their country from threats such as terrorism or other invading armies miles away from their home, ignoring the risk of major injury or the loss of their own lives. This trope is not about them, we're talking about the ones that are not so brave.
These are the types of soldiers (whether or not they had achieved the rank of major) who when they find out that there is even a slight chance of them getting killed or experiencing a big boo-boo, end up screaming and running away in the opposite direction, or go into hiding until the killing has stopped, all while their teammates risk life or limb fighting. Hell, this kind of person may not even care about serving their country in the first place, only joining in order to get money for their service, a better chance at scoring with chicks, or being able to cut past the lines in the coffee shop when they get home. People with these kind of goals usually end up realizing too late that they were way over their heads for thinking that military service would be a breeze for them.
A spineless grunt like this may be a Dirty Coward, who'll betray or abandon their fellow soldiers just to save their own skin, or a Lovable Coward, if they're sympathetic enough to make the audience or their teammates pity them. They may even end up being a Cowardly Lion if they either grow a pair or realize that they're stronger than they thought. This trope can overlap with Miles Gloriosus, if the soldier brags about his badassness, only to fail to back it up when shit hits the fan, or The Neidermeyer, if the guy somehow got into a high military position and gets to treat his men like crap, while he avoids all the scary (and lethal) parts of service.
Compare with Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, which is the trope that stereotypically portrays ALL French soldiers as cowards. May be a subordinate to General Failure.
No Real Life Examples, Please! The last thing we want is to upset any former or current military personnel and their loved ones by calling any soldier a coward, especially since some real-life accounts of real soldiers acting cowardly may be inaccurate because of the whole "winners get to write the history books" thing. Another thing, if you attempt this in real life, you can be arrested, court-martialed, and given a maximum sentence of five years in jail (at least when concerning the U.S. Armed Forces), so Do Not Try This at Home, please!.
- How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King: Chapter 7 of the manga has a small frontier town become the first target of Aur's forces, with the town rallying an army comprised of its own soldiers and hired adventurers in response. After the army's commander and several other soldiers are reduced to Ludicrous Gibs by arrows fired by dark elves and Aur's magical onslaught destroying the town's defenses, the remaining adventurers decide to flee the battlefield while the soldiers try and fail to force them to stay, with the latter group choosing to defend the town until the bitter end despite the adventurers pointing out how one-sided the battle is for them.
- In Asterix, the Roman soldiers are known to run away in fear when the protagonists appear.
- Mulan has Chi-Fu. He's certainly a coward. He may not hold a military title—he's a member of the Emperor's consul—but he travels with the army's new recruits and holds authority over them.
- In Paths of Glory, Lt. Roget is not only a coward but is often drunk on duty as well; this combination results in him killing one of his own soldiers when he panics during a recon patrol.
- Several characters from Ravenous (1999), as the main cast is made up of misfits who've been Reassigned to Antarctica, but topping the list is the main character Boyd. In his first battle, Boyd's command was caught in a devastating ambush and Boyd froze in fear and then pretended to be dead to save his own skin instead of trying to save his men.
- Colonel Meekum from Soldier is pure Armchair Military, a paper-pushing bureaucrat who sees his soldiers as disposable pawns. When Todd overcomes Meekum's genetically augmented soldiers at the end and confronts Meekum face to face, Meekum immediately pisses himself.
- In the Alex Rider book "Crocodile Tears", Harold Bulman, a journalist who found out about Alex's involvement with MI6 and plans to expose him in a story for his own personal gain, was in the Royal Marines until he was dishonorably discharged for an incident where he was found hiding behind a sand dune while his squad was attacked by enemy forces.
- Janos Slynt in A Song of Ice and Fire. In addition to his (many) vices, Slynt is also a complete and total coward, despite having been commander of the City Watch of King's Landing and later a sworn brother of the Night's Watch (though he was forced into becoming a member of that brotherhood). Shortly before his execution at Jon's hands, he becomes a blubbering wreck, begging Jon not to kill him.
- It's even worse in the television adaptation, where he has a complete breakdown during the Battle of Castle Black and hides in a back room with Gilly and her son. Samwell Tarly later jeers him in public, saying he found Janos back there "in a puddle of his own making", and in his execution scene as above, his blubbering involves him breaking down in tears.
- Flashman, the titular School Bully of Tom Brown's Schooldays, who as an adult goes into the army career his social standing demands of him. Only to discover being sent to the hot-spot of the British Empire - the North-West Frontier and, worse, Afghanistan - is not an ideal posting for a dedicated coward. Attempting to weasel his way out of the hottest hot spot on Earth, he unwittingly attracts a reputation for derring-do heroics. And becomes, by degrees, Britain's go-to man for missions involving the risk of torture and agonizing death if things go wrong.
- Angels of Music: General Assolantnote is a pompous and vicious French general renowned In-Universe for his cowardice in war, where he would act as an executioner of unarmed soldiers. Assolant acts like he's a brave soldier but he's never been in a real battle during a war and is more Serial Killer than solider. When confronted by the heroes, Assolant pees himself out of fear of dying despite his previous bluster about how great and "brave" he is.
- An episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus has a skit where Graham Chapman's Colonel character is visited by a soldier by the name of Watkins (played by Eric Idle), who wants to quit the army just after one day after finding out that he will have to kill people.
Colonel: Watkins, why did you join the army?Watkins: For the water-skiing and the travel, sir. Not for the killing, sir. I asked them to put it on my form, sir: "no killing".Colonel: Watkins, are you a pacifist?Watkins: No, sir. I'm not a pacifist, sir: I'm a coward.(beat)Colonel: (disgusted) That's a very silly line. Sit down!
- Doctor Who - "Paradise Towers" has Pex, a soldier in The Great Off Screen War who deserts and goes to the titular towers with the elderly and children. He keeps trying to act like an action hero but all the residents and gangs call him a coward. He makes a Heroic Sacrifice at the end that redeems him.
- Tales from the Crypt: In an episode set during World War I, Lieutenant Martin Calthrob wants to be discharged from the Army, but his father, who also happens to be the General, explains he can't discharge Martin but will transfer him to another unit if he successfully leads a mission. In charge, Martin abandons his troops after they get attacked by German soldiers and ends up exposed by one of the survivors of the attack before passing away. Martin gets court-martialed and executed by his father (who lied to him and stated that he had his men shoot him with blanks so he can live a normal life).
- Subverted in The Call of Warr. Glintz-Terry seems like the most cowardly of the soldiers, being a ditzy, girl-obsessed kid from the city who wants to be heroic and is afraid of the forest surrounding them. He turns out a lot braver than it initially seems, and he even defies Prince's leadership to save Gravesite, Mable, and Ashes, risking his own life in the process of the Big Damn Heroes moment. At worst, he's a Cowardly Lion who puts aside his fears to do what's right.
- M*A*S*H: Major Frank Burns is nowhere near as brave as he would like others to believe. This makes him a major hypocrite as he is always the first to disparage actual frontline soldiers suffering trauma over what they've had to go through, to the point that he's even referred to them as cowardly. He's very much of the opinion that a soldier, particularly an American one, should be unflappable, but is also always the first to find some excuse to either avoid a dangerous situation or panic when finding himself in one.
- Blackadder: Played with as a Running Gag in the series "Blackadder Goes Forth", in that Captain Blackadder is constantly trying to get out of insane orders to "go over the top" of the trenches towards the heavily armed enemy, which would lead him and his men to certain death. In the final episode "Goodbyeeee", George mentions that Blackadder does not seem to enjoy being a soldier. Blackadder replies that "the kind of people we liked to fight were two feet tall and armed with dry grass". Famously, in the final episode, Blackadder's fate is not played for laughs at all.
- The Goon Show: Cowardice is one of Major Bloodnok's most noticeable qualities. It's frequently exhibited by other characters too if the story of the week has them as soldiers.
- Bug Fables: General Ultimax, Wasp King's right-hand man and the general of the Wasp Kingdom's military forces, is actually a big coward on the inside. When backed by his troops or tank, he always acts smug and frequently boasts about the Wasp Kingdom's superiority, but when forced to fight the heroes on his own, he ends up being reduced to a shivering wreck whose only method of attacking is a barrage of pathetic frantic slapping, which can be easily blocked.
- On the Futurama episode "War is the H-Word", Fry and Bender join the army solely for the armed forces discount, intending to quit immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, they get sent to fight a Bug War on a far-off planet before they can. Fry ends up humiliating himself in the middle of his first day in battle, going into a Troubled Fetal Position; while Bender, who has freely admitted to being a coward, is ironically hailed a hero for Jumping on a Grenade.
- Family Guy: "In Saving Private Brian", a series of events lead to Brian and Stewie enlisting in the army. After being shipped to Iraq and having their base suffer from a terrorist attack, the duo try and fail multiple times to get themselves discharged. It is only after Democracy kicks in (as George W. Bush predicted) that the two finally get to go home.
- SWAT Kats: Lieutenant Commander Steel wants to be the top dog of the Enforcers, but unlike Commander Feral (who is a genuinely courageous Da Chief who often spearheads attacks against threats personally) he's nowhere to be seen when actual fighting begins. On one occasion, Feral literally dragged him onto a chopper to join the fight against DarkKat, whereby he threw up in terror.