Honor: A Talk Given at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

I saw a funny television commercial the other day. There were no words but only a musical sound-track and pictures of a fat guy of about my own age as he realizes that he’s grown too big and so begins a new regimen of exercise and eating right — both of which things he is supposed to be comically unfamiliar with. But as he sticks with it and gradually becomes more svelte over the course of a minute, we listen to the gravelly-voiced Bob Dylan on a 1960s-vintage recording as he sings, “The times, they are a-changin’” Then the ad cuts away and up on the screen pops the name of the sponsor, Kaiser Permanente, along with the written exhortation: “Be your own cause.”

It’s about as good a summary as you could hope for of the ethos of the generation to which I belong, the post-war baby boomers. Indeed, it could be argued that, for all our self-congratulatory idealism, “Be your own cause” was our watchword back in the sixties too, an era which so many of us continue to regard with misty-eyed nostalgia. When hundreds of thousands of us descended on Washington to say “Hell no, we won’t go,” what else were we doing but proclaiming that we — not our country or, indeed, anything else outside ourselves — were our own cause? When we gathered at Woodstock for “three days of peace and love,” our high ideals in action consisted of grooving to the music, getting high and getting laid. It sure beat getting shot at in the jungles of Vietnam for some cause we’d found it easy to reject in favor of ourselves.

But those of us who remember those days are likely still to think of ourselves as rebels and idealists because, by making ourselves our own cause, we actually did topple a repressive system and effect a liberation whose consequences we continue to feel today. True the repressive system, which I shall call the Western honor culture, was by that time not very repressive. In fact, it had been knocked around pretty badly for half a century before we got to it, and it was almost on its last legs by then anyway. All it took was a little push from us and, at least in comparison with previous revolutions, hardly any self-sacrifice — we were our own cause, remember — and the whole thing just collapsed. Nowadays, hardly anyone even knows what honor means, or what it once meant.

Let me pause, then, to explain what I think it means. In a few words, it’s the good opinion of the people who matter to us. The people who matter to us are what I call the “honor group.” You will have noticed right away how honor differs from morality. The principles of morality are universally true, in all times and places. But what is honorable will depend to some extent on the composition of the honor group. Looking good in their eyes thus becomes for the individual, a greater cause than himself, even than saving his own life. Hence the expression, Death before dishonor! The dominant honor group in European countries used to be socially and economically determined and largely confined to a hereditary aristocracy, but honor underwent a revolution in the 18th century. Suddenly the honor group expanded enormously, and America led the way. In fact, the American revolution was more revolutionary in this way than in any other. George Washington and the other founding fathers taught the world that all men, and not just a hereditary élite, could aspire to honor. And their lesson was echoed by the European romantics, especially Sir Walter Scott and the popular novelists who came after him.

That synthesis of progressive political ideas and traditional honor reached its apogee under the Victorians with the idea of the Christian gentleman, but it is now all but gone. You may regard this as a good thing or a bad thing. Nowadays, even many conservatives are likely to think it a good thing. But it is important to recognize that there are large parts of the world in which the native honor culture has remained untouched by those social forces which have brought down our own. Among these are the parts of the world where America’s and the West’s Islamicist enemies come from, so it is helpful in understanding them, and therefore in understanding the conflict in which we are engaged, if we try for a moment to recapture what it is like to live in an honor culture.

In order to do that, however, we have first to realize that their honor culture and our own, when we had one, are very different things. You only have to think of the phenomenon of the “honor killing.” In large parts of the world, and not only the Islamic parts, women who are guilty of unchaste behavior — or even of behavior to which unchastity might conceivably be imputed, such as going out alone with a boyfriend or wearing revealing clothes or makeup — are commonly killed by their own fathers, husbands or brothers for having brought dishonor on the family. That kind of thing was a rarity in the West even back in the days when the honor culture was strong. It’s one of many way in which our honor culture, when we had one, differed from those to be found elsewhere in the world.

Or take another example. We know that not only the Bush administration but virtually every intelligence service in the world, and even Saddam Hussein’s own senior military staff up until January of 2003, fervently believed in the existence of usable Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq — weapons which no one has since been able to find. And why were we so firmly persuaded of this? Because Saddam wouldn’t allow inspectors in and otherwise kept acting as if he had something to hide. And he did have something to hide, too, for in an honor culture concerned above all with not losing face and persuading one’s enemies that one is a formidable adversary, he was much more likely to have hidden, as he did hide, the fact that he didn’t have the weapons than that he did have them. It’s not surprising that we didn’t understand this idea of honor when you consider that we have largely ceased to understand the one that was once our own.

There were several reasons why the Islamic honor culture out of which the terrorists spring is so different from ours, but I believe the main one to have been the influence of Christianity itself. There was no inherent conflict between Islam, or others of the world’s major religions, and the primitive honor culture that goes back as far as we have records — and probably a lot further. So the honor culture in Islamic lands has remained primitive. Only in Christendom, to give it its old name, did the dominant religion challenge and even oppose the honor culture which existed alongside it. When Jesus told his followers to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” He was speaking directly against the honor culture which had always demanded, as He pointed out, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It took centuries for it to happen, but the pressure of that contradiction eventually but radically changed the Western honor culture, producing among other things codes of chivalry and fair play and gentlemanliness that seemed, and still seem, outlandish to the rest of the world.

As a result, we found ourselves getting out of touch with ideas of honor even before our own honor culture started to go to pieces at the time of the First World War, when honor was blamed for causing what was, up until that time, the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. And as if that weren’t enough, two other immensely influential forces were at work at the same time — also, partly on account of the war — that further weakened the honor culture. One was feminism and the other was psychotherapy. Traditional honor had always distinguished between men’s and women’s honor, and that hadn’t changed even after the democratization and updating of the old, aristocratic honor culture by progressive-minded Romantics and Victorians during the previous century. In fact, there were still clinging to the updated Victorian honor culture remnants of the pre-modern view that a woman’s honor — by which was meant her chastity — was the property of her husband or father rather than herself. Traditional honor could hardly have survived the notion of women’s equality. Meanwhile, psychotherapy was in the process of reversing the honor culture’s traditional subordination of the individual to the group. By elevating the individual to the social and moral supremacy he has since enjoyed, this likewise undermined honor’s foundations.

That was how the old honor culture had got so banged up by the time we got to it, we who were and who remain our own cause. When it fell apart, pieces of it remained — local honor cultures that survived here and there. The biggest piece was the military honor culture without which our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines simply could not fight. Smaller, weaker honor cultures are still found wherever people are engaged in a corporate enterprise. We all still care what our family, our friends and our co-workers and professional colleagues think about us, and to that extent these are all honor groups. The nation remains an honor group to the extent that patriotism still exists, but patriotism now is usually thought of rather as a feeling than an obligation, rather as a warm glow in our hearts than a call to action. It demands nothing of us, except that we obey the law. The shared honor culture that used to belong to everybody and that taught us not just to love our country but also how to love it and why it was lovable is largely gone.

Whether honor can ever make a comeback, I am somewhat skeptical, but I want at this point to set aside questions of individual honor for another occasion, or perhaps for the question period, and talk instead about national honor. For whatever may be true of the viability of individuals without honor within a given society, it seems to me that among nations honor remains as indispensable as ever. It is our failure to understand this which has created so many of the foreign policy disasters of the last half century and more.

“It’s not fashionable to say this, but the Iraq war was about oil.” Or so wrote John Judis in The New Republic on-line the other day. I would be the last person to turn my nose up at the unfashionable as such, but sometimes things are unfashionable not because they are true but because they are false. Anyway, it depends on where you stand. In some quarters on the left, to say that the war was about oil is at least as fashionable as Birkenstocks and tie-dyes. Indeed, insofar as the left has any reason for being anymore, it is to seek out and expose — whether in the streets or in the pages of The New Republic — just such hidden motives as this beneath the moralizing rhetoric used by those in power to justify the use of military force. Kevin Phillips, too, thinks oil is the real reason for the war but, rather confusingly, he’s added a second real reason in the shape of the evangelical interest in establishing what he calls an “American Theocracy.” Fortunately, there seems to be no limit on the number of real reasons there can be hidden beneath the unreal ones, so we can add to their number the theory of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, set out in the London Review of Books, that the real reason is the sinister influence of the Israel lobby.

Neither Mr Judis’s nor Mr Phillips’s nor yet Messrs Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s arguments are quite persuasive to me, but I would like to join them in the favorite game of the antiwar party by mentioning what I think is the real reason for the war. It is a reason which, like the ones they advance, I believe to have skulked guiltily behind the publicly declared ones about Weapons of Mass Destruction and bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. Its name is honor. To be sure, I thought that honor would have been better served by other wars than the one that was chosen, but it was kind of hard to have that debate when the word “honor” was never mentioned by either the pro- or the anti-war side. For to admit to having gone to war for national honor, as I believe we did — as, indeed, we always do — would I’m afraid have been thought of by most people, even most Republicans, as being at least as shameful as admitting that we had gone to war for oil, for Christian millenarians or for the undue influence of a foreign power.

Why is that? One answer lies in the utopian bias that the left has imposed upon our political discourse. Ever since “the war to end wars” in 1914-1918, war has seemed so horrible to large numbers of people that nothing less than bringing about permanent peace or protecting them from the most imminent of dangers — such as Weapons of Mass Destruction — could possibly justify it. The doctrine of basic honor, that when we or our friends have been hit by them or their friends, we must hit back, has hardly been heard since the outrage that greeted the German rape of Belgium in 1914. Even after Pearl Harbor, the official rationale for joining in World War II was designed to play down retaliation and revenge and to play up the idea of the death struggle between “democracy” and “dictatorship” — this even though we ourselves were allied with the world’s bloodiest dictatorship at the time. Ever since then, the unprecedented crimes of Adolf Hitler have served as almost the only paradigm for an acceptable casus belli, at least if we are to judge from the frequency with which the late German dictator’s name comes up in connection with talk of going to war. That’s what I call setting the bar high.

It also explains why those on the antiwar left get so cross. Though Stalin was at least a rival of Hitler’s for the title of world’s worst dictator, neither his successors in Moscow, nor Ho Chi Minh nor Saddam Hussein, awful as all of them were, were in the same league. Thus the idea that Saddam, for instance, was another Hitler who had to be stopped on his march to world-domination was so unpersuasive as to suggest to the war’s opponents, rightly I think, that it was merely a mask for some other and less palatable motivation — one that the pro-warriors would not have wanted to come out. Apart from anything else, the world is filled with dictators and strongmen who are as bad as or worse than Saddam. Why, then, did we go to war against him rather than any of the others? To people like John Judis, the fact that Iraq is, or was, the world’s second or third largest oil exporter provides all the answer they need — even though their theory hasn’t got an answer to the objection that history affords us no example of an enemy, not even Saddam, who has been so dastardly as to refuse to sell his oil.

I think that honor offers us a better theory. It’s also why, I think, polls show such large numbers of Americans stubbornly persisting in the belief in the connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. To the antiwar left this only demonstrates the success of the administration’s propaganda campaign — even though it stopped making that argument long ago. My belief is that what those polls are showing is public indifference to the question of the nature and extent of Saddam’s links with Islamicist terrorism before the war. Like al-Qaeda itself, these believers in the connection between Islamicists and Ba’athists care much more about what has happened after the war, when that connection has become undeniable. Though forged, like America’s alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it is enough for many people retroactively to justify the Bush administration in attacking Saddam as a retaliation for 9/11. This is because most people still instinctively understand the demands of honor. In its terms, striking back at someone with only a distant connection to our attackers is actually more effective in sending the message that we and our power are not to be trifled with or disrespected than haling the criminals themselves, or their close associates, into court.

We had a good illustration of where that leads last week with the tragi-comic end to the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui. From the point of view of the honor culture he represents, it made perfect sense for him to proclaim, “America, you lost; I won.” Hard as it is for us to swallow, that is almost certainly how the large part of the world that might be tempted into sympathy with America’s most deadly enemies will see it too. Opponents of the death penalty for Mr Moussaoui told us that killing him would only make him a martyr. But better to have another martyr — and if there’s one thing that the inventors of suicide bombing are hardly short of it’s martyrs — than to have an enemy thus proclaiming his victory over us because we haven’t got the gumption to swat him like a fly. Those who deplore America’s cultivation of honor — and the fear and respect among our enemies that go with it — will doubtless say that affording him all the due process of our criminal justice system, and then sparing his life because he, too, must be considered as one of life’s victims, is the best illustration of the superiority of our system to the savage and brutal honor culture of our enemies. And to them it is. But they should be aware that, to those within that savage and brutal culture it is no such thing but merely one more reason to despise us and to confirm them in the belief that we don’t have the will to defend ourselves.

It was to counter that belief in American weakness and vulnerability that we went to war in Iraq in the first place — or so my own personal conspiracy theory would claim. And if it wasn’t it should have been. But just as Saddam Hussein tried to look strong by encouraging our belief in his WMDs but really was weak, so our formidable military presence concealed another kind of weakness, a weakness of will and determination to make ourselves respected among those for whom only violence or a credible threat of its deployment will engender respect. It seems to me that international relations among stronger and weaker nations have always been conducted in terms of this kind of respect, or its absence, and unavoidable that they will continue to be so conducted in the foreseeable future. Any responsible government has got to consider the national honor as a precious legacy that many have paid for in blood, and that has to be preserved if we are to continue to enjoy national freedom and autonomy as well as to avoid war with those who, in its absence, will find us a soft target.

If, as I suppose, the real reason for the war in Iraq, as for the war in Afghanistan, was not oil or Jesus freaks or the Israel lobby but the protection of our national honor and the reassertion of our right to be respected by lesser but potentially aggressive powers who would otherwise be tempted to become our enemies, why should it have been a shameful thing for the administration to have admitted as much? So shameful, indeed, that none of the war’s apologists — none that I know of anyway — seems ever to have brought it up, even as one reason among many for America’s resort to force of arms. What made them so afraid to cite honorable, as opposed to moral or prophylactic reasons for going to war? Well, just look at what happened the last time that the word “honor” was heard on the sweaty lips of an American president. Richard Nixon, you may remember, desperately sought “peace with honor” in Vietnam — by which we and our enemies both understood that he meant some desperate shift by which he could save face and avoid the appearance of a humiliating defeat which would play havoc with our reputation and credibility as a military power all around the world. This was the condition that Nixon himself had so memorably described in connection with the Cambodian invasion as America’s reduction to the state of “a pitiful, helpless giant.”

Needless to say, it didn’t work. Nixon should have remembered the scandal that had been caused by the revelation of the Pentagon Papers that the secret motivations of the architects of the war were, in their words, “70 per cent, to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)” — i.e. honor — and only 10 per cent “to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.” In the official propaganda about the war, these proportions were roughly reversed, so it was hardly surprising if people thought they had been lied to. Likewise, when the young John Kerry testified before Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, his most ringing indictment of the Nixon administration was that “someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, the first president to lose a war.” To Lieutenant Kerry, as he then was, this concern seemed a merely personal vanity on Nixon’s part, a virtual admission that Vietnam was the “mistake” which you couldn’t ask a man to die for. It’s not that Lt Kerrry considered the argument from honor and rejected it. He never even began to understand it, and in this he was typical of those in the antiwar party to whom he was appealing then and who have continued to protest against America’s wars, including the one in Iraq today, ever since.

So influential has the anti-honor party become that no president since Nixon has dared to make even the negative and oblique appeal to honor that he did in justification of the deployment of American troops abroad — though I believe that honor has continued to be the unacknowledged motivation behind such deployments. It’s a discouraging thought for believers in national honor like myself, and I’m afraid I can offer no good reasons for thinking that a greater frankness on the part of the administration about the honorable roots of its policies in Iraq and elsewhere would be greeted by anything but howls of outrage from its opponents — and probably many of its dwindling band of supporters as well. For 30 years and more we have been schooled in the therapeutic belief that we are, or ought to be, our own cause, so that even when there is, as I have said in connection with the al-Qaeda-Saddam link, an instinctive but mute understanding of honor’s demands, we no longer have the vocabulary with which to express it. But if my book does something to reintroduce that vocabulary into our national discourse, it will at least be a first step.


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