Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Has America lost it's desire for honor?
A Noble Virtue Under Siege-Do Americans still understand the meaning of honor? BY JOSIAH BUNTING III Tuesday, June 6, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT In our culture of therapy, self-absorption and celebrity, "honor" has very little cachet. An abuse of honor--say, by perpetrating a public fraud or acting duplicitously in private life--is but the occasion for the administration of comforting words of understanding, the application of medicines to assuage lingering anxieties and the invitation to appear on "Oprah," the better to explain the forces that, overwhelming meager resources of conscience and character, impelled a dishonorable act. Next may come an invitation to undertake the labor of a book, more fully to explore and expiate the fall from grace. Closure (as it is called) will then, at last, be obtained.In short, there is no shame in actions once known as dishonorable, and the virtues that supported honor seem moribund. Chastity and modesty--so important to honor in social relations--are treated as relics from Jane Austen and "Little Women." When a high-school girl defends a sexual encounter on the grounds that an American president said that her particular act was not really sex, both she and her role model are, if not completely forgiven, understood to be, as members of the human family, subject to the same vagaries of uncontrollable temptations as you and I. Things used to be so different. James Bowman's "Honor: A History" offers a brilliantly astringent accounting for the disappearance of honor as a normative standard of conduct in American society. Mr. Bowman traces the idea of honor from its classical origins to its aristocratic and democratic forms. Along the way, he discusses religious teachings (in Christianity and Islam), philosophical definitions (e.g., Aristotle and Nietzsche) and literary treatments (Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, Hemingway). Throughout, he cites the emblems of honor--or dishonor--in current events and popular culture. Perhaps most pertinent to the present moment, he surveys America's use of honor (and prestige) as causes (and justifications) for going to war, indeed for serving in the armed forces. As late as the mid-1960s, lest we forget, members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations prized "toughness" in foreign affairs and considered national honor a principal justification for fighting in Vietnam. There was a need, the architects of foreign policy felt, "to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)." What was on the line, Mr. Bowman writes, "was the 'prestige' that was really old-fashioned honor under a different name." Yet the war was not always justified to the American people in such terms, and when Richard Nixon promised "peace with honor," few believed him: Honor was, by then, understood as a slipshod synonym for "this is all we can take. We've done all we reasonably could for our ally." In the West, the identity of personal with national honor was part of the fighting spirit in World War I, though it nearly sank in the slime of Passchendaele and the Somme. Its last florescence was in World War II, Mr. Bowman observes. And even then, "honor" and "duty" in the stiff, upper-class sense of the terms gave way, during the war, to a democratic ideal: the average guy "just doing a job." For America, this antiheroic theme was part of a national self-definition. "We were still, surely, different from . . . those old-fashioned jingoist or imperialist forebears who had been able to speak unashamedly of honor and its demands." The rhetoric surrounding war changed over time--in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Balkans and now in Iraq. Governments came to feel, Mr. Bowman argues, that appeals to national honor, prestige and reputation for toughness no longer worked. The Marines may remain determined to keep their honor clean, but no such justification seems to animate the country as a whole in its role in the world. When terrorists took over Fallujah in 2004 and the Marines moved in to take them out, Mr. Bowman remembers a commentator saying: "This isn't about national security anymore: it's about pride and credibility." True enough, but the words were rare and tell-tale. Mr. Bowman notes that only in a post-honor society would such an explanation be necessary: Pride and credibility, he argues, are "commonly used substitutes for the old-fashioned sounding 'honor.' " They imply "jealousy for reputation" and the respect that countries and armies once demanded and expected. Can honor be resuscitated? As Mr. Bowman notes, "honor is stark and unforgiving," and early-21st-century America does not like stark choices. ("Then it is the brave man chooses / While the coward turns aside," in the words of the old hymn.) "Character," meaning resolution, the persistence in right action whatever its costs, seems a quaint and Victorian crotchet. Citizens feverishly, fitfully, deplore the inadequacies of body armor for their Marines and soldiers; three days later, they have moved on. Did you say 32 Iraqis were blown up this morning, and a soldier killed, north of Baghdad? Shame. Let's see what that does to the president's poll numbers. How well America understands its enemies' notions of honor--and how prepared the country is, itself, to act honorably--will be tested between now and the fall elections. A failure to understand, though not inevitable, may be writ large in a headline like this one: "Administration Announces Withdrawal of 28,000 American Troops by End of Year." As Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh must have smiled the first time they heard the word "Vietnamize," radical Islamists will rejoice at such a development, irrefutable evidence that America neither understands their own misbegotten notions of honor nor has the will, if it does understand, to act honorably in confronting them. Mr. Bunting is president of the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. You can buy "Honor: A History" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.