March 25, 2017

Article Printer friendly

Honor in America
January 22, 2009.

[An address to the cadets and staff of the New Mexico Military Academy]

About a month ago, there was a story in The New York Times titled "As Economy Dips, Arrests for Shoplifting Soar." Here’s part of what the report says:

"We used to see more repeat offenders doing it because of drug addiction," said Samyah Jubran, an assistant district attorney in Knoxville who for 13 years has handled the bulk of the shoplifting cases there. "But many of these new offenders may be doing it because of the economic situation. Maybe they’re hurting at home, and they’re taking a risk they may not take otherwise." Much of the stolen merchandise is sold online.

This is typical of a certain habit of mind which assumes, when a crime or a moral fault is committed, that the proper response is to seek to understand it as an alternative to condemning it. In Britain these days, or so I’m told, shoplifting is rarely prosecuted anymore. Offenders are made to pay a spot fine and return the merchandise. Cheating is also said to be on the rise here in America among people of your age. In the same day’s New York Times there was a report of research showing that the brainiest of our fellow primates are also the best at deception. Dishonesty, it seems, is a good survival strategy in nature. But isn’t this true in the human world as well? How can we condemn those who are simply doing what it takes to get by in hard times?

In a way, what all this understanding is about is a compassionate concern to relieve people of the burden of responsibility for their own actions. Certainly those who have done what they ought not to have done will understandably prefer to think of themselves rather as helpless victims of social forces beyond their control than as responsible moral agents, and it is to "feel with" them — which is what "compassion" means — to indulge them in this preference. Traditionally, such compassion would have been seen as misplaced and no favor to its object, whose immortal soul was thought to depend on assuming that burden of responsibility for itself. Now, as a culture, we tend to see things differently. Indeed, we have another word, "judgmental" which we commonly use to judge harshly those who judge the moral behavior of others. It’s almost the only thing we allow ourselves to be judgmental about — which I guess is what makes it OK.

But at a place like the New Mexico Military Institute, whose motto, as I don’t have to tell you, is "Duty, Honor, Achievement," you know that there is a special area of human endeavor where it is judgmentalism that is the survival strategy. For in war, men have to be able to count on each other in life-threatening situations. They have to be able to rely on every man’s sticking to a standard of behavior that will maximize the survival prospects of the whole group and, if he doesn’t, to condemn him in the harshest terms. If you are that one man, it is vital that you should regard the prospect of letting down your comrades as, literally, "a fate worse than death," and they will expect no less of you and your loyalty to the group, which is a big part of what I call honor. They will also expect to rely on you, and your word, in non-life-threatening situations as a kind of pledge of that group loyalty. That’s where the honor system comes in. The point is not really about lying, cheating or stealing, as such, so much as it is about the honor of keeping one’s word.

Cheating is an ethical wrong and a practical wrong — you’re only cheating yourself, as they say — but for those who are not highly motivated either by ethics or by practical considerations — I’ll never use this stuff anyway, as they say — honor adds a new dimension. There is still a noticeable residuum of the honor-sense, especially among young men — enough, anyway, to make them feel ashamed that, having given their word, they should be seen as having gone back on it. I think this kind of organic or reflexive honor must survive because, at some place in our reptilian brain we are able to relate this sense of our own reliability to the survival strategy of small groups which is the most basic form of honor. In this form, it probably dates from the earliest pre-history when there was no clear distinction between military and civilian life and everybody belonged to a small, usually blood-related group — of family, clan or tribe — which was regularly engaged in a struggle for survival with or against other, similar groups.

That "honor group," as I have called it, and its demands on us, is the earliest form of moral thinking known to the human race and is, for that reason, rather suspect (to say the least) among those of a "progressive" disposition. Such people tend to think it a disgrace to our higher human and moral faculties to be bound by so primitive an imperative as honor instead of that much later but "enlightened" set of ethical principles which tells us it is wrong to lie, steal or cheat, simply as such and without regard for who is being lied to, stolen from or cheated. In primitive honor cultures, stealing or cheating was wrong within the tribe but perfectly OK or even encouraged if the victim was an outsider.

The earliest statements of what to us seem the ethical principle — as, for example, in the Ten Commandments — actually took place in a tribal context: that of God’s Chosen People in the case of the Decalogue. This is why it took millennia for people to start noticing any contradiction between God’s commandment, delivered to Moses, against murder and God’s assurance, also delivered to Moses, that "I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." Nobody thought it odd that ethics didn’t apply to the Amalekites. So perhaps we can understand why the discovery very much later, that is in the 18th century of the Christian era, that ethics applied to everybody was regarded as a matter of such moment that it is now called "the Enlightenment" — or Aufklärung in honor of its German discoverers. "Honor your father and your mother" might have been good enough for a bronze age tribal culture, but those 18th century Romantics, full of a revolutionary sense of the dignity of all mankind, had bigger fish to fry. Mom and pop would just have to look after themselves.

Nowadays, in the Western world of which we are all a part, this enlightened view of ethics is so much taken for granted that one recent moral philosopher, a Frenchman of Lithuanian extraction called Emmanuel Levinas, has laid down what must still seem to many the reductio ad absurdum of Enlightenment principle, namely that there can be no superior moral standing allowed to mother or father — or, for that matter to a beloved child or spouse — over that of any random stranger. Our ethical obligations to the stranger must be regarded as being of equal weight with those we owe to our nearest and dearest. That may be what the Church used to call a "counsel of perfection," but what it is really for is just to put one more nail in the coffin of the Western honor culture — which, like other honor cultures is by nature a way of organizing, not general obligations, but those we owe to particular honor groups of which we are members.

Yet there are still large parts of the world where the most primitive kind of tribal honor culture still prevails. If you want to know more about them, you can read the book Infidel by my friend, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which tells you what it was like to grow up in the honor-obsessed society of Somalia as recently as twenty or thirty years ago — and to grow up as a girl, since in Somalia as in most other honor cultures, girls were and are very much second-class citizens. Those of you who have been following the news about America’s military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan may also have acquired some understanding of the primitive honor culture, though you most likely will have had to do so by reading between the lines of the news reports from those places. For the most part, the media have little understanding of or interest in what makes other cultures different from ours. There is a better story to be got out of treating them all as being pretty much like ourselves.

It has been a very long time since there was anything like the kind of honor culture in Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia in the Western lands of what used to be called Christendom or America. I titled my book Honor, A History because it was only in these historically Christian countries (as they say nowadays) that honor has a history. While in Somalia, which is now more or less governed by pirates, as elsewhere in the non-Christian world, honor hasn’t changed all that much since Moses smote the Amalekites, we in the West are heirs to a tradition that once transformed its honor culture into something very much more humane and even — dare I say it? — progressive.

I haven’t got the time this evening to explain this transformation in detail. I believe it had a lot to do with Christianity itself — which, in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, took up a radically anti-honor position by commanding us, for example, to love our enemies. But there were other contributions to the uniqueness of Western honor, and therefore foreshadowings of its later transformation, in the pre-Christian cultures of both the Greeks and the Hebrews. The Enlightenment, too, made its contribution to a long process of softening and civilizing and democratizing the honor culture of Europe and America, and the process may be said to have reached its culmination in the 19th century idea of the Christian gentleman who, I think it safe to say, was the original model for the cadets as well as the officers of the New Mexico Military Institute.

One thing I do want to do, however, is to give you a brief outline of America’s part in this honorable transformation of the Western honor culture. Bret Stephens, writing in The Wall Street Journal last summer about the differences of cultures and nations, claimed that we have, or at least he has, learned from our experiences in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "that not all cultures are created equal; that identities that make a fetish of masculine ‘honor,’ for instance, don’t lend themselves easily to the practices of a free society." But if this is true today, it hasn’t always been true. He would have been right to say that honor must conflict with an egalitarian society like ours today, but the same document that began with the bold proclamation that "all men are created equal" ended with a pledge by the signatories of their "sacred honor" to the struggle for freedom.

The Founding Fathers certainly thought they were creating a free society, and it would have puzzled them to be told that they were making a fetish of masculine honor — or, quote, honor, unquote — though I’m not quite sure what Mr Stephens intended to convey by his quotation marks. It is certainly true that the Founders cared a great deal about honor, but they understood something quite different by the term than do Mr Stephens and others whose ideas about honor are derived from the practices of certain non-Western, mostly Islamic and tribal-based cultures today. They even meant something different, albeit in a more subtle way, from honor as it was understood by the aristocratic British culture they were rebelling against.

But let’s go back for a moment to the question of equality. What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote that "all men are created equal"? Those of you who have studied American history may have had this discussion with your teachers and classmates, and there are some who believe, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, that everybody is morally as well as legally the same on Mr Jefferson’s say-so. But I want raise the question again tonight in order to propose to you that the American republic was conceived not only in liberty, as Abraham Lincoln said, but in honor, and that its first Founding document, the Declaration of Independence, should be read as an honorable challenge of the sort that one gentleman would issue to another whom he intended to fight in a duel.

Such a challenge is, by its nature, an assertion of equality, among other things. It is a way for an aggrieved party to insist on his equal standing with the man who, he believes, has wronged him and, therefore, on his right to resent that wrong — this is part of the technical language of dueling — with violence. What was revolutionary about Jefferson’s statement was that it went beyond insisting that he and the other Founders had the necessary honorable standing for taking up arms against the king. For the assertion that all men were created equal implied that any similar group of gentlemen who agreed to be bound in honor as these men were would have had such standing. In other words, they were throwing down the gauntlet in defense of the proposition that honor should henceforth be treated not as a matter of birth or social standing but as the honor of the heart by which any free men could agree to be bound to each other in the struggle against those who would oppress them.

It may seem rather an embarrassment to admit to the centrality of this kind of dueling honor in the Foundation of the American republic. I ’m sure you will all have read about duels, or seen them in the movies, where two well-dressed men, often in top hats, would stand back to back with pistols in their hands, simultaneously pace off ten steps, then turn and fire at each other. What a strange thing to do! Yet there was quite a vogue for dueling with pistols in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, just as there had been for dueling with swords in the 16th century. Those of you who have read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in English class will know that there is a great deal in it about the 16th century outbreak of dueling among fashionable and aristocratic young men. And not the least fashionable thing about it was the assertion it made of one’s right to consider oneself aristocratic. Dueling was even an instrument of social mobility. If you had the guts to challenge him, someone higher in the social hierarchy than you would be forced to acknowledge your equality with him. Of course, he might also end up killing you with impunity!

I don’t propose to go into all the ins and outs, still less the rights and wrongs of dueling, but I can tell you a few things about it. One is that it was always against the law and strongly disapproved of by the Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant. Another is that it continued to go on, nevertheless, for many centuries as a more or less regular occurrence — and one on which both church and state were usually persuaded to turn a blind eye. The prince of Verona in Romeo and Juliet gets so fed up with the endless dueling between the Capulets and the Montagues that he bans it on pain of death at the start of the play. But such bans, where they happened, were sporadic and seldom long-lasting. The French political philosopher Montesquieu said that there were three tribunals to which men were subject — those of the church, of the law and of honor — and that they were rarely in agreement.

But dueling was an aristocratic amusement, and Montesquieu was one of the early heralds of what the philosopher Norbert Elias called honor’s embourgeoisement in the 18th century, a change which he identified with the process of civilization itself. Montesquieu was also one of the inspirations for Jefferson’s attempt to democratize traditional, aristocratic concepts of honor for the new, post-revolutionary society. Another was the English author Joseph Addison, many of whose writings were devoted to modifying those same aristocratic standards in order to apply them to the rising middle classes of England and the more democratic age in which they would come to prominence. In Revolutionary America, George Washington regarded himself as a disciple of Addison’s, and especially of his tragedy, Cato, which he caused to be performed for his soldiers at Valley Forge as a lesson in republican virtues.

It was also a lesson in the cultivation of honor, about which Washington himself was assiduous throughout his life. Even as a boy he had copied out "The Rules of Civility," a well-known guide and handbook to the proper behavior towards social superiors, equals and inferiors, for careful study, and he took a close interest in the recruitment of officers for the Continental Army, writing to Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, that "the true Criterion to judge by" in such recruiting efforts "is to consider whether the Candidate for Office has a just pretention to the Character of a Gentleman, a proper Sense of Honor, and some Reputation to lose."

That mention of the "Reputation to lose" is a reminder of the judgmentalism of democratic honor as it was universally understood at the time, since "reputation" was virtually a synonym for "honor". "Washington and his contemporaries," writes Richard Brookhiser,

thought of reputation as a thing that might be destroyed or sullied — some valuable cargo carried in the hold of the self. When Knox wrote Lafayette that Washington, in going to the Constitutional Convention, had "committed" his fame "to the mercy of events," they were like two merchants discussing the risky venture of a third. The cargo was precious because reputation was held to be a true measure of one’s character — indeed, in some sense, identical to it.

Washington was so immensely admired and influential in his own time both in Europe and America, partly because he sought such admiration and influence all his life but also because he seemed to many a paragon of the new and democratized sort of honor, or what the poet Wordsworth called "the aristocracy of nature." Some aristocratic visitors to North America from France and Germany around the time of the French revolution routinely identified themselves with the warrior élites of the American Indian tribes, and saw the latter as the aristocracies of their own societies, but in America itself people were less inclined to belief in what, from a safe European distance, appeared to some to be the "noble savage."

Among the Americans, the aristocracy of nature was more likely to be conceived of in terms of the virtues, and to some extent the worldly successes, of white planters and businessmen — an honor of the heart and hands which did not depend on outdated social and political structures but which was nevertheless bound up with the newer social hierarchies of the time. But to aristocracy as most of the world understood it, the Founding Fathers remained implacably hostile before, during and after the Revolution. Post-war suggestions for the establishment even of a life-peerage in America were regarded by John Adams as "part of the general plot against liberty hatched in the corrupt centers of power in England and America."

The practical result, and one that could hardly be repugnant to the ideals of the Revolution itself, was the rapid growth of a new élite class of artisans and merchants whose claims to honor — perversely in the view of old-world aristocrats — depended in part, at least, on their status as working men. "By the early nineteenth century, these middling people had destroyed the leisured pretensions of would-be aristocrats in the northern states and had made work a badge of honor to a degree not duplicated in any other Western nation," writes the historian, Gordon S. Wood. European honor, especially as it was re-imagined in the immensely popular novels of Sir Walter Scott and his European imitators, was still around but it had been, in this sense, to some degree Americanized.

One observer of this process who was himself an old-world aristocrat was Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville marveled at how Americans had substituted for the military and class-based honor of Europe a new kind of commercial honor, since "all the peaceful virtues that tend to give a regular pace to the social body and to favor trade," he said, "were those most honored among them" — that is, among us, or at least our great-great-grandfathers. Thus, for example, "In America I sometimes met rich young people, enemies by temperament of every painful effort, who had been forced to take up a profession. Their nature and their fortune permitted them to remain idle; public opinion imperiously forbade it to them, and they had to obey." In revolutionary America, to the wonderment of European aristocrats, it was even honorable to get a job! It still is.

This was the opposite of honor in Europe where, as Tocqueville wrote, "men whose needs and desires constantly spurred them on remain in idleness in order not to lose the esteem of their equals, and submit more easily to boredom and discomfort than to work." True, he acknowledges that "one still encounters, scattered among the opinions of the Americans, some notions taken from the old aristocratic honor of Europe," but they are few: "They have few roots and little power," Tocqueville writes. "It is a religion some of whose temples are left standing, but in which one no longer believes." This assessment of the American honor culture ignored the South, however, which Tocqueville did not write about but which continued to cultivate a self-conscious devotion to aristocratic principles that provided a self-justification for slave-owning planters.

Yet I believe that, even in the North, there was also an Addisonian and Anglo-Saxon tradition of honor which would have been less evident to a Frenchman like Tocqueville and which attempted to update and democratize the honor that the Founders collectively called "sacred." That, as I have said, was what lay behind the Declaration of Independence, less as a statement of political principles than an honorable exercise in formally resenting the King’s "history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states." The principle of popular sovereignty was the rationale for the Declaration, but the signers’ resentment at these slights and insults to them as honorable gentlemen should be regarded as its real cause.

The career of Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most modern and forward-looking of the Founders, makes an interesting case study in the status of honor at the end of the 18th century. Before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 he wrote that, although he personally disapproved of dueling, he felt constrained to answer Burr’s challenge because, as he wrote in a letter, "my relative situation, as well in public as private appeals, enforcing all the considerations which constitute what men of the world denominate honour, impressed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call" of his fatal adversary. In other words, he thought that on his willingness to risk his life depended, as he put it, his "ability to be in future useful, whether resisting mischief or effecting good," since this ability "would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice" in relation to dueling.

Is it just me, or do you hear in these words a distant foreshadowing of President Bill Clinton’s youthful wish to preserve "my political viability within the system" by staying out of the Vietnam war while not positively refusing military service? If so, that could be one illustration of the continuing importance of honor in public life, at least as late as the 1960s. Both Hamilton and Mr Clinton are also rather disarmingly unconscious of, or at least unperturbed by, their own hypocrisy in conforming to the "public prejudice" in order to prove their fitness for "resisting mischief or effecting good." But honor had obviously undergone many changes between those two political careers, and the most important of these were well underway while Hamilton was still alive. That he, of all people, should have been killed in a duel, that aristocratic relic, is one of the great ironies of our history.

Dueling in America more or less died out after the Civil War, as it had done by about the same time in England and much of Europe. In Anthony Trollope’s great novel, Phineas Finn of 1867, the hero feels both that he cannot refuse to fight his duel when challenged and that he ought at the same time to feel ashamed of himself for accepting the challenge. It’s a good illustration of the ambiguities thrown up by the developing honor culture of the Victorians. I wonder, too, if it can be only coincidental that dueling was dying out just as modern team sports — baseball and football in America, soccer, cricket and Rugby football in England — were beginning to organize themselves and to take on the rules and customs under which they have operated ever since. It’s interesting that, although troops on both sides in the Civil War played baseball, it was much more popular in the North than the South. Many of those raised in the duel-crazy Southern honor culture so ably satirized by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, thought baseball a shameful, dishonorable game, since the object was, as they saw it, to run away from the ball.

In any case there is no doubt about how much the Victorian honor culture owed to schoolboys and their games and the popularization of what the British called "the public school ethos" in books like Thomas Hughes’s immensely influential Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Right down to the early years of the 20th century, there was something approaching total continuity between the public schoolboy, or those who adopted his standard of honor, and the young officers sent abroad to fight for or to administer the Empire or, in America’s case, to reclaim the frontier for "civilization." There’s a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt that was once routinely learned in high school English classes called Vitaï Lampada, which makes the connection directly. First Newbolt describes a schoolboy game of cricket:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Then, suddenly he makes a jump cut, as the movies would call it, to a remote military outpost under siege:

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And, falling, fling to the host behind —
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The important thing to see here is that the old honor culture of Britain and America, that was also the honor culture of many of your grandparents and great-grandparents and out of which institutions like the New Mexico Military Institute grew up, was based not just on an idea of what it meant to do the right thing but on an idea, too often neglected by the ethicist, of why you ought to do it. The captain’s hand on the schoolboy’s shoulder stood for everything it meant to be part of a particular honor group to which you owe your ultimate loyalty.

It will not have escaped the notice of the more alert among you that we have come round in something of a circle here. The very special sort of honor associated with being a member of a military unit, the honor without which the military unit could not function, is often of the most primitive sort: blind, unquestioning and based on personal relationships rather than abstract principles. And yet it survived intact at the heart of the much more liberal, much more enlightened honor culture of the late Victorians. I believe that something like it survives even today, in spite of the fact that that Western honor culture has undergone a spectacular collapse in the last hundred years.

Those who are interested in the long version of this story of decline and fall will find it in my book. The short version is that in the second decade of the 20th century three social forces combined to weaken and ultimately undermine and destroy the old honor culture of the West. They were the peculiar horrors and capacity for mass slaughter of modern warfare and the feminist and psychotherapeutic responses to it that modern warfare itself did so much to elicit.

If any of you have studied war poetry, for example, it is far more likely to have been that of Wilfred Owen than that of Sir Henry Newbolt. And you will know that Wilfred Owen didn’t have a lot of time for traditional ideas of honor. He calls the Roman poet Horace’s famous line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country — "the old lie." Likewise, I see by the number of female cadets in the audience that you probably don’t spend a lot of time on the relationship between honor and manliness, as such, or ideas of chivalry towards "the ladies." Probably, you have not remained untouched, either, by the individualist assumptions of psycho-therapy, which are what have been responsible for the "compassionate" response to crime and other wrong-doing.

But there is at least one relic of that old honor culture that this institute has preserved intact, and that is the Honor Code that I mentioned earlier. This says that "a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do." According to Charles Euchner in the most recent edition of The American magazine,

only about 100 of 4,000 U.S. universities use the honor system, which requires students to make a specific commitment to honesty and also to policing others. A number of schools, such as Kansas State University and the University of Maryland, have adopted honor systems in recent years. The codes of the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary extend beyond classes to cover stealing and other violations. The honor system explicitly makes honesty the core value of the university. Students must take formal pledges before taking classes. Violators are punished severely for all violations. Traditional codes give students primary responsibility for leadership and enforcement; students have the power and responsibility to police themselves and others. Modified codes give faculty and administrators greater roles, proctoring exams and managing violations, for example. Schools with honor codes have lower rates of cheating, but the rates are still significant. The Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University found that while 45 percent of students at colleges without codes cheat, only 33 percent of students at schools with modified honor codes cheat and 23 percent of students at schools with traditional codes cheat.

Apparently, it’s not a simple matter to make honesty "the core value of the university"! For one thing it goes too much against the grain of the general culture of which all students will have considerable experience before they arrive at their school or university. David N. Bass, writing in The American Spectator, says that

According to a new report from the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute for Youth Ethics, cheating, stealing, and lying are common pastimes for some youth. One-third of teenagers say they shoplifted in the past year, and about a quarter admit to stealing from parents, relatives, or friends during the same period. . . "It's a hole in the moral ozone," said Rich Jarc, executive director of the Josephson Institute. "These young people are going to become our future bankers, government officials, and business leaders."

That is a rather pessimistic view, I think, but at least you at the New Mexico Military Institute have one advantage over these other future leaders, and that is also to be found in the wording of your honor code. The part of that code that I like the best says that "a cadet's honor is the bond among cadets and between current cadets and the thousands of Alumni who have come before." That’s why "the Honor Code is operated and enforced by the Corps of Cadets itself," part of whose training is thus in the sense of honor conferred on them by belonging to this community, not only of the living but also of the dead. The title of Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem that I quoted earlier, Vitaï Lampada, is taken from the ancient Roman poet, Lucretius, and refers to "the torch of life" that is passed on, like a relay runner’s baton, from one generation to the next, and that Newbolt identifies with the torch of honor passed on to the schoolboy by his teachers and mentors.

In the same way, your honor is linked with that, not only of your predecessors (and successors) as cadets at the New Mexico Military Institute, who define for you what it means to be a cadet, but also with that of the Founders of your country, whose sense of honor once defined what it meant to be an American. This is your way of honoring your father and your mother, as the God of a small Middle Eastern tribe once commanded, which is the idea implicit, I think, in all patriotism. And it is patriotism above all which, in defiance of the doctrine of Emmanuel Levinas I mentioned earlier, inevitably elevates to a unique moral standing one honor group above all others. It’s a mistake to see this, as some do, as a racial preference, but its traditional statements often use what I would regard as the metaphor of a common blood — that is, family — to express it. Blood is a metaphor for the ties which bind any community together, just as "brothers" is a metaphor for all those whose claims upon you are as strong as those of family members.

Thus, Shakespeare’s Henry V before the walls of Harfleur urges on his men, whom he elsewhere calls a "band of brothers" by insisting on pride in their Englishness:

On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonor not your mothers. Now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war.

This kind of exhortation amounts to a recognition of the importance in a military society of continuity between the generations as well as of that honor or sense of loyalty and mutual dependence that I began by discussing. It is also a restatement of why any individual cadet is bound by this sense of honor, loyalty and continuity with his forefathers, natural or adopted — not, that is, just because refraining from lying, cheating and stealing is the right and moral thing to do, though of course it is, but because refraining from lying, cheating and stealing is part of what makes you a member of this community, who can be presumptively relied on by other members of the community to live up to its standards. That’s why the normal punishment for the violation of the honor code is exclusion from the community. A violation is tantamount to a refusal of membership.

To be a loyal member of one community implies that you will be a loyal member of others, including those which demand loyalty as the highest of virtues. You will doubtless be pleased to conduct your life according to the highest ethical standards, but at some level you will also know that what makes those standards binding upon you is not mere membership in the human race but membership in this community of loyalty and trust. I hope you understand, as Newbolt’s schoolboy did what an honor it is to be a member of such a community — a community, remember, of the dead as well as the living, and of those who have come before you here and gone out to win the honors of the world on leaving — along with the importance for your own of upholding its honor.

But we also have to be aware of the relationship between this honor group, preserved (I hope) intact from an earlier age, and the wider world of today that either doesn’t know what honor is or rejects and condemns it. That anti-honor or post-honor society must be an ever-present temptation to some: a temptation to shrug off the burden of individual responsibility and, with it, honor. But if you can resist it, you might just help set an example for what Henry V calls "men of grosser blood" — or, indeed, for the whole country — of how honor-consciousness was once a part of what it meant to be an American, and might be once again.

eResources ©2000-2017 James Bowman