Friday, February 03, 2006

War and the honor of nations

I meant to call attention to this post of Callimachus's when I first read it some days ago. But better late than never.

It's entitled, "Why We Fight," and is the usual thoughtful and wide-ranging rumination on history and present events for which Callimachus is known (and, if he's not known for it, he should be). Read the whole thing, as somebody-or-other says.

Callimachus discusses the fact that wars are ordinarily fought for some combination of fear, profit, honor--and, more recently, idealism. But I was especially interested in his discussion of the concept of honor. It's probably one of the things that was in my mind back here, when I called attention to Bush's phrase in his State of the Union speech: there is no honor in retreat.

Some called the phrase empty posturing, a useless slogan. But I think if they had read Callimachus's piece they might have better understood why it appealed to me. He writes:

The word "honor" itself rarely is heard any more in international contexts, but it lurks under words like "resolve" and "credibility...

Marxist anti-war rhetoric obscured the importance of honor in America's failed bid to create and sustain an independent South Vietnam. A communist victory in South Vietnam would made no dent in America's material interests, nor would it make American measurably less secure. Johnson and Kennedy both knew this. But once committed, our honor was at stake. Bin Laden and his ilk certainly understand this; they continually taunt America's allies in the Middle East with the image of America going back on its word and abandoning its ally in Southeast Asia..."

Callimachus goes on to detail how these different motives have entered into the wars America has fought in the past, including the most recent one in Iraq, in which he says all four motives: fear, profit, honor, and idealism--were at play:

Why did America go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003? Clearly there was fear. We debate endlessly and frivolously how much the fear turned out to be justified. But the fact remains, no amount of intelligence about Iraq's weapons and controllinging force on Saddam's intentions would have been flawless so long as he remained in power. And in that gap between what we know and what we suspect, always would have been fear.

Clearly there was an awareness of the "profit" -- the riches of Iraq's oil. Despite the angry denunciations of "blood for oil," however, I think the worst the Americans can be accused of is intending to use Iraq's oil to pay for the war and the reconstruction, which hardly amounts to a crime against humanity. It didn't work, anyhow.

And clearly there was a question of national honor. Every day Saddam lived to murder and mock, to rape and preen, was felt as an affront to America. It must have been an especial affront to George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and many others in the administration who had failed to topple the dictator in 1991.

There was, indisputably, the Wilsonian ideal, embodied in the "neo-cons" and the liberal interventionists. There are Little Roosevelts in the mix, too, grumbling about the administration's failure to grasp the hard truths of Realpolitik. And there are triangluations of the positions: "high-minded realists," for instance, who stand apart from the self-appointed champions of global democracy but who recognize that a stated preference for liberty and justice can be a useful foreign policy tool in the fight against global terror.

Honor is a quaint word, and a protean one: it means different things to different people. One of the things it means is to keep one's word, and to enforce treaties and agreements. In this way a reputation is gained for reliability. It is this, among other things, that America lost at the end of its long Vietnam travail.

It was the loss of "honor" in this particular sense that Bin Laden was counting on when he attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11. And it is this concept of honor--and honoring one's word--that is at least part of the reason we cannot retreat from Iraq now.

The specter of Vietnam has been invoked--conjured up, really, as in a seance--almost endlessly during the war in Iraq, whether appropriately or not. But it's time to put that specter to rest, and to drive a stake into its heart.


At 4:04 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean to tell me there are still people out there who understand honor? You couldn't prove it by me. Perhaps veterans still get it, but I haven't met a man of honor in the civilian world in twenty years. In fact, if you even mention the word in my part of the world you are considered an anachronism, someone from a world long past, someone to be pitied.

After work on 911 a couple who are friends of mine found me uptown and told me they were so glad I wasn't in New York that day "Because running into that building would have been the last thing you did". You had to be there, their tone clearly indicated that they would have considered such an act as shameful. Like most folks around here they make a big deal about not being judgmental, except for judging me to be a fool for clinging to the idea of honor.

Yes, they are still friends.

I would ask that future commentors not take it out on Ms. Neo-Neocon for this post. Ask for my email and I'll send it along so you can blast me in private and not clutter the comments section blasting me.

At 4:17 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Steve J. said...

On March 5, 2003, Fredo met with Cardinal Pio Laghi, a personal envoy of Pope John Paul II. The Cardinal argued that this would not be a just war, it would be illegal.

SOURCE: PLAN OF ATTACK by Bob Woodward, p. 332, hardcover edition.

At 5:14 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everybody stock up on Tuborg beer for Superbowl Sunday, OK? Denmark has shown honor in defying the islamfascists. OUr own state department, alas, has not.

At 5:37 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

Neo, when I read Callimachus's essay the other day, I couldn't help think of two books that have helped me understand first, American foreign policy and second, the origins of the peculiar American "character".

The first was Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed The World In explaining his typology of the Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians in the context of American history he explicitly and implicitly deals with deos, ophelia, and timê

On pages 250-251 he explicates the role of honor, so central to a Jacksonian aspect of our foreign policy. But, it is implicit in much of the book. It is impossible, for example, to speak of "commitments" without implicit reference to honor.

The second seminal book for my last decade is Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways In America, David Hackett Fischer's engaging synthesis of early American history.

I recently talked with a Vietnamese American soldier who had read both books and without a trace of of irony said, "Of course, I'm from Tennessee so you would expect me to be a Jacksonian with a strong hint of red neck." In doing so he showed the strength and transformative nature of the American experience and the persistence of one of the folkways Fischer talks about.

This young man also carried what a friend of mine calls, "The round badge of courage."; the snuff tin emblematic of the soldier who can't smoke on patrol. Courage is implicit in any discussion of honor.

Here are the values of the United States as taught to every soldier from his very first day: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. Notice that you are not allowed to select one from column A or two from column B. Those who have trouble living up to them will always find someone to help then in living the values. If they still cannot, then they are separated from the service.

With regard to our foreign policy, we are probably entering a period of "muscular evangelism" in the sense of spreading the gospel; from the Old English "god spel"; of American values.

There are those who will recoil from this reflexively as unsophisticated and far too qualitative and who prefer post-positivist objective determinism or even post modern rejection of absolute truths and "grand narratives". Well, as we say on the ranch, those folks won't know "Whether to shit or go blind."; a charming euphemism for an impossible situation.

Time will tell if this will work to our advantage or if it will need to be abandoned for a simple two by four of naked power. But, if we're going to do something that requires force, it is probably a Good Thing© that it is informed by a set of values.

BTW, I should mention before the inevitable Abu Ghraib references start, that values training; a relatively new program which all active duty military now receive in Basic Training, has been found to be lacking in many Reserve and Guard units. This deficiency is being addressed.

At 5:41 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There are those who still believe in honor. He's right, it is anachronistic. But when anachronistic enemies once again threaten our people, so shall come the legions from the past.

Such are the virtues, the gravitas and virtus qualities. They disappear in times of plenty, prosperity, and decadence. But they become unearthed in times of crisis and despair. Most of the time, they are still there, within us. Sleeping, as America herself slept the sleep of dreamers and babes before 9/11.

They awaken in times of peril and great danger, as on 9/11 and Flight 93. In such times, is the character of man and woman tested, in the cauldron of destruction and war.

There is a hideous irony to this facet of the human condition. Because humans cannot arise to our greatest potential without death and destruction to fight against.

We can keep our powers and core strength in escrow, to be released at a later time. But even that does not stop the degradation of the human spirit, it only slows it. Until such a time as we are Reborn, through the fire of the Phoenix, and all is new and all is changed.

It took terroists hijacking planes and killing thousands to unleash the full potential of the human spirit, among a select few on Flight 93. To face such a power magnified 300 million fold would be... legion.

The death and destruction required to unleash that potential, is in itself horrendous and unthinkable.

But I cannot think for a moment that such human potential is not alive and asleep in the very depths of the people of America, to be awakened and used at the time of our greatest and most profound need.

Times are good, and honor fades into remembrance when times are good. The time of broken oaths and hideous betrayal, takes new meaning with the advent of television, courts, injunctions, and lawsuits.

Anyone, including the Pope, oversteps their human bounds and skirts unreachable divinity when they proclaim that a people should not fight a war.

The Catholic Church knows little about divinity anymore.

Just as the Catholic Church took over in Rome from the Roman Empire (Western), so have America taken the reins of power from the Religious Centers of Power.

The age of Catholicism, Rome, Athens, Germany, and Russia are over.

They have no power anymore in their decadence. Cause this is a time of troubles, and they can no longer manifest strength, virtus, or power. Where is their sleeping strength? When shall they usher it unto the world stage? Or perhaps they no longer contain any at all.

Some have risen to the challenge, yet many have not.

I may know what we fight for, but what the rest of the world fights for, now that's a bigger question.

As I see it. All wars are born from a perception of gains. Remove that perception and you remove the possibility of war.

If Sparta realized that they had nothing to gain from defeating Athens, and Athens had realized that they had nothing to gain by going siege instead of meeting the elite Spartan hoplites on the field of battle, the Peloponessian War might still have happened, but it would have lasted far shorter.

I find a slight anachronism between the comparison between our lives, our furtunes, and our sacred honor and what Thucydides said. For one thing, thucydides was writing on the human condition and why it was bad and how this lead to wars now and forever more. The Founding Fathers were not going to war for these things, but to risk these things for something greater. In the end, many did lose their lives, their fortunes, but they did not lose their honor. Because they did not go back on their word and defect regardless of the cruelties imposed upon them by the British for rebellion.

This has produced a people that has a slightly different take on things than the rest of the world. For one thing, we don't want glory, spoils, riches, fame, or infamy. These things that Europeans always wanted, is not something Americans would blithly kill or be killed for.

Honor as we know it, as anachronistic as it is, is both about a person's word and how well they keep it, as well as their actions in upholding the safety and security of their traditions and family. Which are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes it is more honorable to fight for what you believe in, and be called a traitor, than to fight for Hitler and know yourself for an oath-breaker.

A lot of American traditions fits outside of Thucydides' starting from the Revolutionary War and onwards.

A lot of the human elements stay the same, but slavery, fight for liberty, and 1812's British press gangs all didn't fit well into Thucydides portrayal of the human conditions on war. Some things overlapped, and the underlying thesis is still true, but not quite exactly. It would be as if Thucydides were writing about the Peloponessian War and talked about how Athens was going to free the Spartan Helots in a War of Liberation. I don't think that would have played into his fear, loot, and glory thesis. And Thucydides was definitely not writing history for history's sake, he did have his own point of view he thought fitted in with events.

It doesn't fit that well into the events of the 18th and 21st century, however.

Cali doesn't mention the real stain on our honor. When Bush senior told the Iraqis to rise up and we would help them, then his CIA told him "Whoops, we told Saddam he could use his helicopters, my bad, we didn't know he'd gas his own people". Then the Shia Generals came over the border to Kuwaitt and begged our forces to intervene, and we told them NO, Americans won't do that.

The no Fly-Zones and Oil for Food were attempts at sealing up the debt, at mitigating our Oath Breaker status. Yet in the end, it wasn't working, it empowered Saddam. We stood oath-breaker twice, in our dishonor.

Americans had forgotten the Kurds and the Shia, but some of us had not.

Many Americans might not have liked Bush going to war to correct his father's mistakes, but at least we would have understood and sympathized with it, if not agreed with it, if Bush laid it out like that. And if Bush said that not only his honor but the honor of america was on the line here, that would have helped. Focusing on WMDs, national interest, mushroom clouds... those weren't what ticks Americans off.

What ticks Americans off is the Iranians laughing in our face for 365 days as we stood powerless to rescue our hostages at our embassy.

We lost face there, and if the Arabs think they're the only ones obsessed with "face", they might get a big surprise soon.

At 5:56 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ask for my email and I'll send it along so you can blast me in private and not clutter the comments section blasting me."

Their goal is not to vent at anyone. Their goal is to shut down Neo's comments section, period. If it wasn't for Blogger's word verification, there would be several dozen spam-bots pointed at this page by each moonbat commenter. As it is, the moonbats are doing their best to imitate spambots with organized trolling.

At 9:04 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Kerry said...

Short enough to quote here, from my blog. Homage to Honorable Manhood.
"When Presient Bush entered the Senate gallery last evening, he was all smile, short quips & hellos, handshakes and small waves...until he shook hands with the Marine four star General standing behind Samuel Alito. His face changed to somber, serious respect, gratitude, and humility, as if to honor a particular sort of Honor, found only among those kind of men."

At 9:59 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

Kerry: Not to start the old arguments but the aircraft that Bush flew was very tricky and had a reputation as a widow maker as well as a tendency to have the odd in flight fire. Besides, it was a pure fighter with no mission in Vietnam. As Tim Worstall said:

So, 5,250 pilots and 70 deaths means a death rate of: 1.3%.
Jeez. The lousy damn coward. He went and hid in a unit, one which had active service members actually in Vietnam, one where the death rate in training and peacetime from accident alone was damn nearly the same as active service in Vietnam for all troops. Sheesh

Just to get one of those birds off the end of the runway, you better clank when you walk. He had his command face on. He sends their people into harms way and that is a very serious business.

At 10:03 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Neo, I think you're wrong about putting the specter of Vietnam to rest.

The honor of America was sullied, horribly, genocidolly, by the policies proscribed and followed by the anti-war folk and the politicians they voted for.

Ending the war; thus running from the N. Vietnamese, thus letting commies win. Letting commies create the SE Asian Killing Fields.

One alternative was supporting the S. Vietnamese army with cash/ & military supplies (from our very own mil-industrial complex!), while still slowly withdrawing troops.

Virtually guaranteed to win in 15 more years (1974 - 1989) as the USSR drops the Wall.

Waiting 15 years to win is a lot different than running and calling the war unwinnable.

John Kerry, like yourself (at least you've changed!), supported the US losing -- the commies winning -- the Killing Fields.

I really wish Bush had included this FAILURE to stay the course, and the historical consequences.

At 10:27 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

"As it is, the moonbats are doing their best to imitate spambots with organized trolling."

I disagree. Or rather, there may well be people doing so, but the dissenters here would not fall into that category, although Mr. Reeves has clear issues, I didn't take his intent to be to shut down the comments section, and Shan, Van and company argue in good faith.

I get tired of such accusations when I attempt to break through the fog on left sites; a liberal (compared to our current enemies, all people of good faith are liberals) site like this one is ill-served by assuming the worst.

At 10:31 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

"I really wish Bush had included this FAILURE to stay the course, and the historical consequences."

Some insights are more than individual minds can process. This is what new generations are for. I'm not optimistic that Vietnam can be properly understood until a new generation or three is writing the history.

At 12:35 AM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

neo- I happened upon your blog over the past week or so. I find your articles and the comments section well thought out and provoking. I now read your blog on a daily bases, keep it up.

At 3:34 AM, February 04, 2006, Blogger Steve J. said...


The Vietnam War was lost in 1967 when LBJ turned down Westmoreland's request for an additional 200,000 troops.

At 4:57 AM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply - nothing happens in a vacuume.

Many on the left like to think so. Twiddle this one bit in the equation and nothing else will change. You can't do that.

The idea of the paper tiger was based on reality of the time since Reagan and the previous administrations. The "Black Hawk Down" incident probably did as much or more against the US as Vietnam and the ending gasp of Desert Storm. Since Korea we had not truly prosecuted anything hot and tended to run if there was anything remotely hard, even Korea ended up something of a wash. And even the final aggresive prosecution of the cold war was largely unpopular until it was evident the naysayers were wrong (and even then it wasn't fully supported for at least a decade or more).

You can figure if your cat or dog is smart enough to realise you will not punish it for transgressions (such as biting other people) then other humans will recognise it too. When your the biggest person on the block and many of the little guys want to destroy you (and the rest don't really give a damn) to curl up and cry "Forgive me!" is suicide. It just makes them worse - time and time again this has been shown with not a single time it being the opposite. Yet many still hope that one day, in someway, appeasement will suffice.

At 11:27 AM, February 04, 2006, Blogger Alan said...

Reading this I can't help but remember President Clinton addressing the nation on National TV and telling us, "Saddam Hussein, your time is up!"

At 4:53 PM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve J said: The Vietnam War was lost in 1967 when LBJ turned down Westmoreland's request for an additional 200,000 troops.

Naw Steve, the Vietnam war was lost when congress de-funded the South Vietnam army. You can’t fight a war without bullets. That’s when the networks ran the video of desperate South Vietnamese hanging onto the skid-rails of a helicopter departing the by then abandoned US embassy. Not our nation’s finest moment.

At 5:04 PM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 3:24 AM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Dan M said...

The shades of death that rise from the grave of 'Nam won't depart, and find their rest, until the children's children of the '60s era, have long since left the earth.

About 'Nam, there were a thousand decisions that had to be made, and just about all of them had to be made wrong, and even then, it was still not enough to toss 'Nam into the loss column. 'Nam was only truly lost, when Democrats in Congress WERE DETERMINED TO TOSS THEM TO THE TOTALITARIAN WOLF at their door. ONLY THEN, and ONLY then, was it all a done deal.

But Neo has, once again, laid her finger upon an important strain, an important idea, which the post-modern doesn't really doesn't know how to discuss, grapple with, get an appreciation for. The post-modern surely knows how to trivialize it, mock it, glibly dismiss it, but he doesn't know how to take it upon himself, and make it his own.

Honour isn't a dead letter to me, nor my family, nor my little nephews, not if I have anything to do about it.

My oldest nephew Connor, last year, when he was 6, asked me point blank: "What's honour?" You see I wear three little wristlets, one is the Lance Armstrong yellow "livestrong," another is a red, white and blue one, which has engraved upon it "Honour," {the other is a desert camoflauge one, which says "victory." Connor asked what honour meant, because he was curious. So I told him about his country, that he lives in the most powerful and free country on the face of the earth. And that when people get in trouble all across the globe, they look to us for help, because we have a history of helping people, even at cost, great cost, treasure, tears and blood. I told him we have two great friends, Great Britain, {the country he understands as that of Harry Potter...} and Australia. I told him that no country has ever enjoyed such a friendship and mutual regard, as we enjoy with our British and Australian cousins. And that he should always be worthy of that friendship, be mindful of it, deserve it. I told him to remember who he is, cherish it, and when you get older, you'll know what to do, when great issues of war and honour devolve upon you.

My nephew usually asks me hard questions, because he knows I'll give it to him straight.

What is going on throughout Islam is beginning to raise issues of honour, this is getting beyond propriety, respectful circumspection. What hundreds of millions of Muslims are doing is becoming an intolerable affront to the honour of our country.

They have no idea of what they are calling down upon them.

They're lucky to be dealing with that soft-hearted Texan, instead of me.

At 6:21 AM, February 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honor, as a practice, really began to decline in the 60's. Moral relativism, 'tolerance', idealization of primitive cultures, devaluing of the patriarchal system, and reverence for the idealism of youth over the respect for elders all stem from that time, and all reflect the decline of honor. Not so long ago, you could make a deal on a handshake, and rely on it most of the time. Now, we have lawyers go over everything twice. It's not just a macro issue, it's a micro issue first. Also, gratitude is the cornerstone of honor, and boy is that in short supply...

At 11:47 AM, February 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's that line in Volpone? Something like "we've lived like Grecians, now let's die like Romans"?
Apologies to any Greeks out there, but maybe the West is finally ready to cast aside the sloths and sillinesses of the '60s. So best sell your PC-holdings; the bottom is about to drop.

At 3:11 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The idea that you have to wait 3 generations to understand history, cause the people who liberated the Jews from concentration camps were too close to the events in question to percieve it correctly, isn't right and will never be right.

That idea doesn't have to be spoken, it only has to be believed. Especially then, it is still wrong.

There's a duty for all people to comprehend, understand, and learn about the events of their time and then write down their perceptions for future historians to analyse. Without the perceptions and the wisdom of the Vietnam generation on vietnam, Vietnam will never be put to rest. Without the military blog-diaries written by the generation living and fighting in Iraq, Vietnam will never be put to rest.

Have one generation not do their duty to their descendents, by writing down their idea, thoughts, and feelings, and history will be lost to the annals of time and revionists.

At 1:09 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Van said...


Having finally had an opportunity to read the blog entry, “Why we fight” I think that I have a better understanding of your postion on the War in Iraq. I enjoyed the article and will likely read more from the Done With Mirrors blog
I have a very different view of honor, at least it seems that we differ. I see it as a side effect of an action, you seem to see it as a motivation for an action. If my assumption is correct then our views are worlds apart.

This may shed some light on why we differ on Iraq so much.

At 7:59 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

"I see it as a side effect of an action, you seem to see it as a motivation for an action."

Sigh. And why can't it be both?

At 8:14 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

"There's a duty for all people to comprehend, understand, and learn about the events of their time and then write down their perceptions for future historians to analyse."

Well, we can try, and a special few find some success, such as our gracious host, but I believe it is a too narrow and individualized view of humanity that thinks one person alone should be capable of such insight.

Again, that is why we have generations, birth and death, rather than just being immortal. My mind is not mine alone, or rather "mine" refers not to just the collection of atoms that make up my current body, but also the inherited wisdom of past generations, passed down via both genes and tradition, as well as the influence of family and friends today, and to some extent motivated by a view (faith?) toward the future.

What I'm saying is that a future generation will have all this upon which to draw, plus further experience, learning, and most importantly perspective, that we today lack. My original comment was offered more as a consolation to those that despair of our current lack of understanding than an injunction against trying to make sense of our times.

We can, and should, do so, but should not be surprised if our efforts come up short, compared to our grasp of events further past.

At 6:14 AM, February 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While Ms. Neocon can chose to site the dishonor in America's abandonment of it's fascist ("democratic") construct in South Vietnam in 1973, I choose to remember the dishonor in the abandonment of "the little people we promised to liberate" (General McAerhur, W.W.II), tossing our W.W.II ally (Ho Chi Minh) back to the British and French colonial wolves, rearming the Japanese to overthrow Vietnam independence (the beginning of the Vietnam War, 1945).
"The most ignoble kind of betrayal" General McArthur called it. Ms. Neocon might too, if she was aware of it.

How typically American to start a story at the end.

At 9:49 AM, February 07, 2006, Blogger Van said...

""I see it as a side effect of an action, you seem to see it as a motivation for an action."

Sigh. And why can't it be both?"

--I think that it can on some levels, but I was responding specifically to a blog entry on another site, “Why We Fight" on the blog Done With Mirrors. I was intentionally ambiguous as to not steal this thread.
Thanks for asking

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