The First Refuge of a Scoundrel

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It amuses me to hear people talking about their “honor,” when they don’t have any and it probably doesn’t exist. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, honor is the first. Actually, as character defects they are about equally reprehensible.

When one looks at those who prate most of honor, the fraud becomes conspicuous. The signers of the American Declaration of Independence spoke of liberty and such, to which they pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." The honor of slave drivers? What honor is that? Methinks those who advertise their honor should have a nodding acquaintance with honorable behavior. But no.

Militaries have always been fever swamps of honor. The Prussian officers who attacked Poland and wreaked horrendous death and havoc on Russia spoke voluminously of their honor. What honor? They were just amoral killers, the scum of humanity — but honorable amoral killers, and honorable scum, you see. The Japanese Army, of Nan Jing fame, believed that they were somehow honorable. Yes, and Jeffrey Dahmer too.

If I went into a school and shot ten students to death, I would be called a monster. If Mannstein goes into Russia and kills hundreds of thousands, he is a major historical figure. And honorable.

For years we had the gaudy show of dueling to defend one’s honor. Among men striking the pose of aristocrats, honor has been little more than pretentious mummery. However, since it led to their killing each other, perhaps it was to be encouraged. It was certainly embarrassing.

One martial dandy, son perhaps of a minor noble or a knight or a plantation owner or something of the stripe, would offend another, equally full of himself.

“Hey! Sir Robert! Yo momma!”

The offended absurdity would draw himself up like an exotic bird hoping to impress an unwise female, and say loftily, “I shall see you on the field of honor.” Humph.

I don’t know why, but I find myself wondering what might be the volume of the brain of a partridge. I have always had zoological thoughts.

Dueling is a sure sign of arrested development, goiterous self-love, and perhaps doubt — the exact parallel of meeting your third-grade enemy after school, but with better clothes. Vanity will drive the witless to all manner of ridiculous stupidity. Anyway, the offender and offended proceeded to shoot each other, or perhaps stick each other with swords, much to the genetic betterment of the race. (Galois was an exception, alas, who wasn’t witless.)

The preoccupation with honor flames most luxuriantly among those who suspect that they are imposters, and worry that others might notice. Thus the association of dueling with aristocracies, real and imagined. Particularly imagined.

It is worrisome to those affecting aristocracy that aristocracy doesn’t necessarily convey intelligence, schooling, decency, courage, or common sense. In fact, Sir Wagadoodle might be inferior in all of these to a hansom driver or a scullery maid. The aristocrat’s superiority, although usually enforceable, is also usually imaginary. The notion of honor provides a wall. He is the sort of man who don’t take nuffin fum nobody, but with nice elocution.

Honor is important to militaries, which need to regard themselves as distinguishable from hit men for the Mafia. They aren’t, of course. Both kill people they don’t know on orders from people they don’t know in order to make a living. Is this not literally true?

When a man becomes, say, a fighter pilot, he agrees to bomb anyone he is told to bomb. Perhaps he has never heard of Lithuania, or Guatemala, or Baghdad. He has never met a Lithuanian, and no Lithuanian has ever harmed him. One day orders come from above to bomb Vilnius. He does. Doing so, and doing so bravely, is a point of honor.

It is exactly what Guido and Vito do. A torpedo for the Cosa Nostra however has the self-respect not to lie to himself about what he is doing. (Although it is of note that Mafia dons refer to themselves as “men of honor.” Like Vlad the Impaler.)

Note that the notion of honor has nothing to do with right and wrong or human decency, and seems to be incompatible with them. Ulysses Grant said explicitly and at length in his memoirs that the invasion of Mexico was entirely unjustified aggression, and yet he took part in it. That is, he felt honor bound to do what he knew was wrong, and killed a great many Mexicans while doing it.

There can be no honor in unprovoked aggression, since it is simply wrong. Courage, yes, and toughness and endurance, and sacrifice. But honor, no. The Wehrmacht had all of these admirable qualities. As all armies do in varying degrees, the Germans committed atrocities, these being natural in war. As all armies do, it lied about them. To this day many Germans insist that the Nazi Army consisted of Aryan Boy Scouts, and it was the SS that did all those bad things.

Militaries pride themselves on doing their duty, and on following orders. But then they can be only as honorable as those giving the orders.

Usually people concerned with honor wear clothes with feathers on them, or with shiny things stuck to them. In the past, aristocrats wore gaudy attire, often with gold buckles or medals from some king or other, and clanked around with swords. Sometimes they wore codpieces so as to look as if they had large genitals, a doubt about which is an essential element of honor. (Women do not care about honor so much as social position, which is equally stupid but results in fewer amputations.)

This is why militaries also put great store by elaborate costumes with many attachments. An officer in full dress looks like a cross between a stamp collection and a wall covered with metalised chewing-gum wrappers. He needs these things because he knows that without them, he would be — just a man. The notion of honor rests on a need to maintain the appearance of superiority. The First Sergeant is a man as much as the colonel. What if the First Sergeant suspected? (Don’t worry. He does.)

Sometimes it appears that a concern with honor parallels a lack of moral courage. Germany again provides an instructive example. The various vons started a world war — is that especially honorable, I wonder? — because a dark, squatty, effeminate blonde Aryan superman told them to. Later in the war, they let countless of their own troops die because they lacked the will to say “No” to daft orders from a man they knew to be a military idiot. Instead of killing Adolf, which one has to believe the Wehrmacht could have figured out how to do, they let the Russians into Berlin. They did this because their honor bound them to obey Hitler.

Honor seems to me to be little more than systematized, prickly vanity coated inches deep in amour propre. When you find yourself among honorable men, I say run like hell.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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