The Idiocy of 'Honor'

I read that America must find an “exit strategy” from Iraq that will bring “peace with honor.” My God. Honor? I’d rather have infected hemorrhoids. These at least are not a mental aberration. Well, depending on where your head is.

Honor means nothing more than prickly infantile vanity dressed up, usually, in desperate class-consciousness. Of all the symptoms of a weak ego, honor is the most embarrassing, and the most harmful. In a right-minded society it would be made a capital offense. (In women honor usually means chastity, also a bad idea but not nearly as pernicious.)

I do not mean to rail against the virtues, manly or otherwise. A few of them seem to have merit. Courage is doubtless admirable, at least when not engaged in by criminals or ambitious soldiers. Loyalty to friends in the face of adversity is to be commended. Common decency has its allure and occasional practitioners. Honesty? I think it worth trying, though with care until we ascertain its effects. But honor? It is a sure indication of a bad character.

Consider its usual display throughout history. A duke or baron, or some such befeathered artifact of excessive inbreeding, encounters another, a count perhaps, or more likely a no-count, who is in a bad mood. This latter says, “Yomama, Monsieur. Your granny wears combat boots.”

Whereupon the duke, instead of saying, “Oh buzz off, Lancaster, before I York a knot on your head” — this would be sensible and therefore inadmissible in affairs of honor — takes off his glove and throws it on the ground. This benefits dry cleaners, though a man with one glove looks eccentric. Anyway, this constitutes a Challenge, more to common sense than anything else.

And so the Duke and the Count meet on the Field of Honor, in the manner of small boys settling a dispute on the playground after school, but with more gauds and glitter. A duke disposes of greater resources than does a third-grader, though this may be the only distinction. After fulsome precedent ceremony, they fight with swords, suggesting grave inner dimness, until one pokes the other, who thereafter waits for peritonitis to set in. The survivor stalks off with the ostentatious pride of a swamp bird in mating season, his honor satisfied.

Smarter people would settle quarrels by playing marbles, I think.

Now, credit where credit is due. Most often, the code duello approach to honor served to rid society of men it would be better off without. A country can prosper without dukes, while a strike by the plumbers would be disastrous.

But sometimes the effects of aggrieved vanity were actually deleterious. In 1832, Evariste Galois, a preternaturally talented French mathematician, died in a duel at age twenty, fortunately having invented the theory of groups beforehand. His was an extraordinarily unuseful foray into the practice of honor. What might he have done had he insisted on marbles? Honor has a high price.

Military men are particularly susceptible to notions of honor, and should be indoctrinated against it in their formative years. They employ it largely as a veil covering their actual business, which has generally consisted in killing, raping, burning, and pillaging, in putting cities to the sword, massacring the unwilling conscripted peasants of the opposing army, and generating widows, orphans, and prisoners for the slave trade.

None of this would seem particularly honorable if examined carefully, so it carefully isn’t. The soldierly focus is on teary-eyed memories of fallen comrades, on the bravery of the cavalry at Balaclava or of the leather-jacketed bomber crews who burned a hundred thousand civilians to death per night, and such like.

The infantilism undergirding honor can be seen in the game of chicken. This curious parallel to aristocratic bloodletting was played decades ago by brooding teenagers with ducktail haircuts and a pack of Camels rolled into the shoulders of their tee-shirts. One adolescent duelist-in-waiting would insult another in some mortal manner. “Yer a yellow-belly Yankee,” perhaps, or “You’re a four-eyed sissy.” The other, experiencing a hormone surge frequently confused with a call of honor, accepts the challenge to play chicken. They’re going to settle it man to man, though emotionally they belong in diapers.

So they meet in their cars at night on a deserted stretch of road, each with friends as witnesses and supporters (exactly like nominally adult duelists with their pistols and seconds: there is no difference). The witnesses get out and the antagonists, facing each other from behind the wheels of their cars at a distance of perhaps a mile, race furiously at each other like rutting mountain sheep. The idea is that whoever swerves to avoid a collision is a coward, and thus besmirched. Of course they then both survive, and can continue trying to tap the cheerleaders.

Here is the very essence of honor, an engorged, all-consuming vanity, a willingness to die for one’s ego. Marbles, I insist. Much better.

This irrational behavior finds a place in international affairs. In fact, it comes close to being international affairs. One sees it often in the unwillingness of countries (read: psychological short men in charge of countries) to back down when nothing important is at stake, or to cut their losses when hobbyist wars go awry.

As noted, today our thunder-thump patriots say that we must find an honorable exit strategy from Iraq. This means that if we can’t steal the oil, we can at least pretend we won the war gloriously. Again, honor is ego: We aren’t going to swerve. Better that we bankrupt the country, fill the hospital wards with paraplegic and blind teenagers, kill who-cares-how-many Iraqis, than blink. Mine is longer than yours. It is, it is, it is.

Honor is a protective device for people whose self-esteem needs protection. Picture some archduck in England — actually “archduck” was a typo, but I think it better conveys the sense. Anyway, this gorgeous trinket of chivalry, which is itself a loathsome hotbed of honor, probably has twelve toes from more intermarriage than a holler in West Virginia, and a thistle-down intelligence, and the self-reliance of a queen ant. He is a monument to non-hybrid unvigor.

How does he protect his etiolated parsnip-like self-esteem from some village kid named, oh, say, Newton, who would regard him as the intellectual equivalent of a turnip? Easy. He invokes his honor. Defensive vanity. “A mere commoner. Pish.” Elevated nose, depressed intelligence.

None of this is necessary. Perhaps the greatest military thinkers in history are Fredwitz and James P. Coyne, in that order. Dr. Coyne’s proposed exit strategy is simple: “OK, on the plane. Now.” Should this seem unfathomable by its complexity, it could be reduced to four words. But no. What general, what president who has said “Mission accomplished,” is going to admit that it didn’t work so well? We must leave with honor. Not necessarily with all our body parts, or all the soldiers we came with, but with honor.

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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