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In its early form in the West, honor wasn’t terribly different from what 21st-century Islamicists practice now, but the West is the only honor culture to have evolved beyond this primitive model. It did this, Bowman believes, largely as a result of its collision with Christianity, a competing value system at odds with honor in almost every respect. Instead of honor’s public emphasis, Christianity was about the inner qualities of the individual. Reputation, which could be founded on deceit, clashed with the Christian emphasis on ethical integrity, which served as no guarantor of reputation and in fact often worked against it. Christ’s teaching to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us planted a seed in Western civilization that would make its honor culture more advanced and humane than any other. The evolution of Western honor culminates for Bowman in the Victorian-era Christian gentleman, who upheld the traditional martial virtues while also extolling fair play, whether in sports (beginning to take their modern form in 19th-century England) or in the affairs of the world. There were certain things a gentleman would not do, even on the battlefield, especially with the echoes of Christ’s counsel — however distant — in his ears.
From this cultural pinnacle, however, the West gradually turned its back on the idea of honor, to the point where we now have what Bowman calls an anti-honor culture.
BOWMAN DATES THE BEGINNING of honor’s decline to the First World War. With its epic scale of killing, along with concurrent social developments such as feminism and psychotherapy, the war was instrumental in discrediting the honor ideal. Honor came to be widely viewed as a cause of the bloodshed, an outdated code incompatible with modernity. The progressive tide turned in favor of individual autonomy, private psychological reality, and utopian political movements.
With the discrediting of the honor culture, though, its civilizing aspects fell by the wayside as well. Bowman believes this brought tragic consequences during the Second World War, when the Allies committed what he calls the 20th century’s “original sin”: civilian bombing on a massive scale. The issue for Bowman is not whether the Allies had justification for doing what they did — he seems to concede them that — but the impact of the deeds. Once the culture of fair play and Christian mercy had leveled whole cities, it handed an effective rhetorical weapon to practitioners of terror, who could point to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and justify their own infinitely less worthy ends. (Conservative readers are likely to find this the most controversial assertion in the book; liberal readers will be assaulted by outrages on nearly every page.)
Notwithstanding the moral ambiguity of civilian bombing, World War II was soon enshrined as the Good War, and Bowman believes this has had the effect of making our subsequent wars Bad Wars, conflicts whose aims cannot be justified in comparison with a fight to save humanity. Nor can they be explained by appealing to an abandoned sense of national honor. This apparent vacuum of moral purpose played an important role, he believes, in the government’s struggles to explain our wars in both Vietnam and Iraq. When the Bush administration’s legalistic WMD rationale fell apart, there was no anchoring principle to explain the invasion of Iraq. A century earlier, honor would have supplied it.
AWAY FROM THE FIELDS OF WAR and foreign policy, honor’s decline had other far-reaching effects. The new supremacy of the individual psyche helped create the inward-looking antihero, an individualist who stands outside institutional loyalties whenever possible. This, too, Bowman links to the aftermath of the First World War, when soldier poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, among other influences, taught a generation that the claims made by nations, governments, armies, and churches were only veils for the corruption at their core. Inevitably, this line of thinking bred cynicism. “When people see through things,” writes Bowman, “the first thing they see through is honor, whose essence is the preservation of appearances.”
The modern idea of seeing the sham underneath official messages helped create what C.S. Lewis once called “men without chests,” who believe that “peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.” Ultimately such thinking devolved into postmodernism, which sees sham at the heart of everything, even itself. Yet we somehow retain a hunger for the old virtues, even as we make war on the language that describes them and the attachments that make them possible.
Bowman sketches some cultural shifts necessary for honor’s rebirth, which range from ambitious to virtually unthinkable, and he acknowledges how steep a mountain we will have to climb. He manages a tone of enlightened skepticism while never quite resorting to despair.
Early in the book, when describing the cynicism of returning World War I veterans, Bowman refers to their “X-ray vision,” but the phrase applies rather well to his own work. Reading Honor is something like examining X-rays of a thousand cultural injuries, only to discover they are all broken in the same place. Readers not yet un-chested by relativism will embrace Bowman’s masterful scholarship while deciding for themselves whether honor plays the central role he ascribes to it in the history of the last 100 years. In a culture less overrun by fashion, his book would be on the reading tables of all the people whose good opinion still matters.