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X-Ray Vision

As its sense of honor has gone the way of the steam engine, how is the West to compete against an enemy that revels in a primitive honor culture?

By 9.21.06

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This review appears in the September issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

Honor: A History
by James Bowman
(Encounter Books, 381 pages, $25.95)

Nearly five years ago, on a clear Tuesday morning, the United States was attacked by men who claimed to "love death more than you love life," a sentiment so alien to our ears that even now, no matter how many times we have heard it or variants of it repeated, we seem unable to grasp its implications. Only crazy people, we reason, think that anything could be more important than self-preservation.

Yet on that same day we were astonished by the deeds of other men who also set self-preservation aside, though they did so in the service of goals very different from the homicidal and suicidal ideology of the terrorists. These were the firemen of New York, who went into the smoldering World Trade Center towers with a good idea that they would not be coming back out. Three hundred and forty-three of them perished. Before embarking on their brave and sacred mission, some even asked for absolution from the department chaplain, who would himself be killed that day. If these men could speak to us, they would likely not say that they loved death more than they loved life, but rather that some things were worth risking and even losing one's life for-rescuing people in danger, for example. They might also say that failing to do so would be dishonorable.

The firemen, like members of the military, exist within the remnants of what James Bowman calls Western honor culture, a code of conduct that evolved over many centuries before ebbing in the century just past to the point that we can barely recognize it anymore -- except when someone does something so stunningly, obviously honorable that we are reawakened to the majesty of old-fashioned virtues like courage and sacrifice. Something like this recognition occurred in the early days after the September 11th attacks, but the glow inevitably faded. The culture soon reasserted itself, more comfortable celebrating victims than heroes, let alone targeting enemies.

Such a mentality leaves us ill equipped to understand the motives of those enemies, who conduct themselves according to a primitive code of honor that is nearly synonymous with murder. Not so long ago, the West valued honor just as highly, if differently. And to hear James Bowman tell it, our long-term survival may depend on a new birth of honor.

ANYONE WHO HAS READ Bowman's film reviews (he is TAS's film critic) knows that he specializes in identifying deep-seated cultural assumptions beneath the surface of even the most innocent-seeming popular fare. He can take apart a romantic comedy or a crime drama in a way that leaves the reader wondering about manners, history, the roles of men and women, and other subjects not normally on the marquee at multiplexes. Often, the assumptions he exposes have to do with the idea of honor.

In his new book, Honor: A History, he crafts an intricate scholarly argument that takes the decline of Western honor far beyond a phenomenon of changing manners into an underlying force of much of 20th-century history, as well as a crucial signpost on the road ahead. His sources range from military and political history to psychology and religion, from the pages of Sir Walter Scott to the latest barbarism uttered by Madonna. There is so much to digest here it is dizzying.

"As near a thing to a cultural constant as has ever existed," he writes, honor is "the good opinion of the people who matter to us." Where it applies to individuals, the term has always denoted courage for men and chastity for women, and it carried with it certain expectations: When a man was slandered or otherwise wronged, he had to strike back, lest he lose the good opinion of those he valued. Honor was about externals. It meant essentially one's reputation, quite apart from whether that reputation was warranted.

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.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.