Skip to content

And What of Honour

Military honour the virtue and the curse.

Honour is a powerful idea. Those who live by it take it seriously. It is not will, courage of even valour though it does demand such things. It is the code that exists within demanding one to do what is right, regardless of risk or reward. Honour for many is paramount to the warrior, it is often a code.  The honourable warrior will fight on and conduct themselves with a dignity that shall leave a legacy long after their death. Honour is at times wrapped with glory, pride, dedication and loyalty. But what about the honour that deals in moral principles?  

In the modern era of total war fundamentalist philosophies have romanced past glories, empowering the warrior to execute the will of politics in an ever intrusive manner.  The world over, the warrior takes the fight to familiars and strangers with an energy deploys the bayonet as easily as it does the remote-controlled assassin drone.  The twentieth century was the bloody gushing wound of human history, where civilisations savaged the planet repeatedly with wars and conflict. The new century is repeated with much of the similar mentalities and call to honour.

The Prussian military is often associated with honour, influencing many war states in its ideals and practices. The Prussian Virtues which can be traced back to the Teutonic Knights, ensured that soldiers conducted themselves with discipline and loyalty needed for war.  Virtues which removed the individual and romanced the importance of servitude and sacrifice to the State itself.  Such virtues would help to pave the way for Germany to become an eager modern empire, conquering and ruling until ultimately it faced repeated defeats in world wars.

Such Prussian virtues helped the German state to humiliate China, snatch whatever remained of Africa and place various naval stations in the Pacific.  In doing so The German military imposed itself upon the native peoples, and in the case of German South West-Africa genocide.  The honour of the German soldier in practice showed an ugly nature in the coming decades when such a code of military virtues was enlisted by a national socialist ideology soaked in chauvinistic racism. It became a code of honour that perpetuated hatred and unreason. Courage and obedience were not lacking but the honour of moral dignity most certainly was.  

The United States came out of the nineteenth century as the great industrial power, on paper it was anti-imperialist and yet its recent acquisitions of Hawaii and the former Spanish colonies revealed a very imperial nature.  One that could be traced back to the attempted conquest Canada in 1812, the invasion of Florida, wars against Mexico and the ‘opening up’ of Japan.  Not to mention the breathing room it afforded itself under the guise of manifest destiny at the expense of the independent American nations outside the original thirteen colonies.  Its military was one that prized itself on honour, its independence had been won by military actions. There was an inherent dignity in war, the republic of ideals of individual liberty grew into an empire which by the end of the nineteenth century, honoured twenty of the soldiers responsible for the massacre at Wounded Knee with the Medal of Honor.

The twentieth century would end in US dominance, victories in the World Wars and then the Cold War would ignore imperial blips and atrocities. The terrors of the war in South East Asia would for a time influence the appeal of the military and its own sense of honour but that would be reshaped in the 1990s.    The soldier to be called warrior, a strong military ethos and patriotism.  Embracing  abstract ideals that could be wielded by a government that saw itself anointed with the God given right to intervene wherever it chose to. It was honourable and a modern manifest destiny to do so. Countless revelations and examples of civilian murder would be concealed, and should they come to light they were blips, on the road map to forever war. The honour it seemed was to be silent, to look the other way or to even kill without mercy or with any regard to the rules of war.

The Japanese military culture is often associated with honour, a Samurai nation of modern technological innovations and medieval chivalry. The Bushido codes of the warrior that direct and drive the soldiers of empire to do what is needed in the service of the emperor. After the Western nations had helped Japan to become a modern power its many social and military engineers reinvented the Bushido memory.  With the Last Samurai likely committing ritual suicide at the battle of Shiroyama in 1877, defeated by the modern conscript army of new Japan, the State would conjure up images of the samurai to promote its conquests in Asia.  The new Japanese soldier had many outside inspirations, from the US to the militaries of Europe, adopting methods and ideals from each while embracing Bushido. Like the nations that inspired it, modern Japan would conquer and in minds of the killers, it was honourable to do so.

Much to the misery of the people on Okinawa, Formosa, Korea and China, the young Japanese empire slaughtered and sought to enlighten the rest of Asia with its new ways. The Japanese empire would go to war with Tsarist Russia in a conflict of wave attacks, machine guns, torpedo boats and disease. The Japanese military consuming much of the nation’s wealth and resources, despite victory was then unpopular with the civil populace. It would take decades to cultivate a cult of military honour and imperial loyalty defined by sacrifice and bloodshed for empire.  Honour becoming a word of loyalty and subservience to an emperor who had little control over his army in Manchuria as it waged its own war of conquest.

 Mass murder and sadistic crimes would become the legacy of the imperial Japanese warrior, courageous certainly but honourable? Only in the reinvented imaginations of the martial artist would such a culture and the Bushido code be considered such a thing as honourable. Integrity an often hallmark of the honoured class was on full display by the Japanese warrior as the repeatedly promised safe treatment to the thousands of surrendering Chinese soldiers outside Nangking.  Instead via deception and devious coordination the Japanese warriors murdered tens of thousands of prisoners, often cruelly, going on to slaughter children and civilians and abducting females of all ages to become slaves to be raped and tortured.  What ever virtues of honour and integrity had been ingrained in these men of war soon manifested into murder rapists surrendering to the crudest of human lusts.

The other European empires each held dear the virtues of glory and imperial honour. The British convinced that they had bought trade and order to much of the world, despite conquering by festering division and limiting trade in their favour. The French supposedly champions of brotherhood and justice imposed with cruelty a dishonour that no French king could have imagined before the revolution. To have an empire was itself an honour, to rule and to exploit.  Many of these European states clung to such relics of the past, even as post war socialist policies and reforms were attempted at home, often being funded by the blood of empire. Pride in such control and to see the coloured shapes on a map taught in the schools of the imperial powers was likely of great honour for many, just not those yearning for home rule and independence.

For lesser nations, like Australia the military heritage is proud. War was a key element for the continent even before Federation, Australians would serve British interests in New Zealand, the Sudan, China, and in South Africa.  The honour of the Australian fighting man was held highest after the futile landings at Gallipoli the anniversary now a national holiday. The spirit of the digger soldier runs deep inside the ranks of the relatively small military but the honours at the Canberra war memorial run long.  Not just with those fallen who gave everything in service for the Commonwealth but in the names of the places visited by the Australian military. The honour is in the fight, in helping a mate when they need it. In Australia’s case the mate is always the most powerful empire the British and now the US.  The honour is in being there, to take care of ones fellow soldiers during battle and to help the US with its many policies abroad.   

As an investigation on Australian war crimes in Afghanistan goes on, how widespread the atrocities were likely shall never be known, except to the victims. One of the most decorated soldiers of the Australian military Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, may himself be charged with war crimes. A brave warrior no doubt, but if the accusations are true what honour is found in executing an unarmed man? Is courage under fire and a willingness to serve, anywhere, for the State itself honourable?  If more men had the courage like former soldier and whistle-blower Braden Chapman to come out as a on the war crimes, then perhaps the concept of honour could be re-defined in matters of military affairs not just for Australia.

The Great War would match the empires, old and new, in a terrible conflict. It was a war of glory and horror.  Poisonous gas, killing of prisoners, rape, murder of the innocent and starving millions in blockades revealed a willingness that men of great honour are willing to commit a dishonourable series of actions to achieve victory.  The first Christmas truce of the war, in 1914,  is one remembered with religious fondness, revealing an honour to share a common peace.  Afterwards, to kill that man who shared your cigarette, maim the boy who sung a carol with you was the normality of the war.  Despite a common God it was an honour to kill, merely to serve a distant stranger ruling from a capital untouched by the horrors of the front.  All after giving thanks to the same God of peace.

Robert Fisk, the great war journalist, talks about his father’s service in the First World War with a certain reverence. Not because he served. But because the courage he showed in not killing a man. Fisk describes his father as a man of many views that he disagreed with, but there is a pride when he mentions the moment that his dad, a British soldier, refused to execute an Australian soldier convicted of a crime.  It is a pride in knowing that his father exhibited a moral dignity, a moment when his father acted with honour.

Contrasted in the book ‘The Pity of War’ where Niall Ferguson, the author, describes the distrust of both sides, the murder that continued through Christmas of 1915 even as soldiers attempted to duplicate the year prior, the war went on.  Or the killing of prisoners, especially by Australian and Scottish soldiers. To take no prisoners, the passionate actions of aggressive warriors the war weary soldiers motivated by revenge.  Not so much honour but brothers in arms surviving a horrible situation fighting an enemy locked in a similar situation, honour would be a word used after the war, in peace. Only to be lost again in the next one.

It would take World War Two to perfect the mayhem, the fleets of aircraft capable of raising cities, those Bushido warriors of the Samurai  would pillage and savage Asia and the Pacific, the atrocious pinnacle being the rape of Nanjing.  Was there honour in stabbing babies, murder raping women with a gore of excess that even Nazi observers would condemn the Japanese army for? It would be a sign of things to come.  Perverse scientific intrigue into weaponizing disease so that it could be used on the Chinese populace, cruel experiments all run by a military that obsessed with its own social status on the home islands.  The word honour but a blanket used to drape across the rot of disgraceful perversity. In defeat one found dishonour but in victory by slaughtering the innocent, one achieved honour. The perverse fundamentalism, a modern adaption of the ancient codes that likely never were practiced in the first place. Warriors were always brave, and they often killed the innocent.

For the pilots of the Swiss Air Force flew as men of honour during the Second World War, they may not be defined by conquest but defence. During the war they fought both allied and axis. Even having their civil populations bombed by allied aircraft. To the Swiss fighter pilot, they were acting with an honour to defend their skies from aggressive belligerents that were destroying Europe and attacking their people. To defend ones homeland, especially when no prior aggression has been expressed is no doubt an honourable cause for a warrior. The Swiss did not win the war, they survived it as neutrals.  But from within their nation itself, those pilots were heroes of honour.

For imperial minded policy makers defence is something that can be based upon buffer zones and force projection, where another’s lands may be used as a proxy or an instrument for wider national defence. A unique exceptionalism that is both arrogant and aggressive, yet very much the entitled mentality of the great power.  Every warrior defending or fighting for their homeland believes it is the best, and are often willing to kill for it, to die for it.  For the warriors serving the great power, national interest is defence of homeland, in their minds this is an honourable sacrifice.  

Honour will go on to be a word of majestic value to those who live it, to the families of service, those who lost a warrior. It is also a word that can give purpose to those aimless in life, in need of guidance who now finds themselves wrapped inside a uniform, handed a set of values and those who love their nation and love the military.   But for this honour, where does it stand when 1 in 4 women serving in the US military are raped.  Where are the romantic cheers for honour and warrior codes as individuals hurt in shame because one of their own defiled them, and others help to cover it up. To drape a flag of silence across those lost inside a system that often protects the rapist, is this honour? To look the other way while brothers in arms do terrible things or to even cover such things up is not honour, it is at best corruption. 

In the modern war on terror it was not the cold-blooded killer, Chris Kyle ‘the American Sniper’ that was the most honourable warrior but instead a transwoman who risked it all to reveal the hidden dark truths of that very war.  Chelsea Manning acted with moral dignity, according to the ideals that she believed, in doing so she became at best divisive figure and yet she acted with honour regardless of not taking an enemies life but in exposing to all of us the nature of a horrible war.  She was imprisoned for it.  She received more punishment than William Calley, the man blamed for the My Lai massacre and while Calley and the My Lai murderers could move on afterwards with their lives, Manning is likely going to be pulled into court repeatedly and threatened with more jail and solitary confinement by a system that declares itself just and honourable punishing someone for showing that it is not.  

There is no doubt that it takes great courage to charge with bayonets yelling ‘Banzai!’ or as a Kamikaze pilot to drill your plane into a warships deck. Sacrifice itself is not honour. There is courage in fighting on as a zealous fiend as Berlin falls and the dictator dead or to stand with Custer in a remote frontier chasing glory at the expense of those defending their homeland.  Loyalty and stubbornness are not honour. There is also courage in flying a plane into a building, or even robbing a bank.  Courage is distinctly different to honourable. And yet if one can find a narrative massaged enough with ideology, patriotism or even a desire for revenge then courageous and deadly acts can by some be deemed as the conduct of the honourable. 

Is honour merely servitude to a master, to nation or government? In Bushido it is expressed that to die in service of ones master is of great honour, what does the servant gain from such sacrifice if the master was never worthy?  Other than the uniquely Japanese flavour of honour, to serve the Emperor, what is in it for the agnostic, atheist or even follower of the prince of peace other than to willingly serve an indifferent regime or state?

Perhaps all of it is honourable.  The outcome remains the same. The brave is sacrificed, those who survive return home broken and those who sent them have already moved on to the next generation and wars. When it should be heralded to be that individual who stands strong and rejects the misdeeds and atrocious acts of their peers? To protect an unarmed stranger because that is the right thing to do, or to blow the whistle on crimes that have led to the death of far too many.    That should be celebrated as honourable. The Bushido or Prussian codes may have created brave warriors, but in the end, they lost after taking millions with them.  There was no honour in the atrocities.  If we celebrate honour for its own sake, then it will only be used to justify actions of great dishonour.

H L Mencken said that “Honor is simply the morality of superior men”, moral, not technological, industrial or military supremacy.  Honour is doing what is right, the universal right, in those moments of desperation and when even if it means you will lose everything, that you still did the right thing. That is honour.  It is hard to look back at many of the wars of our collective pasts to uphold them as being morally just, no matter how wicked and vile the enemy was, or how heroic many were.  The real sides of good and evil are between the innocent and the powerful, those who murder, rape and destroy and their victims.  There is no moral supremacy in waging a war on the unarmed, the child, the mother, the village who did nothing to you or yours.  You cannot win that war; you can only kill more people. And that is never honourable.

Kym Robinson, October 2020

Published inAll Articles and EssaysPhilosophy, Society and LibertyWar, History and Foreign Policy