Honor? We don't need no steekin' honor!

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Eric writes:

I'm leaving for Bellagio today, where I'll be spending the next 18 days toughing it out (and trying to start writing my history of postwar liberalism) in between bottles of chianti. I've set up the usual stellar bunch of alternate Altercators to keep you entertained and informed, every day, and I will try to file as well, though I'm told that net service there is not what it might be, and I'm experimenting with leaving my BlackBerry at home. I'll be back at the end of August. Everybody try to stay out of both jail and rehab while I'm gone, and so will I ...

P.S.: This is really funny!

Now here's LTC Bob.

This is Lt. Col. Bob Bateman standing in for Eric again today.

West Point, New York, 1999: Summer at West Point is a curious time. It is when the academic side of the United States Military (call that Athens) comes the closest to becoming Sparta. The rising sophomores, known as "Yucks" in West Point slang, return to the Academy after just a few short weeks away from its granite walls. While their peers are back at home, unwinding from their first year of college, the Yucks shoulder their packs and move out to the training areas which stretch out for miles behind the main campus.

Over the course of the next several weeks they learn the rudimentary basics of the tactics of professional soldiers. Their erstwhile professors of English and mathematics and yes, history, will be their instructors in the Art of War, because at this place, those academic professors with their MAs and Ph.D.s are also often Airborne Rangers as well. The whole shebang is coordinated by the Tactics Department. In 1999 the officer most directly responsible for this training was a man I will call "Colonel Hank."

"Warriors! Come over here!" Colonel Hank shouted to get the attention of a passing squad of cadets before he passed on his next nugget. "Warriors! I want you to understand ..." This was normal for Colonel Hank. He believed in the word, in the idea, that we were training these young men and women to be "warriors" for the nation. Hank, I should note, comes from my own sub-sub-culture.

One can generally accept the idea that the military, as a whole, can be seen a something slightly apart from the greater population of the nation. This is particularly true since the end of the draft in 1973, which means that it is an entirely self-selecting group. From there it is not a long leap to see that the culture of each of the services is distinct as a subculture of America as well. If these things are true, then we in the Infantry are generally acknowledged to be in an entirely different class altogether, a sub-subculture. There are a few other groups within the "Combat Arms," such as the tankers of the Armor branch, and the pilots of our helicopters, but generally speaking the Infantry generates the most ardent types. Hank and I were products of competing influences within that subculture, and his use of the word "Warrior" grated on my ears. At the time, however, he outranked me by a wide margin.

The problem is that, to my ears, "Warrior" means an individual combatant, one who is motivated by visions of personal honor, group honor, and national honor. I come at the issue from the opposite extreme, believing that the highest appellation one may bestow is that of "Soldier." A soldier is a part of a collective body, fighting with professional discipline, towards an objective which is greater than himself. His motivation, in combat, stems from the team. ("Enlistment motivation" is an entirely different issue, and comes from the larger society, not the military.) In short, he fights not for himself, but for his buddies.

This dichotomy of motivations is relatively minor in the United States. Yet I am coming to believe that this same issue is really what is at the core of events happening overseas, in and out of combat. It is beginning to appear to me that we are not in a struggle with any of the many version of Islam. The religious beliefs of the followers of Muhammad are, in the end, just the chassis. The engine that is driving the vehicle forward is honor. Or more specifically, an all-encompassing culture of honor, which wraps itself in Islam.

Honor killings are not a part of the Quran. Taking revenge, because your family (or tribe) was "dishonored" in some way, is not part of the Quran. One could even argue that the radical Islamists, in all their many colors, who talk about "cleansing" what they consider to be holy territory, are really talking about honor. They are fighting because they feel dishonored by the presence in the Middle East of all of the following: American troops, German tourists, French and American businesses and products ranging from detergents to oil companies, Hollywood films (which humiliate them because they cannot produce the same -- a phenomena also seen in France, it should be noted), past military defeats by the Israelis, historical events which to their eyes still demand redress (the colonization of the Middle East by France and Great Britain, as well as the adventurism of the Germans), and the list goes on and on.

But none of these things is really about religion; they are about a concept of honor which, in this country and in Europe, mostly died out over the last 300 years. It was destroyed by a combination of Christianity (over the course of 2,000 years), the Enlightenment, the First World War, and modern psychology. Honor, as an actual motivating force, has been almost entirely absent from our societies for almost 40 years, except, as I noted, in very small sub-subcultures such as mine.

The question, of course, is what to do about it? There are, after all, no limits to the demands of honor.

The New York Times has something to say about honor.

Ralph Peters, the previously mentioned provocative former soldier, wrote a book in 1999 titled Fighting for the Future. Ralph, way back then, saw 9-11 coming, and he saw it as a fight between "Warrior Cultures" and "Soldier Cultures."

NASA has taken a beating these past couple of months. Between nut-job astronauts driving cross-country to confront a romantic rival, or stories of astronauts not adhering to the cardinal, "12 hours from bottle to throttle" rule, their stock has been dropping a bit. That does not matter. When you are feeling down ... about our country, or even the human species, watch this. The people who do this, the people who drop through the atmosphere in a massive unpowered glider, a glider that moves at Mach 1.5 when it is going slow -- these people have one, and only one, chance to hit the runway perfectly. They obviously do it, cool, calm, and professionally. So much so that you forget that they just rode a damned meteor through the atmosphere while dropping down from outer space. The people with the courage to do this are members of our species, and products of our country, and that is enough.

A more complete summary of my thoughts on "L'affaire Du Beauchamp" can be found here, along with a picture of my mug, for those who can use a laugh. Though, amazingly, they messed up both my rank, and the fact that I am still on active duty. Oh well.

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Beth Harrison
Hometown: Arlington, VA

Eric, who cares if Rupert Murdoch interferes with the WSJ editorial page? Really, how could anyone tell? It would be like the bad old days of Bob Hartley and the various Clinton conspiracies he created out of his fevered imagination. It is the NEWS CONTENT that matters. Is Murdoch going to meddle in that? The WSJ is a respected business publication, and the thought of Murdoch putting his spin on business news scares the crap out of me.

Eric replies: My point exactly, though it's good for a great deal more than just business news ...

Name: David Fuller
Hometown: Peotone, IL

Hi Dr. A.,

On Tuesday you said, "We go on with our lives and our own petty concerns, while our soldiers die (and kill) for nothing save George W. Bush's stubborn ideological and religious obsession, and we destroy our moral authority as a nation. But what can we do? I really have no idea."

We could start by choosing Democratic leaders that understand how to fight a political fight using some emotion instead of simple logic and reason (as we've been doing for the last, oh, 30 or 40 years and getting our asses handed to us most of the time, particularly in Presidential campaigns).

I've been reading the book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" by Drew Westin, and although I'm only a few chapters into it so far, the light bulbs and bells have been blinking and ringing like crazy in my head. 'Epiphany' would be a good word to describe my reaction to it. I have no ties to the author or any financial interest in it, so I'm not plugging the book for my own benefit in any way.

Take, for example, our latest civil liberties debacle in Congress that just happened recently with the passage of the bill that gives more warrantless wiretapping power to the President. Why -- WHY?!?! -- didn't our leadership in Congress stand up and say, "The bill the President wants is unnecessary because he wants to use it to listen to YOUR phone calls. We can fix FISA with OUR bill" (or something to that effect). Instead, Congress passes a bill -- with the complicity of some Democrats, and a leadership that allowed it to get to the floor -- that gave the President everything he wanted, with no oversight, and for what reason? I believe it is because Democrats don't know how to frame issues effectively, and therefore were afraid of the political repercussions.

There must be people in the Democratic Party that understand how to fight effectively - I mean, just reading this book, all kinds of ways to effectively fight back have come to my mind. So to answer your question, "What can we do?": We could start by insisting on leadership that knows how to fight (or at least hire advisors who can train them to do so effectively), and doesn't back down at the prospect of a minor tussle.

If not, then perhaps it's time for a serious third party to emerge in this country.

Keep up all your good work.

Name: Clinton
Hometown: Indianapolis

Doc, the one with the glasses in the Old 97's is Murry Hammond. He does the vocals on a few of the tunes, such as "Valentine," "Smokers," "Up the Devil's Pay," "W. TX Teardrops," and a cover version of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried."

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