A question of honour (National Post May 09, 2007)

A question of honour

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, May 09, 2007

'What turns cosseted princes into steely-eyed warriors, prepared to die for Queen and country?'

After much hand-wringing and soul-searching by others, but with no apparent inner conflict himself, Prince Harry will soon deploy to Iraq, there to command four Scimitar light tanks for his regiment, the Blues and Royals. Harry could have his cake and eat it by accepting a desk job in Iraq -- "flying a mahogany bomber" in British military parlance. But the erstwhile playboy has become his own man, one in whom the iron seems quietly to have entered the soul.

Nobody is denying that Harry is considered a lush plum for jihadist picking in ways too horrible to contemplate, but it is Harry's -- and of course the Royal Family's -- decision to make. Britain's military swears allegiance to the Crown, not the state.

Those who would be most devastated by any harm that befell Harry -- his father, the Queen and Prince Philip -- have rightly maintained a solidly united stoicism. Setting an example in state-approved battles is what royals do. Twenty-five years ago Prince Andrew flew a naval helicopter in the Falklands War. And the former Prince of Wales fought in the First World War. (His aide was issued the ominous order that the prince "was not to be taken prisoner, no matter what this entailed.")

What turns cosseted princes into steely-eyed warriors, prepared to die for Queen and country? In a word--a sense of honour.

In his 2006 book, Honor: A History, American film and cultural critic James Bowman recalls the relief he felt in failing his 1970 medical examination, thus avoiding Vietnam service. But he noted the army physician's sympathetic assumption that Bowman regretted missing the opportunity to test his manhood. The episode launched Bowman on a career- long fascination with the thematic evolution of honour (in the West, that is, where it actually has evolved) in martial, cultural and aesthetic history.

Honour, Bowman tells us, is more an instinct than an idea, and easily defined as "the good opinion of the people who matter to us ? those whom we regard as our peers and whose right to judge us we implicitly recognize."

There are two kinds of honour -- reflexive and cultural. Parents of a bullied child understand the reflexive kind. Cultural honor is more the "vocabulary" that teaches young people what is expected of them as men or women. Honour is not morality, though, and herein lies the difficulty for Western societies trying to come to grips with the appropriate response to an Islamist enemy whose motives and methods resist morality- based analysis.

For we live in a post-honour society (some would say, even, an anti-honour society) in which all our actions, including war-making, are subjected to moral scrutiny alone, while our enemies subscribe to a rigorously honour-dominated code, in which morality is always subordinate to honour's imperatives.

In its extreme manifestation, such cultures sanction the killing of (by that code's immoral lights) sexually transgressive women. A Western analogy might be the "making" of mafiosos by gratuitous killings, or the "whacking" of a rebellious underling. Because murderous gangs -- Bowman devotes several riveting pages to The Sopranos -- like the Marines or political parties, are also honour groups.

While physically harmful honourbased behaviours are beyond the pale to Westerners, they illustrate a common thread in all groups where honour is still a functioning predictor of behaviour: Honour in men is always associated with physical courage; honour in women is bound up with sexual rectitude. And even in a post-honour society, there are, Bowman insists, vestigial traces of that gendered instinct hard-wired in all of us. Call a man promiscuous or a woman timid, and it's a debating point. But call a man a coward or a woman a whore, and atavistic hackles will bristle.

Honour's finest bloom, according to Bowman, was the Victorian era's "Christian gentleman," who represented a fusion of honour with morality. But as a guide to behaviour in western society, honour has been in full retreat since

the First World War. Falling victim to the near-universal disgust felt over the appalling human waste in that honourbased, but virtually causeless war, honour was also, Bowman believes, collateral damage of the feminist revolution, which insisted on a levelling of gender drives, along with "therapism," which elevated subjective victimhood over objective heroism, and finally multiculturalism, which militated against a common standard of honour.

Our elites usually avoid the word, but even when they do use it, rarely have any idea what it actually means: Last December, Stephane Dion said Canada should negotiate the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan "with honour," but in fact, properly interpreted, he meant "dishonour."

A strong society needs to balance honour and morality. A society guided exclusively by honour will gravitate to a rigid code of cruel and senseless retribution with no regard for individual justice. Socially approved suicide bombing is an example of a code of honour run amok. But a society governed only by morality and individual rights, one that discredits and suppresses its own yearning to give concrete expression to collective honour, will eventually lose the impetus to protect its integrity.

That, Bowman says, is where the post-honour West now finds itself: Western societies are riven over the question of war, and demoralized by its human costs, because we view war solely through a moral lens. But while morality can temper its conduct, no war, Bowman categorically states, was ever fought or can ever be justified on moral grounds, only on grounds of honour.

There are certain non-mainstream social units in the West that still respond to honour's call: One is the military and another the Royal Family. Taken together, it is clear why Prince Harry wants to go to war.

In its most admirable form, honour is about striving to be better than you are. Poet Robert Browning said, "When the fight begins within himself, a man's worth something." Like his famous Shakespearean predecessor, Prince Harry seemed a dubious prospect in his feckless late boyhood. But today he is a man, and demonstrably "worth something." Godspeed, Prince Harry, and safe homecoming when duty's done.


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