Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Army general and Ku Klux Klan founder, is not generally considered one of history's more honorable figures. But like all true southern gentleman—or wanna—be gentleman—Gen. Forrest knew how best to appeal to his conquered troops, a generation of farm boys steeped in the glory and tradition of honor. Addressing his army for the last time, Forrest made no secret of what was expected of his men once they laid down their arms:
Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and so far as in our power to do so to cultivate friendly feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested and heretofore so widely but honestly differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out, and when you return home a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect even of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men...Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.
It would seem little more than useless to make an appeal to one's honor these days when, to use Norman Mailer's phrase, 'there is very little honor left in American life.' Since the Vietnam War, the idea of honor has been about as popular as dancing the Charleston. Like chivalry, it is considered an obsolete medieval virtue, though one historically abused by politicians and monarchs as a way of beguiling na�ve young men into going off to die for dubious causes. If America's poor showing in Vietnam did not spell honor's undoing, then Richard M. Nixon's absurd 'Peace with honor' speech most certainly did, followed shortly as it was by the Viet Cong's annihilation of South Vietnamese liberty.
One can hardly think of honor without considering similar concepts such as respect. The story of Robert E. Lee surrendering his sword to U.S. Grant and the latter handing it back may be apocryphal, but it wonderfully illustrates the respect two men of undeniable honor may feel for one other. As one of Grant's generals said, war may be hell, but not too long ago it was still a glorious honor to march through that hell, knee—deep in patriotic gore. What else would possess Texas, Missouri and Old Kentuck' farm boys, who couldn't afford the price of a dead mule, let alone slaves, to offer up their lives, if not to defend the honor of the old South?
The contrast between the surrender at Appomattox and the complete lack of honor of the so—called Iraqi 'insurgents' must be obvious to a half—witted squirrel. At present the Iraqi capital teems with earnest men and women trying to rebuild and modernize their land, trying to bring freedom and democracy to the masses, as well as those simply trying to make a buck. With potentially more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, Iraq is an economic miracle that can hardly wait to happen. Meanwhile undermining this progress are the scoundrels who, out of ignorance and religious fanaticism, and who, with no idea how to build anything, seek to destroy everything.
We've seen this all before. In Ireland such hooligans are called the Irish Republican Army, but far from being a legitimate military force, they are simply a mob of socialist misfits who cannot accept the past, and embrace a failed ideology. Such gangsters hide in crevices like rats, and come out only to murder, creating nothing but mayhem, and bringing dishonor to their people. Palestine's suicide bombers are no less ratty, for in sacrificing their lives they gullibly believe they shall ascend to heaven, there to be eternally loved up by 72 virgins, which is really a much better deal than their present miserable circumstances in some West Bank hovel.
A year ago the Iraqi military machine —— which its fuhrer Saddam Hussein predicted would crush the American Army like a dung beetle —— deserted en masse. Rather than doing the honorable thing, i.e., throwing himself on his sword like Marc Antony or Nero, or blowing out his brains in a bunker like Herr Hitler, Saddam chose to crawl into a hole in the ground. Small wonder with leadership like this, some Iraqis have taken up the military equivalent of ringing the doorbell and running.
America, Britain, Israel, and a broken wave of tentative allies are now engaged in guerilla battles with insurgents who, to put it simply, have no sense of true honor. They do not so much refuse to accept that they have been beaten, as behave like crybabies and bullies who, when they do not get their way, take it out on someone weaker. Religious extremism prevents them from viewing the infidel as a worthy opponent. And a perverse interpretation of Islam obliterates all linkage between honor and respect. 'Allah's enemies' simply do not count as human beings. Thus do Palestinian suicide bombers blow up school buses and marketplaces. To be sure, there is a self—proclaimed strategy of terror aimed at forcing Israel into concessions. But it is fatally entwined in the frustrated rage of the humiliated and failed aggressor, with no depth of understanding of humanity or the Deity.
Germany and Japan, buried beneath rubble, starved by years of Allied counter—attack, and indisputably vanquished, did not resist the Allied occupiers for long. Of course, in those days, there was less hesitation to respond aggressively to any challenge of the victors' authority. But there was also a code of honor bred into the German and Japanese people who may have been at times brutal, barbarous and cunning, but who nonetheless did not lack honor.
Americans are used to waging war against honorable adversaries, going back to the British, who surrendered with their upper lips stiff at Yorktown. But today, faced with dishonorable enemies, coalition forces are learning what Israel learned fifty years ago: one cannot force peace upon a people who are completely without honor.
It was this lack of honor that Edmund Burke believed spelled the doom of the French Revolution, that where the American Revolution was led by men steeped in honor —— Franklin, Adams, Paine, Jefferson —— the French Revolution was but a blood—thirsty mob rebellion led by scoundrels. Reflecting on the subsequent Reign of Terror in France, Burke lamented how honor had disappeared with mob rule. 'It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound.'
Revolutionary Americans did not murder British Colonial governors or raze their homes. Instead they gathered a ragtag Army and took a stand against the mightiest nation on Earth. In our own time we have seen Lech Walesa gather not an army —— for this would have been pointless against Soviet might —— but following the example of Thoreau and Gandhi, maintain a peaceful and honorable resistance, both in and out of jail, until finally the Poles were able to take back their country. The Palestinian leaders might have taken this path and gained world sympathy, but having no sense of honor they have chosen instead to blow up school buses loaded with Jewish children.
History looks favorably upon most revolutionary leaders (dictatorial butchers are the obvious exception), men and women like Spartacus, Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Nat Turner and Mandela who with little chance of success have nonetheless bravely and honorably fought for freedom. In contrast, history has only scorn for terrorists and so—called insurgents like bin Laden and Arafat, whether they succeed or not. Is it a coincidence that whenever honor is mentioned in the Middle East it is associated solely with the honor—killings of adulterous peasant women?
In the opening scene of Shakespeare's Richard II, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is accused of committing high treason, to which he responds:
Mine honour is my life, both grown in one:
Take honour from me, and my life is done:
Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try;
In that I live and for that will I die.
It is a lovely sentiment, and one all too infrequently held in today's Post—Vietnam era. Perhaps it is futile to expect terrorist leaders to adopt a code of honor, but lacking that the civilized world seems bound down a road toward a barbarous and unpleasant future.
Christopher Orlet is an essayist, a book critic, and frequent contributor to Salon.com and The American Spectator. He writes a bi—monthly column on language for Vocabula Review. He lives in Columbia, Illinois. His web site is The Christopher Orlet Reader.