[by Natalie Sambhi]
Should we discuss honour and war?
The question struck me when thinking about the three reasons Thucydides offers for going to war: fear, honour and interest. Fear and interest seem, to some degree, straightforward: ‘fear’ is an emotion to which we respond by pursuing security, and ‘interest’ defining the upper limits of when we should pursue the use of force. But what role does honour play?
Broadly defined, honour encompasses a sense of justice, what is morally right, values and beliefs. It could also encompass reputation, if that is intimately tied with a sense of doing what is right. However, the meaning of honour can vary from person to person, from state to state, and changes over time.
In his post on Book 1, Mark quotes Archidamus at length. In the excerpt, Archidamus assesses whether Sparta should go to war with Athens by comparing the relative military strengths and warfighting skills of Sparta and Athens. After establishing that the military balance favours the Athenians, he adds:
“Meanwhile our honour will be pledged to keeping on, particularly if it be the opinion that we began the quarrel. For let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war.”
It is not just for reasons of military inferiority that Sparta will lose, Archidamus is concerned that the Spartans might be compelled to fight for reasons of honour, and drag out the war. This prompted me to consider how the role of honour has changed in our consideration of war since Peloponnesian times. How is it defined today and what role should it play in war?
Today we do not speak about honour as blatantly as we do security and strategic interests when going to war. Leaders do not state they plan to commit troops on the basis of ‘saving face’ (as Mark points out in his Book 5 post), ‘guarding honour’ or even to pursue revenge, even if that may be the case.
An obvious problem is ‘honour’ can be quite subjective and defined in myriad ways depending on its context. We are encouraged often to ‘do the honourable thing’, in other words, to ‘do the right thing’. But in its extreme, doing something just for ‘honour’ can also appear irrational or illegal. The example that springs to mind is an ‘honour killing’ where a family member who has shamed the family is killed by a relative as a form of restoring the group honour or community standing.
In the context of war, how do we talk about restoring honour at a state level? We are far prone to think about the commitment to war in terms of strategic interest. But I’d like to use the example of Australia to show how ‘honour’ as a concept in pursuing war has lingered.
Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001. The next day, he told a press conference he intended to support a US military response, admittedly without yet receiving an American request. In a speech to the Australian Defence Association in October 2001, Howard explained why he chose to invoke the articles of the ANZUS Treaty and to commit troops to fight in Afghanistan:
“If we left this contest only to America, we would be leaving it to them to defend our rights and those of all the other people of the world who have a commitment to freedom and liberty. We will not do it. We admire their strength and greatness, but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.
To do anything less on this occasion would be both strategically inept and morally indefensible, especially given the strength of our mutual commitment with the United States under the ANZUS Pact.
Other civilised countries of the world have also recognised the global nature of the threat and the need to meet it.
The UN Security Council unequivocally condemned the attacks in New York and Washington, and affirmed the need for all nations to combat by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by such terrorist acts.”
He clearly states a desire to be a good ally but an intention to uphold Australia’s reputation as a defender of Western norms; as Howard saw it, to sit out that conflict would have made the country appear cowardly. Australia’s strategic rationale for participation was defined in terms of fighting terrorism, assisting our American ally, and liberating the Afghan people from the tyranny of an oppressive regime.
In Howard’s case, ‘doing the the right thing’ sounds like ‘honour’ but is actually ‘reputation’. If Australia were to fight for ‘honour’, what would that have looked like? Fighting to uphold reputation as ‘willing to fight’ and ‘being a good ally’ could be seen ironically as a face-saving way of appearing honourable. It allowed Australia to commit a mentoring and reconstruction force to one province and special forces deployments on specific missions to meet that reputational threshold, without having to clearly define what defending honour looked like.
By 2013, ‘doing the right thing’ was characterised as building girls schools in Uruzgan province. That is, of course, an honourable thing to do. But it was not the reason ADF personnel were committed to Afghanistan. Did Australia fight for ‘honour’ or ‘reputation’?
Should we acknowledge honour in war? What do we mean when we go to war, in the 21st century, for ‘honour’?