Monday, October 19, 2009

The Death of Honor, Part I

October 13, 2009

This is not intended as an academic dissertation. You will not find any footnotes or other documentation, because it is merely my own opinion, formed from a lifetime of observation and consideration of the world around us. It, more than anything else, is a projection of what will happen if some changing trends in our society do not mollify and head back in a direction that honors our past and the social convention most often referred to as “honor”.

What is Honor, yes, with a capital ‘H’? It is the feeling that a person is obligated to ascertain and then act in a way that is consistent with the greatest good…for all humanity. It is NOT acting out of self-interest, or in the interest of a limited grouping of souls. Hitler had the German people believing that their interests came before anyone else’s and that absolutely whatever was necessary to pursue those interests was justified. We know the results of this all too well. Honor requires that a person make an effort to discover what the best course of action in any given situation would be, as determined from a humanistic and even a spiritual point of view. It is most certainly NOT a ‘religious’ viewpoint; that is presently being perverted as badly as the Nazi goals were. Radical followers of not just Islam, but any religion, have a common tendency to consider their perspective to be the single correct path, rendering all others not merely flawed but even evil. In the minds of the leaders and followers this apparently justifies unbridled cruelty and violence as they pursue their own self-interests under an umbrella of piety and sanctimony. When will the world begin to realize that religion that is pursued in this fashion is a form of collective mental illness?

It is always possible to listen to one’s conscience. Yes, we have discovered endless ways to disarm and otherwise stifle the conscience, but, if we allow the Heart (most often identified as the seat of not only Love, but of the conscience as well) full scope to operate without perverting it, each of us has an in-built moral compass that will immediately tell us what is right. The answer erupts virtually instantaneously, as a set of bodily feelings, and mentally, as a simple but profound knowing, and is beyond quibbling or debate when it does. We do not have to make a list of pros and cons, weight possible consequences, or anything that requires logic and a process of deciding. We are confronted by a situation and we just KNOW. It really only becomes complicated when we toss in a body of thought, with rules, principles and goals. That is where the perversion begins. So, let’s take a look back at how the concept of Honor began—in my own opinion—and what is becoming of it at present.

The beginning of agriculture stems back to the so-called Fertile Crescent, the area roughly defined by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq. It is thought that the land there was so amenable to growing crops that the heretofore nomadic hunter-gatherers of the region had the epiphany that they would have a better chance of eating regularly, not to mention do a lot less wandering about, if they could plant and harvest their food. As this caught on and took hold, suddenly these people could not only remain in one place and become agrarian, but they realized the need for permanent settlements and began building villages, then towns and eventually cities. Of course, if you have something worth raiding, there would always be those who would rather have your food, and not have to gather or grow it themselves. So the need to collectively defend their settlements grew out of a critical need for mutual protection. And the idea of standing military was born. There had been warriors in every culture since their inception, but now it was desirable to become more formal and organized, build defensible strong-points, eventually fortified towns and cities.

I spent three years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman (without going to Vietnam, however, despite being on orders for it FOUR times). Ultimately, I became an instructor at the Infantry School at Ft.Benning, and I learned that the lynch-pin of military discipline and the ability of a military unit to function effectively is the willingness to both trust and to sacrifice. If you don’t trust your leaders and your platoon mates, morale will be so bad that the unit’s ability to fight on any effective level will be poor to non-existent. Much of the willingness to obey orders comes from a deep feeling of brotherhood, and a consequent willingness to die for your squad-mates. There is no place in a good military unit for a person who operates from self-preservation and self-interest. In fact, the U.S. Army is full of leaders who are very good at spotting such individuals during the first phases of training and they weed them out whenever possible. The term “Section 8” refers to a discharge under the grounds that the individual is simply “…unfit for military service”. It isn’t disciplinary, merely pragmatic. If such a person does make it to a combat unit, they will often find themselves pulling permanent K.P. Nobody wants to go into combat with someone who is just out to save his own butt. Trust me on that.

As the centuries passed, warrior cults, and the armies they were a part of all around the planet, developed their own codes of conduct. These codes all have in common the idea that loyalty, along with courage, is paramount, and to act in a less than loyal or brave fashion is simply unacceptable. Some traditions have practiced this at a very stern level: the samurai being the most rampant example. The samurai warriors’ code of Bushido required a warrior who disgraced himself to commit Seppuku…to slice his own gut open with a small dagger, a Tanto. The motto of the Nazi SS was, “Mein Ehre heist Treue”, approximately: “My honor is my loyalty”. No veteran who fought against them, however odious their Nazi ideology, will deny that they were among the best fighting men in the world. Both Samurai and SS culture were perversions, however. Both were mis-used by the political overlords above them to accomplish self-serving goals.

Honor is easily able to be misappropriated under the banner of a political system, or a religion whose leaders are acting in a political fashion. The people in charge simply obviate the subjugant’s conscience, and replace their ability to make decisions with an iron-clad form of brutal discipline. The leadership, however perverse in its goals, substitutes unbending loyalty for the ability or--more exactly, the RESPONSIBILITY--to use one’s conscience to determine what is right and wrong. My reading has indicated that many of the Germans who were involved with the direct prosecution of the Holocaust had qualms of conscience, but they were able to set them aside in most cases because Hitler had decided what was ‘right’ for them. One of the most common Nazi slogans was, “Hitler orders, we follow.” Just possibly this was such an excruciating example of humans behaving in an unconscionable way that it will remain a painful history lesson we pay attention to…for at least a few generations, please.

But, we now live in a world beset by terror, committed in the name of a religion whose very name means, “Peace”. How can this be happening? The mechanism is identical to that used by the Nazis…and too many others. The Imams, Sheikhs and Mullahs who have substituted their self-serving interpretation of the Koran for anything that is recognizable by mainstream Muslims are telling their legions of followers what is right, as they see it. And, as we know too well, that is a heavily skewed and perverted understanding of anything approaching compassion or wisdom. If Mohammed were to return today, I feel absolutely confident that he would be outraged by the behavior that is being committed in his name. Heads would roll, alright, but it wouldn’t be those of innocent women and children and other non-combatants.

So, I hope that we have at least established that Honor is a noble impulse to do the right thing in any given determined by the wisdom and compassion of one’s own conscience. And it is apparent that it must always be treated with a cautionary vigilance to ensure that it has not been co-opted by those who would mis-use the courage and loyalty of people who serve under their authority. Now let’s take a look at how this long-standing concept has arrived in the present.

On September 11th, 2001, the whole world stood witness to both deeds of a horrendous nature, and subsequent deeds of such an Honorable nature that it brought tears to our eyes. The highjackers labored under a false notion of honor that allowed them to target thousands of innocent people, of all ages, any gender, ethnicity and nationality. They were dupes who had been led to believe that what they were doing was somehow noble and heroic. It was simply not so. Anybody watching the towers fall felt sickened by the knowledge that this was an intentional act. But, in a space of mere minutes, the firefighters, medics and police who responded were thrust into a situation where it quickly became apparent that just doing their duty would very likely cost many of them their lives. They did it anyway. To save people they didn’t even know, these men and women are willing, on a daily basis, to sacrifice their lives. And, over 300 did on that terrible day. This, then, has become a living and vibrant example of what it means to follow a code of Honor. In the aftermath of that terrible day the letters, “FDNY”, have become almost synonymous with selfless sacrifice.

And, yet, we are now living in times when a significant portion of our population is actively deciding that such a code is obsolete.

In fact, I do not believe it is at all hyperbolic to say that Honor—as a coda and a guide for how one should behave--is at the very least ‘endangered’, if not actually dying out. In these times we have a host of people who grew up believing that the American Dream means to get what you want, and let the devil take the hindmost. Do I really have to cite examples of this? Okay, but just a few of the most stunning ones: Enron, where Robert Ley was ordering his employees to not sell their company stock holdings…as he unloaded his own out the backdoor. Then there is the ongoing behavior of health insurance companies as they place corporate profit on a higher level than the lives of those they collect money from, supposedly and expressly for the purpose that they will be there for them when the need arises. Does it really get any worse than this?

Cheating on college campuses has sky-rocketed in recent years, because students who would like to think of themselves as ‘good people’ are caving-in to the idea that they have to set aside their personal integrity in order to be competitive for grades. People who have been raised to believe that what you own is more important—much more—than how you go about getting it, will stop at nothing to acquire what they have come to see as simply what they are entitled to. And, that means that Honor, and all it stands for, has become an impediment…just a big fat inconvenience. Anymore, if you listen to their logic, Honor has become an obsolete and arcane concept that is more for Boy Scouts than for the real world of making a living.

In part two, we will begin to look at what the greater implications of this are for all of us.

Murad Sa├┐en, in Maine

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