Men and nations live and die by honor

In my comments on the last topic, I made the statement:

The cruelty of the Japanese in wartime also bespeaks of the impracticality of practical method of warfare. Fools who accuse the a-bomb decision of racism overlook a more obvious reason: the Japs started the war with a very practical sneak-attack at Pearl Harbor, without a declaration of war: they fought very practically at Iwo Jima, and with such ferocity, that their opponents (us) became convinced there was no reasoning with them, no compromise was possible.

Do you think I am making a joke when I talk about honor? Men and nations live and die by these means.

Had the Japanese behaved in an honorable fashion in World War II, instead of the ‘pragmatic’ way of Musashi, we would not have a-bombed them. There would have been no need.

The honorable dirigibletrance poses this question:

John, are you serious? Do you really reckon the rise and fall of empires has having to do with chivalry and honor, rather than having to do with technological superiority, the strength and cunning of the mind’s of an empire’s generals, superior operational doctrine on the part of units, and ability to secure resources and establish lines of supply?

I really do not know what you say. What you are saying goes against what every general, both ancient and modern, who’s writings I have read has said. I do no mean to sound offensive, but you are coming across as a bit naive here.

Rome established one of the largest empires in history, held it for nearly a thousand years, and was known for having an entirely utilitarian method of warfare, relative to the way warfare was practiced by her enemies. England’s longbow archers contributed greatly to the end of the Knight dominating the battlefield in Europe, sipmly because one of them could drive an arrow straight through a heavily armored knight, without a knight ever having a chance to retaliate. The great empires of Europe were all established long after chivalry and knighthood were largely dead, as such notions cannot survive well in the gunpowder era. Most of the success of global empires and colonization was due to technological superiority against the natives and due to having far more efficient management and discipline than them as well. What little did survive, such as the absurd idea of forming up into neat formations and presenting one’s self to the enemy in blocks of men to be shot, was annihilated by the invention of the Machine Gun, which proved to the the ultimate teacher in utilitarian ethics. By the end of World War 1, everyone was fighting from cover, using ambushing, using manuver warfare, and finally using tanks. (Tanks were reckoned as a most cowardly and “dishonorable” invention.. until people say that the side with the tanks could break through any trench line and was nearly impervious to small-arms fire).

Today the United States Army and Marines, reckoned to be the premier fighting forcesof the world, teach entirely utilitarian methods of warfare: Night-raids using optics that let a man strike at his enemy without ever being seen. They also espouse the use of combined-arms barrages to disrupt and kill an enemy’s command-control-coordination system, leaving him broken and leaderless, and unable to resist an assault. They teach a hand to hand combat system that goes directly for the kill, not leaving the enemy a chance to fight back. Our military uses stealth-aircraft, cruise-missiles, UAVs, and other such things that place us at almost no risk during a battle. We do not believe in fighting fair, but in fighting to win.

I think, perhaps, that you are mistaking utilitarian warfare methods for barbarism. They are not the same thing, at all. The Japanese lost World War 2, not because of their honor/dishonor practices, but because they simply lacked the resources to take on the United States, in a strategic sense, and because they failed to capitalize on the gains they had made in destroying most of the US surface fleet, and because they did not have as many, or as effective, a carrier force as the United States Navy did. They also lost because of the sheer grit, determination, and tenacity of the crews and pilots on those four remaining US carriers, the cunning of US submarine commanders in the pacific, and because our Devil Dogs, were who able to match and exceed any self-proclaimed Samurai in ferocity and skill.

Pick up any modern combat or modern warfare book about the US military, John, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Honor is good for storytelling and space opera, sure. However, in real war, it has no place. The commander’s goal is to win, defeat the enemy, and accomplish whatever mission assigned to him by his superiors. Today, that is done by overwhelming the enemy on all fronts, denying him every resource that he’d need to fight back, and precisely by *not* playing fair at all.

My comment:

Sorry, I was not clear.

I am serious, but I am not saying what you think I am saying.

I am saying that the American ferocity toward the Japanese during World War II was due to the dishonorable nature of the Pearl Harbor attack. Had they declared war before striking, I doubt we would have demanded unconditional surrender. I am not saying ‘they lost because they were dishonorable’ but I am saying ‘more died than needed because they were dishonorable–which provoked a savage retaliation on our part.’ A demand for unconditional surrender was very rare, almost unheard-of, in the Napoleonic Wars.

Let us compare and contrast that with the American Civil War. The combatants there behaved with sufficient civility toward each other that there are cases where they share medical and field hospital facilities. At the surrender, the Rebels wore their swords and were allowed to go still carrying their swords. The upshot of it is that the South was reunited with the North; not without illwill–but reunited nonetheless.

I suspect that Western notions of honor are so ingrained that you do not see them for what they are. If the commander’s goal in combat was to defeat the enemy without regard to honor, in our current war, we would atom-bomb Tehran by stealth, and have snipers shoot their doctors, smartbombs blast their hospitals when the enemy attempted to save the lives of survivors. We would then publicly announce our willing to talk peace, raise the white flag, and kill the enemy ambassadors when they came to talk.

The entire debate about “letting the inspector do their work” before the invasion of Iraq was a debate about the niceties of honor. It was only a question of whether Saddam had broken his word of honor when he promised to abide by the terms of the cease-fire. A cease-fire is a quarter. The idea that you do not attack when the foe calls quarter is an idea having its roots in a mystical idea of honor.

The whole dance in politics before the invasion of Iraq was nothing other than ‘letting the enemy pick up his dropped epee.’ And we kicked Saddam’s ass anyway. We waited a year until all of the demands of honor were satisfied, and the discontent about the invasion was and is because the high standards of honor were not fully met: the claim is that Saddam gave us no causus belli. What is causus belli except a rule of war, that is, a rule of honor? The Bush Doctrine of preemption is a violation (or a pragmatic exception, take your pick) of an ancient and respected rule of European warfare, dating back before the treaty of Westphalia.

The Falklands War was entirely a matter of the national honor of the British Empire: there was no economic value to those worthless islands, certainly not enough to pay for a single warship the Queen dispatched. The Argentine reason for the attack was entirely a matter of honor: they needed the prestige of attacking and overcoming a European power in order to quiet discontent at home.

The invasion of Grenada was entirely a matter of honor: it was meant as a signal to the communists to show them that the West would accept no more loss of prestige. Surely there was no economic benefit, no military threat, involved.

The Cuban Missile crises was entirely a matter of honor: the threat posed by Russian missiles in Cuba was an affront to our dignity as a nation, independent of the actual military threat. The actual military threat never manifested itself, as it would have done had either nation pursued a philosophy of Total War. Instead, the two tomcats puffed up; the two rams butted heads; the two knights rattled their sabers. The noise of the saber rattling was a sufficient sign to indicate where the boundaries of acceptable honor lay: the Russians backed down, but to save Russian honor, the Americans agreed to pull missiles out of Turkey.

The Korean War was entirely a matter of honor: the United States defended South Korea because she was our ally, and we had given our sacred word of honor we would defend her.

World War II was entirely a matter of honor: did you think Britain had any real interest in the fate of northern Poland?

World War I was entirely a matter of honor: the Huns sought to increase the prestige of Germany by floating a great fleet, which the British took as an insult to their prestige as well as a threat to her national and imperial interests.

The Peloponnesian War was entirely a matter of honor: Sparta and Athens were in competition for greater influence and prestige. Ditto for the Punic Wars. 

Is your dismissal of the rules of honor confined only to the battlefield, or are you talking into account the reasons why politicians and leaders and princes make their decisions? Are you taking into account rules of engagement?

Indeed, were it not for our sense of honor, were it not for the rules of engagement and the rules of war our public deems honorable, our current enemies would have no ability to attack AT ALL. The current war is entirely a psychological war: it is fought only for the sake of the media. The whole point of asymmetrical warfare is ‘white blackmail’ i.e. the expectation that we play fair and live by high standards while the foe plays dirty and lives by standards calculated to be as low and dishonorable as possible.

A US Marine, given a choice between attacking the heavily-armed Republican Guard and attacking a blind pregnant nun, will attack the Guard. That is because Marines are badasses. A Jihadist, given a choice between attacking a Marine and attacking a blind pregnant nun, will attack the nun. That is because Jihadists are craven, but also because the Jihadist correctly sees the psychological and spiritual weakness of the West: our notions of honor make it reprehensible to us, to our own sense of justice, to attack a weak and cowardly enemy, or to kill the innocent.   

If our soldiers were told to shoot women and children carrying suspicious packages, and to decimate the innocent male populations in retaliation for any act of outrage, to nerve-gas any towns or cities reporting suspicious activity, and if our press simply suppressed any knowledge of Coalition wrongdoing, if, other words, we were as “practical” as the Romans, don’t you think our conduct of the war would be far different?

Please don’t tell me that such dishonorable means of conducting war are matters of practicality and not of honor: while honor is not practical on the personal level (it IS impractical to let an enemy pick up an epee, after all) there is a logic and a practicality to honor in the long term, and on the general level. It is meant to hinder the horror of war, and to permit the possibility of peace.

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UPDATE: I am told it is dishonor to the Corps if I do not capitalize the word ‘Marine’ in this context. Naturally, I make the correction with alacrity, trembling with fear. No one wants a US Marine mad at him. No one. The Praetorians were sissies compared to these guys. Go Marines!