January 12, 2007
Questions of Honor
In war, men who faced their enemy on the field as enemy sometimes faced their enemy, during lulls in the fighting, as comrades.
One example, recounted in the companion book to Ken Burns' film documentary of our Civil War, is a southern private's noting that some men and Yanks "...talked over the fight, and traded tobacco and coffee and newspapers as peacefully and kindly as if they had not been engaged for... seven days in butchering one another."
In order to live with the pain of war we have notions of honor; that we meet the enemy as enemy in battle, and meet the enemy as fellow men when the fighting has subsided or stopped. We meet honorably on and off the battlefield, so that we retain, in the end, our humanity.
Today, although most of our culture -- and the heroes of our most acclaimed novels and movies -- have this notion honor in war, most of our pundits in the media, and most of our leaders in Washington, talk of anything but this kind of honor. Indeed, they often decry and deride even hints at even discussing discussion with our "enemies" (applying that label to some countries with whom we are not at war).
We are told, by our media and by our government, that no actions by our enemies in the Middle East are honorable.
And we do have a notion that our enemy is not honorable. Flying a plane into a building is not honorable. A bomb on a bus is not honorable. Fighting among civilians is not honorable.
Our fields of battle, though, have changed. No longer do men line up to face each other on level ground. No longer do rows of tanks bear down upon rows of tanks. No longer do jets dogfight other jets.
In cities is where our wars are fought now. Among buildings is where we face each other now. Tanks roll unopposed down streets now. Jets drop five thousand pound bombs from high in the sky now.
Without doubt, causing the deaths of civilian men, women and children is without honor. We learned of the pain of civilian deaths on September 11, 2001. Shall we discount, though, without discussion -- as many in the media suggest -- Iraqi and Afghani civilian deaths? If we were to discuss enemy civilian deaths, should we discuss the decades of conflict in the Middle East? Have all the deaths of "enemy" civilians been honorable?
If a measure of honor is in civilian deaths, how do we fare?
If a measure of honor is in prisoner treatment, how do we fare?
If a measure of honor is in due process, equal justice and fair hearings, how do we fare?
Upon the fields of battle in the 21st century which America must stand and face her enemies, with sword or with pen, we must remember that among who we face is our own reflection.
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right," Lincoln began the end of his second inaugural. Today, how shall we begin to bind this nation's wounds? We should, and shall, care for those who have borne the battle. To achieve, though, a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations, we must recall the meaning, the measure, of honor. Malice toward none, and charity for all must be extended to all nations, including our enemies, real or imagined. If not, we risk extending war into the rest of the 21st century. We cannot wait for others to extend charity to us first.