The pledge was made on their sacred honor. Although one man initially penned the declaration, fifty-six signed: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” And thus the Declaration of Independence was born. In 1776, honor was Honor with a capital H. Duels were fought, often in defense of a woman’s virtue, as Andrew Jackson proved time and again, keeping a pair of fine dueling pistols at the ready for thirty-seven years in order to defend his dear wife, lest anyone should speak of her in anything but reverent tones. And there were some who dueled over politically-based insults as well; regardless, duels centered around one’s Honor. Homer’s Iliad and, actually, the majority of his writing, has its focus in true Honor. And yet, centuries later, we seem to have fallen on a time when honor has lost its capital-letter strength. Honor has become the punch-line in television sitcoms or the pitch for half-witted romance novels. Thugs claim honor is part of their ghetto lifestyle and those in government who clearly lack understanding of the concept throw the word around like a party favor. And thus begs the question: what is Honor?
"The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not a man of honor." George Bernard Shaw
First, it is important to clear up a common misconception: real, vital, hot-blooded Honor (with a capital H) is not only for heroes of olde. And it is not only for our military, either, although the ebb and flow of time has altered reality enough for military service to be one of the rare places Honor is seen on a more frequent basis. Honor is not only for men, either, although for the purpose of this question, and simplicity, it will remain in the male form. It is incredibly difficult to pin down the definition of Honor, perhaps because even Merriam-Webster seems to have become confused with time, defining honor as: “respect that is given to someone who is admired” or “good quality or character as judged by other people.” The reality is the opinions of others are all too often inaccurate or worthless; only you know whether or not you are truly a man of Honor. And here we begin our journey.
“What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” Aristotle
Simply put, just because you can do something does not mean you should, and vice versa. Honor comes not only from action, but inaction. It is not simply a matter of choosing your battles but a matter of knowing you must retain the ability to look in the mirror in the morning. A weak man spins a tale so strong he himself comes to believe it, and so, in his own way, he can face himself come morning. A man of Honor knows and faces the cold, hard facts, and deals with them accordingly. Just because you can beat someone senseless does not mean you should. There is a true yet old story of a sailor who had been unfairly and horrendously treated by a senior officer. The older man had intentionally stalled well-deserved promotions and proved a hindrance for years. One night, the young sailor and his friends were out on the town and came upon the older officer, who was fall-down drunk in the street. Coming from the other direction was that era’s version of the naval police. Immediately, the young sailor leapt forward, put his arm around the older man, and pretended to be sharing a personal joke with him. He maintained the cover until the danger had passed, at which point his fellow sailors asked why he did not take the opportunity to “knock a few stripes off” the senior man. The answer was simple: Honorable men do not do that. A man of Honor does not take advantage of a weak moment to make his point. For some, the weak moment is the perfect opportunity to strike, and yet, that is not Honor.
“Honor isn’t about making the right choices. It’s about dealing with the consequences.” Midori Koto
In some ways, one might agree to disagree with Koto. There is Honor in proper decision making. However, especially when dealing with groups of people, it is not always possible to control or even heavily influence a situation. In those cases, finding Honor is about facing up to reality and dealing with our share rather than shirking or hiding from responsibility. And, of course, mistakes are made, because we are all human. Whether consequences must be faced due to outside error that still somehow touches us or due to our own imperfect humanity, they must be faced. True courage is often found in those moments we most dread; many a brave man would rather face heavy gunfire than the disapproval of one they respect, and understandably so. However, better to find Honor than to be a coward and run from it, as Shakespeare said, “cowards die many times before their death; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Ruck up.
“The leader who exercises power with honor will work from the inside out, starting with himself.” Blaine Lee
At some point, you will be given a chance to lead. Not every man is a natural born leader, and not everyone should be a leader. More than one senior officer has said he would never ask his men to do something he, himself, was not willing to do. It is in the meaning of that concept where Honor comes into play. Honor begins within. It is both unfair and unrealistic to except something of someone when you, yourself, cannot deliver. No, all men are not created equal, and therein lies the crux of this problem. Wait a minute, you might say, if you’re admitting not all men are equal, are you saying not all men can realistically have Honor? Not at all. Any one person is capable of Honor. However, not all people have the strength of will and integrity to do it, for it is not an easy path to take. True men of Honor start with themselves and work their way out to others. Real leaders face adversity and setbacks aplenty, and bull forward regardless. They accept their lot and thrive. They do not advertise the worth of their actions; their actions speak for themselves. A leader inspires. The French diplomat Talleyrand said, “I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.” A leader is that one lion.
“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Aristotle
Honor is not found in a single action. Yes, there are shockingly heroic acts of valor: men throwing themselves on grenades to save their brother soldiers, running into a heated firefight to drag a wounded brother to safety, the list goes on, but there is a difference between heroism and Honor. Some say Honor cannot be gained so much as it can be lost. We are born with a clean slate, they imply, and as our actions build throughout our lives, honor gains or loses ground. However, it seems inaccurate to say we are born with Honor, because we are not. That said, one horrific act of cowardice or treachery can easily destroy years of Honor. Honor is quite nearly a living, breathing entity, and killing its heart is as simple as delivering one fatal blow. In 2009, SEALs were finally able to take down the Butcher of Fallujah, a terrorist known for such heinous acts as the murder and maiming of former SEALs-turned-Blackwater-contractors, including their burned bodies being towed through town behind cars and hung from a bridge. The capture of the Butcher went down without a hitch, and yet when this sickening madman blatantly lied and accused SEALs of prisoner abuse – with his only evidence being what was nothing more than a cold sore on his lip and the incompetence of the Master-at-Arms who was supposed to be guarding him – the military brass took him seriously. During the course of their wrongly accusing the SEALs, senior officers tried on multiple occasions to convince the men to sign statements saying they had struck the Butcher, telling the men their sins would be significantly diminished if they would just admit it. But none of the men had touched the Butcher, and all three refused to sign a document admitting to actions they had not taken. They had Honor, and they were going to hold on to that Honor, come hell or courts-martial. In the end, all three were fully exonerated, but not before the military dragged them through the mud and treated them abominably. Those three SEALs should be respected for their dedication to Honor, for understanding its weight and value, and for refusing to take the easy road by taking an action – signing that paper – which would have clearly besmirched their hard-won Honor. That kind of Honor is not something the cowardly Master-at-Arms can ever have or comprehend. Honor is built, it is gathered in bits and pieces until it begins to take shape, and for a man of Honor, there is no price he will not pay fighting for his well-earned reputation.
“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.” Lois McMaster Bujold
There is the you others believe they know, and the one in your heart. For many, Honor is the ability to look their loved ones or brother soldiers in the eye without flinching. It is not a matter of being tough and unflinching, but a matter of being at peace with your own actions. Not only can you look yourself in the mirror, but you can face those with whom you are most vulnerable and still feel you have conducted yourself in an honorable manner. We are taught at an early age the importance of eye contact, and, as we grow older, we are told the eyes are the windows to the soul. And although there are those who can meet your gaze with impunity despite their own actions (or lack thereof), there is no saying what discomfort or shame they feel inside as they do so. Honor is when you are able to turn your focus inward, and smile, despite your human flaws and foibles, despite moments of pain and indecision. Smile knowing your Honor shines righteously in your eyes. One of life’s great moments is seeing the knowledge of that Honor reflected in the eyes of someone you care about when they look back.
“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” Sophocles
Men of Honor do not cheat. They do not cut corners. Men of Honor buckle down, grit their teeth, and muscle through what must be done regardless of personal comfort. Enough said.
“For let the gods so speed me as I love the name of honor more than I fear death.” William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius felt the forfeiture of his life was a fitting price to pay for what he believed was his destroyed Honor. And although Shakespeare’s tale takes his typical twists and turns, the concept is easy to grasp: Honor above all else. The SEALs wrongfully accused in the Butcher of Fallujah case believed Honor was more valuable than the most priceless gems, a concept sadly fading from modern times. Honor is a beautifully multi-faceted thing, one not easily defined or described in words alone. And although it is not yet extinct, Honor is certainly an endangered trait. Find a man of Honor, and you have found a truly rare species. Honor is not measured in inches or pounds but by words and actions, and for those reasons, you must seek it out, both within yourself and in those around you. Sine honore nihil sum (“Without honor, I am nothing.”).
“I have never thought of writing for reputation and honor. What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason I compose.” Ludwig van Beethoven
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