Can defeat be honorable? Can a nation admit to error without incurring disgrace? For many, the answer to both questions is clearly “no, never,” especially in matters of war.
Shakespeare, setting out the two sides of the argument in his play “Troilus and Cressida,” shows us ancient Troy, left holding the poisoned prize of Helen while the Greeks decimate the Trojan army to repossess her. The Trojan hero Hector exclaims, “We have lost so many tenths of ours, to guard a thing not ours nor worth to us, had it our name, the value of one ten. What merit’s in that reason which denies the yielding of her up?” He urges his compatriots to return Helen to the Greeks: “she is not worth what she doth cost the holding.” But they reject his advice. Instead, they follow his brother Troilus’s counsel: “there can be no evasion to blench from this, and to stand firm by honor; We turn not back the silks upon the merchant when we have soiled them. … O theft more base, that we have stol’n what we do fear to keep.” They fight on, and Troy falls.
Debating the Iraq War in New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee re-fought eerily similar ground. Playing the warrior Hector, Paul told his Republican colleague, “When we make a mistake, it is the obligation of the people … not to continue the mistake. … We have lost over 5,000 Americans over there in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the civilians killed. … What do we have to pay to save face? All we’re doing is saving face.”
But like Troilus, Huckabee was having none of it. He stated, “When I was a little kid, if I went into a store with my mother, she had a simple rule for me. If I picked something off the shelf of the store and I broke it, I bought it.” “Whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we’re there,” he continued. “We’ve got a responsibility to the honor of this country and to the honor of every man and woman who has served in Iraq and ever served in our military to not leave them with anything less than the honor they deserve.”
Who is right? Is there more honor in changing course or in persevering in a misguided cause? Ancient Rome, which believed itself to have been founded by survivors of the sack of Troy, provides illuminating answers.
In Rome’s shining Republican era, victory certainly brought glory, but as the historian Carlin A. Barton writes in the book Roman Honor, “the Romans did not stigmatize defeat; rather they prided themselves on their ability to bear it with equanimity.” The records show that generals who lost battles fared no worse in elections than those who won them. Many a defeated general won the highest government posts, those of consul and praetor.
What really mattered was not whether you were defeated but how you handled it. Did you despair, or did you take it on the chin and show fortitude? The former was dishonorable; the latter showed true Roman grit.
The Romans took this to what we might consider impossible lengths. They normally mitigated their severely moralistic outlook with a dose of expediency, but on occasion they would go so far as to reverse their martial successes in order to preserve their honor. So it was, according to Polybius, that in 270 BC, after Roman troops unjustly seized the city of Rhegium, the Senate “sent an army which laid siege to Rhegium, retook the city, and expelled the guilty troops.” The object, wrote Polybius, “was to restore, so far as possible, the good name of Rome.” Then in 172 BC, the Senate restored freedom to a tribe of Ligurians, whom the consul Caius Cicerius had attacked without good reason. Another historian, Livy, records that in 170 BC, after the praetor Lucius Hortensius had launched an unprovoked assault on the city of Abdera, beheaded its leaders, and sold the remaining inhabitants into slavery, “The Senate regarded this as a disgraceful proceeding and they made the same decree in the case of the Abderites that they had made the previous year in the case of the Coronaeans,” namely “that the Senate considered the attack upon Abdera as utterly unjustifiable, and demanded that search should be made for all who were enslaved in order that they might be set free.”
Today the idea that a government might announce that it had waged an unjust war, apologize, and withdraw its troops from the lands they had no right to occupy seems unthinkable. Unlike the Romans, the American public elects only victorious generals, such as Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower. Honor is measured by results, not character.
This dynamic creates strong incentives to refuse to admit defeat or error on the political stage. The frequent justification of the refusal is couched in instrumental reasoning: such admissions are said to damage the nation’s honor, thereby weakening its deterrent reputation and leaving it more vulnerable to external threat.
This argument misunderstands the nature of honor. In academic jargon, honor is primordial rather than instrumental—above all, it is about feeling good about ourselves. We seek it as an end in its own right rather than because of tangible advantages it may bring. As J.G. Peristiany, one of the foremost scholars on the subject, writes, “Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgment of that worth.” Somebody concerned with his honor acts as he does either to win the praise of others (or at the very least to avoid their contempt) or to live up to his own sense of what is right. In either case, he hopes not to further his material interests but rather to feel himself to be a person of worth.
This is a crucial conclusion. People calling for war on grounds of national honor may convince themselves that there are instrumental reasons for doing so, but in truth, their motivations are more emotional. They want to fight because the alternative—giving in and admitting error—will make them feel weak and thus worthless. Put this way, fighting (and killing) for the sake of honor suddenly seems less justifiable.
Furthermore, honor is socially grounded. It exists because all societies wish to flourish, and so they reward (i.e. honor) those who succeed, in the hope of encouraging others to do likewise. At the same time, societies recognize that certain virtues are conducive to success, and so they honor the display of those virtues even when they are accompanied by failure, again in the hope of encouraging emulation. With time, these values become internalized, and individuals obey them not solely because they hope to win rewards but also because they wish to live up to their own sense of what is right and wrong.
What matters here is what the society considers virtuous in terms of its own goals. In his 2006 study, Honor: a History, James Bowman notes, “honor depends on the honor group.” But what is honorable for members of one group may be considered dishonorable by members of another. The tribesman or mafia member who kills another in an act of revenge is acting perfectly honorably within the context of his own group—honor among thieves, as the saying goes.
We should ask those who talk about honor to specify more clearly with which virtues they associate honor, and why those virtues should override other considerations. When we do this, we see that those who cite honor as a reason for fighting generally interpret it very narrowly in terms of strength. Surrender is seen as shameful because it implies weakness. But there are, of course, many virtues other than strength. It may be true that ending a war without victory reveals a lack of strength, but if the war is unjust and cannot be won, publicly accepting that fact also furthers justice and demonstrates wisdom, self-control, and honesty, all major elements of a nation’s “soft power.”
And even strength, to be virtuous, must be allied to prudence. Fighting without purpose or a reasonable chance of success merely out of a fear of looking weak is neither strong nor courageous, but reckless and thus not virtuous at all.
The great Roman orator Cicero understood this well. “We should never acquire a reputation for cowardice by avoiding dangers which should be faced,” he wrote, “but we should particularly avoid that most stupid of all courses of action in committing ourselves unnecessarily to a dangerous position.”
Unfortunately, the era in which Cicero lived saw a significant change in attitudes towards honor. As late as 70 BC, Lucius Gellius Poplicola and Cnaius Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus could get themselves elected as censors despite having been defeated two years previously by an insurgency of slaves led by Spartacus. A few years later, the voters would not have accepted them. According to Barton, the last decades of the first century BC witnessed an “increasing admiration for a cult of victory.” Heroes of self-sacrifice were replaced by men who were “not prepared to lose.” As a result, honor lost its association with virtue and became ever more associated with utilitarian values. Power shifted from the Senate to the generals, in effect from the legislative to the executive arm of government.
There is a lesson here that the appearance obsessed would do well to heed. As long as the Romans recognized the possibility of honor in defeat, they held on to their freedoms, but once they came to believe that victory was all that mattered, the republic (like Troy before it) collapsed. The Romans won their battles overseas, but in the process they lost what mattered to them at home.
In that New Hampshire debate, Huckabee almost grasped the point. “We’re losing elections,” Ron Paul warned him, “and we’re going down next year if we don’t change it.” “Even if we lose elections,” replied the former Arkansas governor, “we should not lose our honor, and that is more important to the Republican Party.”
When it comes to his party, it seems that Huckabee does indeed see that defeat with honor can be prized above victory without it. He should reflect on the foreign-policy implications of his words as he moves forward in his quest for the presidency.
Paul Robinson is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and the author of Military Honour and the Conduct of War: from Ancient Greece to Iraq (Routledge 2006) and the Dictionary of International Security (Polity, 2008).