Tag Archive | honor

Honor in battle, not-as-much for the others

I don’t want to constantly short-circuit discussion in the comments by moving my responses to a post, so keep an eye on the Recent Comments list on the right, or subscribe to them. But Gene mentioned something in a comment in passing that I was going to address as a post at some point, so now is as good a time as any.

The issue raised is: what does “honor” have to do with battle? That is, what is a more important explanation for military behavior and practices (on the individual, group, unit/army, institutional levels): honor, or military pragmatism, i.e. the practicalities of trying to kill the other guy while avoiding being killed yourself? This is obviously a huge issue, and hardly a true dichotomy; the literature on cultural explanations of war is an expanding field that deserves discussion. I don’t have a full answer yet to this broad question, but I thought I’d start a discussion by throwing out there a few thoughts that Gene’s comment triggered.

I’d argue that we need to take honor seriously as an explanatory variable. I don’t have a fully-fleshed-out argument, but here are my thoughts thus far:

First, and as a prefatory remark, honor motivated those doing the fighting – although early moderns tended to think that only the elites (nobles, officers) could be motivated by honor. We need only recall that the early modern period was the golden age of duels, and what were duels but the extension of personal honor from the battle field to the dueling field? And duelers not only risked their own safety, but also potential arrest and imprisonment since, as Louis XIV put it, the officer’s honor on the dueling field was to be replaced by the honor of fighting in his armies. All the other standard aspects of martial honor apply as well: that ‘baubles’ such as medals and awards encourage men to risk their lives, that the peer pressure of shame is a powerful force, that certain failures in combat threaten the honor of one’s manhood, etc.

Specifically regarding the honorable associations of battle, contemporary publications frequently made explicit associations between the honor of battle and the (relative) dishonor of siegecraft. Even today, honor affects how we think about military events, generals, wars and even countries. The honorableness of battle helps frame which types of combat we consider interesting. Look at the number of siege wargames played vs. the number of battle scenarios played by wargamers (lets keep it pre-20C to avoid the battle-siege conflation we’ve discussed elsewhere) – why do we want to relive only the battles over and over again? Another example: why are the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns far more popular than William III’s? And what is it specifically about Marlborough’s campaigns that everyone writes about? Would Marlborough be considered “England’s greatest general” if he hadn’t won Blenheim and Ramillies, but just had “his” conquests of Lille and Tournai? More broadly, who are the “Great Captains” of history and what do they have in common? They win battles, or, perversely, they even lose battles, but at least they were honorable enough to “fight like a man,” and not skulk behind walls. (From Google Books it looks like one of the earliest published appearances of the phrase “fight like a man” comes from 1677.) See my “The ‘Decisive’ Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare,” Journal of Military History, 64 (2000): 649-677 for a discussion of how historians have discussed Marlborough’s campaigns in exceedingly battle-centric terms, and denigrated those who were less willing to fight battles, portraying battle avoidance as practically a pathology.

Non-battle tactics are certainly used, sometimes they even dominate wars, but: 1) contemporaries preferred the honor of battle even as they besieged, 2) the most honorable parts of a siege were those that most closely resemble battle on the open plain (i.e. storming the covered way or a sally for the garrison), and 3) today we aren’t as interested in those wars and tactics, and when we do talk about them, we’re just as apologetic as contemporaries were, often talking as if they weren’t ‘real’ wars. Westerners have been worried about the effect of skulking behind fortifications since the Ancient world – this is a hint that there’s a fundamental Western (universal?) principle at work. Even if you are besieging an enemy fortress and you entrench your own position so it is impregnable against a relief force, you still complain about how you wish they would come out and fight you. We see the same ambiguity with light infantry tactics – they and their practitioners take a surprisingly long time to be accepted into widespread use in Europe, and even then, it is still accompanied by concerns about what effect it will have on the men, and what it says about you that you have to resort to such measures. It’s those thieves, Celtic bandits and Indian savages that skulk behind rocks and trees. Heck, it’s more manly to burn down their villages. A few early moderns I’ve come across explicitly say that while partisan and siege warfare are necessary, there is little honor in them. We could also look at what jurists and warriors have said regarding assassination and ‘feminine’ arts like poisoning the enemy; stratagems are a whole other area where we see this ambiguous debate in the West (and probably elsewhere). You use stratagems, but the best stratagems are those that force a battle, and then those that allow you to avoid a battle. Most importantly, you want to make sure that you aren’t dishonored by getting taken in by an enemy stratagem. In short, you may have to adopt less-than-honorable tactics and weapons, but you don’t brag about it too much, you don’t focus on it, and you don’t fully embrace it for fear of the effects it will have on your self-identity.

Then there’s the question of whether there are ‘more honorable’ forms of fighting or not, i.e. certain weapons or tactics seen as more honorable than others. Most immediately projectile vs. melee weapons comes to mind, and the fact that the differences between them have been discussed in the West for millennia should tell us something. Consider the “Western way of war’s” idealization of hand-to-hand combat, whether it’s Victor Davis Hanson’s account of the hoplites or the persistent view of Orientals fighting sneakily described in Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. And while one *uses* projectile weapons and ‘machines’, if only because the enemy is doing it or because you need to make up for  other disadvantages, the full adoption (and particularly the psychological embrace) of such weapons can take a long time to develop, if ever. This is where honor comes in: it’s not something many (early) adopters are proud of having to hire others to use, or are particularly proud of if they use it themselves. There is less honor in striking down your foe from a distant hiding spot than baring your breast to your opponent, meeting your enemy on the open plain in a fair fight. Look at the ambivalence with regard to snipers vs. a soldier who is brave enough to expose himself to enemy fire. Which of these is a more honorable way of fighting? Which branch gets the most recruits? Which branch is given priority in funding and receives higher status, both social and professional? Unlike the tradition of the steppe plains, the West never really sees its military elite fully adopt projectile weapons as its main weapon – the shock of lance and sword dominate. Even in the age of pike and shot, it’s the pike that is the ‘queen’ of weapons, more honorable because of its connotations of strength and cold steel. I’m not sure, but I wonder if the 18C officer’s honor was validated by the fact that his primary weapon is still bladed, and contrasted with the fact that his inherently less-honorable men use muskets?

We are of course talking in broad generalities here, as there are obvious exceptions to every historical ‘rule,’ and there is at least somewhat of a divide between what the public at large thinks vs. what ‘professional’ military soldiers are told to think in their manuals – although we need to avoid the assumption of modern professionalism in our early moderns. There are distinctions between how you actually fight, how you describe your own way of fighting, how your enemy fights, and how you describe your enemy’s way of fighting. The differences between these tell us a lot about how you view yourself and your wars. Honor plays a key role in this, by describing some ways of war as more honorable than others, – battle and hand-to-hand combat particularly. It may not dictate how every member of your army fights all the time, but it influences how you talk about the method of fighting that you do use, how you would prefer to fight, how long it takes you to change your style of combat (look at the resistance to Vauban that I chronicle in Vauban under Siege), how you respond to the enemy’s actions, and what kind of constraints you put on your fighting. Honor is obviously malleable enough to be wrapped around a variety of ways of war, i.e. you justify your own actions whatever they are. But it’s a lot easier to claim honor if you’re fighting a battle and coming to blows with the enemy.

It seems the importance of honor depends on how you view its construction. Is it an instrumental concept, i.e. a tool people use to encourage certain types of behavior and discourage others? Or maybe there’s a Western or universal honor ideal that people aspire to, an ideal that shapes their identity or provides prescriptive rules of behavior? Perhaps a cynical view is required, where honor is simply a post hoc justification for what you’ve already done or want to do. A big question.

Thoughts would be appreciated, as this topic will be a big part of my battle book.

In the near future I’ll post an extended American football analogy to illustrate my points further.

Suggested Readings

  • I don’t know if anyone has really written a sustained discussion of martial honor in its own terms. Brian Sandberg and Michael Hughes have recently published on masculinity and honor in a military context. John Lynn has talked more generally about different cultural views of combat, and while I disagree with some of his views on Enlightened warfare, it’s an important starting point for a ‘cultural’ approach to war and includes a useful model for the interactions between ideal and real war. There’s been a lot of literature on contrasting ways of war in North America (Patrick Malone, John Grenier, Wayne Lee….) that highlight the ambiguity and hybridity of frontier fighting, including how European/American colonists may have adopted native techniques, but they were clearly uncomfortable embracing them.