Is there honour in war?

I was listening to a Ricky Gervais podcast the other day, and he posed a question that I found quite interesting...To paraphrase, when the crossbow was invented in Europe, the English refused to embrace it despite its many advantages over the traditional yew bow. The reason he gave for this was that the English felt that to use a crossbow that required little skill or training was not honourable, and so should have no place in war.

Naturally, we are quite far along the warfare track since the days of bows and arrows, but do the principles hold true? We have doctrines, such as the Geneva Convention to keep wars as honest as possible, but is this actually followed in reality, or is it merely a tool to lull the masses into thinking that war is still somehow a noble pursuit?

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Funny you mention it like this (honest wars), Shawn. I always had the impression that 'In war, truth is the first casualty'. Maybe this only partially relates to the kind of honour which you describe, but as an instrument of a nation's (or some independent group with political aims) foreign policy, war seems to be a reflection on the nations (or other groups) which do the fighting.

In the case of medieval England that you've given here, it looks like the English saw the way in which they fought as an expression of their culture and their view of themselves as human beings. I also remember seeing a doco about Gengis Khan and his Mongol warriors, who repeatedly used the 'honour' of other groups of fighters (particularly Teutonic Knights, etc) to decimate their numbers, by themselves using 'dishonourable' tactics such as ambushes, night raids and other forms of warfare which the Europeans, although much better armoured, were ideologically and tactically unprepared for. Western countries also express themselves in war nowadays by upholding things like the Geneva convention, by refraining from the indiscriminate use of landmines, by refraining from targeting non-combatant civilians, and by (officially) not employing torture. It seems to follow that any groups of people that do employ devices like these also do so due to, and as part of an expression of, their culture and their view of themselves and others as human beings.

Suppose we fought a battle and as victors we consummated our victory by eating out victims. Honourable? Maybe, depending on the culture (and possibly the time period) in which we fight. I figure the same applies to war in general. War is honourable if the people who fight it -- and especially the people who direct it to be fought -- are honourable.
War, in any capacity, is to be avoided... however, when it is necessary, I believe in using the most direct path to a resolution.

I agree some civility would be great. However, you cannot play by rules, just to be honorable, with a foe who is exploiting that honor.

If that means using gorilla tactics, bombing campaigns,torture or night raids... I'm ok with that.

The US does this all the time, and it makes me crazy. Why spend vast sums of tax payers money on a war, just to save the lives of people supporting our enemies?

If Alexander the Great had an ICBM and knew that Pakistan was harboring Bin Laden..or Dareios, what do you think he would do? A better question...why would he do it?
Honour has always been closely tied to War.

Throughout most of history, the honourable man was the warrior, both on the battlefield and in the political arena. Any Roman Senator who had ambitions to be a consul must have a clean war record, which means that he not only had to possess enough courage to chase down some Gauls, but also that he represented his people and his country with honour. In order to be honourable, a general had to fight bravely, treat the enemy with the respect they deserve, and bring his soldiers home. Athenians and Thebans would beat each other up on the battlefield and then pat each other on the back and go back to their farms, only to repeat it all a few months later.

Honour in war is treating the enemy with respect and understanding that we're all the same. I can hate you today, and will try to kill you, but I will fight by your side if a common enemy threatens us (think Greek city-states uniting against Persia).

It's much more difficult to find honour in the modern age. Guerrilla warfare, suicide bombers, bigger and bigger armoured weapons; it's easy to hide behind the weapons so that war has become more accessible to a larger portion of the general population. You don't have be brave anymore, because you can hide behind a tank. You don't have be honourable anymore, because you don't have to look your enemy in the eyes before you press a button and blown him up.

An honourable warrior recognizes their kin, whether English, Greek, Japanese, Mughal, or Zulu. A dishonourable warrior ignores all of this and cares only about self-preservation.

So, I think a more appropriate question is - Does honour exist in the age of modern warfare?
Neil, when you say "You don't have be brave anymore, because you can hide behind a tank" I beg to differ. The stomach churning fear of death is still present, and the fear of death still has to be overcome. I'd argue that with bullets flying at 900 m's a second, zipping above your head, and explosions going all around you, you'd be bloody scared and need all your courage to continue to fight, just like the warriors of yesterday.

Regarding tanks, with the rocket propelled grenades and mines of today, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near a tank.

Laws like the Geneva convention, whilst admirable are civilized rules imposed on madness, madness which tears at the fabric of what it is to be human, and there is no guarantee that conventions will be adhered to.

Whilst it is nice to talk about 'gentlemen warriors', ultimately war is kill or be killed. If you respect your enemy, why on earth are you shooting at him? (I do understand that in WW1 fighter pilots did have respect for each other however, and where known as the knights of the sky) It's horrible, but war has always been horrible. Madness, definately.

So, is war honourable? It depends on the cause. This then raises questions for Germans like Erwin Rommel, who by numerous accounts was a gallant man. He was fighting for a despicable regime. Is he still honourable?
Great points. Perhaps 'hide' was the wrong choice of word.

In this era, you're more likely to be killed by a stray bullet without knowing who shot it than to see the man shoving his spear into your chest. It's hard to say who is more honourable, since, as you say, it depends on the cause, and the person pulling the trigger.

My point was that it's much more difficult to witness the expression of honour in modern warfare than it was in the past, as the weapons we use make it easier to mask cowardice, not that modern warriors are more or less cowardly. A general pressing the big red button of death five thousand kilometers front the battlefront must still act with honour, else he kills without considering the cost.

Honourable warriors are the same regardless of the time and place.

I realize that I am using honour here as being synonymous with courage, and in the arena of warfare, bravery is inherent in honourable soldiers. But the concept of honour and acting honourably is greater than simply one definition.
That of course takes you to the current situation the US faces... Are the Taliban patriots, terrorists or both? Does it matter?

We have taken on the job of policing the world and spreading our ideals, even to those who do not want it. Our ignorance and insensitivity to other cultures and their history and status, combined with our arrogance, is the reason America is disliked in so many places.

That being said...

Would it be honorable or foolish to ignore superior technology at your disposal, just to keep things "fair" between you and the enemy?

I say foolish. I also say it is foolish to prolong a conflict to protect enemy civilians.

Going a step further, I say Nagasaki should have been our battle plan for the Gulf War, and "The War on Terror". It would have been much cheaper, and less of a burden on our economy.

I understand that is heartless to say. However, you don't pick a fight with someone and expect them not to do their worst.

What do you think?
I think one of the greatest factors in deciding whether an army (or country) is honorable in battle is how they treat civilians. There are those like the Taliban, who use civilian deaths to send a message with suicide bombings. Then there are others, who do the best they can to keep civilians out of it while still taking the fight to the enemy. Beyond a certain point, it may be appropriate to put the interests of your country first and kill civilians anyway. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, arguably one of those situations.

If you've ever read any of Dan Simmons' Hyperion or Endymion books, you're familiar with the "New Bushido" code. After years of planetary bombardments where millions or billions of innocent, mostly uninvolved civilians were killed, soldiers came up with New Bushido, designed to minimize civilian deaths. Battles were fought "between small, professional forces at a mutually-agreed upon time in a place where destruction of public and private properties would be kept to a minimum". Strategic bombing and nuclear weapons were forbidden in all but the most extreme cases.

In the case of the war on terror, its important to remember that its not an actual war. In say WWII, you might be justified in bombing cities and whatnot, since the entire country is more or less working to support the army. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy "army" makes up a very small portion of the population, and most of the population doesn't support them-but when we engage in random bombings and torture, the propaganda writes itself.

I'm sorry if this is long winded, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that even if your interests might be served by killing uninvolved civilians, other than in the most extreme circumstances it is dishonorable at best and murder at worst.
I agree.
First off the Geneva Convention has only been followed by both sides in only one war, look it up. So we play by the rules when no one else does.
For me war is honor.
You do not pick up stones against another man other for your honor. Weapons of warfare have changed. Mechanical distance allows for men to kill with impunity. But with all warfare at some point you will meet your enemy face to face. You many not have a weapon as I found myself. And when it was over I called that man my brother and I will seem him again someday but I was the stronger.... not the better... just the stronger.
Is there honor in war? Is there honor in defending your country? Is there honor in proving yourself better than another man? If you ask these questions, then my friends you do not understand warfare. When inside war your only goal is to get your boys and girls home, at least for me as a leader it was. Is there honor in war.... that is so hard for me to chew on. They are synonymous, war and honor. You will never see more valiant displays of incredible humanity. For me I think thats kind of the point of war, at the bottomless pit of human greed and insanity there are these brief shining moments where incredible and unbelievable acts of heroism and bravery leave you lost for words and filled with pride.
Short example it was another day in desert, we drove into a nice ambush. A fire fight ensued, bullets flying all around. Had a noobie (that means new guy) with us, his first mission out and he's getting shot at. We had an enemy take a run at us, noob leveled his sights and put one in his leg with some panic fire. So now this bad guy is on the ground screaming like crazy. Bullets whizzing by him. Me, I am tainted by this point so I could careless. These bullets are getting real close to this poor bastard though, worse yet they are coming from his own guys. So thats when it happened, nooby is up on his feet from behind his covered position and running into a hail of gun fire. I am so shocked I stop shooting. First thing noob does is knock the bad guy on the ground out then throws him over his shoulder and runs him back behind cover. Noob then does first aide on the guy placing a tourniquet on his leg and bandaging the hole he himself had made. He saved the guys life and later the enemy became and ally and saved our lives with valuable information.
I asked the kid a couple a weeks later why he had done that... believe me he caught hell from all the guys poking fun at him. He said that the Geneva convention said that once we wounded a man he was under our protection, and since he did the wounding it was his job to do the protecting. The kid missed the part where it says unless too dangerous in bold letters. Proud of that lil killer, he later earned a bronze star with a valor device for saving 4 soldiers and an Iraqi civilian. Is there honor in war, when was the last time any of ya'll saved a man you hated at the risk of your own life?
Thats a pretty incredible story there.
Well said. Unless one has risked their life for another then there is no way to explain what true honor is. Is there honor in war? No, war is not honorable in itself. There honor is those who will lay down and sacrifice for those who won't and those who can't.

Believe me there is no honor when your engaged in battle. It is bloody, dirty and ugly. The honor is being with those brave souls who will fight shoulder to shoulder with you and give their life to save yours.

To Adam's comment on the Taliban question they are terrorist thugs and in no way are they patriots. Any culture that allows for the torture and beating of any person, especially women are nothing more than thugs that only understand one way and that is you better be stronger and fight harder than them. So don't even try to start a conversation on whether they are terrorist and patriots.
An interesting perspective to take on the question of the death of honorable war is the rise of hate in war. Not the the necessity of an abstract nationalist hate for the "enemy" no matter who they might be, but the rise of the indoctrination in new recruits in military's across the world of teaching the common recruit to hate the opponent and love their fellow soldier, a phenomenon that can be traced back as far as some units of the Napoleonic wars, with a special emphasis on the Black Dragoons and the Hussars, but finds real root in the Boer war, and inevitably in World War 1. As the soldier begins to hate the enemy, as a necessary part of inspiring the needed courage to make them face machine guns and artillery, they lose their sense of a larger chivalric idea, as well as a regard for the rules of war. This goes hand in hand with the unitary utilitarianism displayed by generals throughout the first world war and since, which is well explored in the Guns of August. As war has progressively become a more and more cubist and post modern affair, with mass slaughter and charges into the guns once called "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre" by Field Marshals in attendance, became tools of the modern general, and the body counts accrued by them acceptable and expected.

The issue is not how we treat civilians, but the fact that we make that distinction. We are both better and worse than our predecessors. We have ceased shelling cities for no reason, and raping and pillaging, but we now expend that hate and vitriol on the enemies soldiers, having turned the modern battlefield into a butcher shop. There was never honor in war I think.


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