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March 09, 2006

The Death of Honor

Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?

- William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997

I've been pondering these words for several days now since a friend sent them to me. Honor is a term which seems to have fallen out of our modern lexicon; a value deemed no longer worth fighting for. Keeping our word, fulfilling promises made to friends and allies, championing our ideals, standing up for what is right are indulgences the world's most affluent and powerful nation can no longer afford, to hear our leaders on Capitol Hill tell it. After twenty-one centuries of modern recorded history, if the flower of human civilization has not advanced to the point where we can afford to keep our word, when will we get there, I wonder?

The death of honor is a subject we touch on periodically in other halls. But honor is a coin which no longer counts for much in today's currency. Offer it to the modern man, and like as not he will call you a counterfeiter, or spurn it as fool's gold. In the unbalanced moral scales of twenty-first century life, reality is never so important as how we feel about things. Oddly, the appearance of courage is far more impressive than the real thing, especially if you spend most of your time telling other people how brave you are:

Now for a few humble thoughts about the Oscars.

I did not see every second of it, but my wife did, and she joins me in noting that there was not one word of tribute, not one breath, to our fighting men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan or to their families or their widows or orphans. There were pitifully dishonest calls for peace -- as if the people we are fighting were interested in any peace for us but the peace of the grave. But not one word for the hundreds of thousands who have served and are serving, not one prayer or moment of silence for the dead and maimed.

How does this happen - this bizarre unreality, this American Dummitude in which black becomes white, terrorists become freedom fighters, and George Clooney, reigning prince of denial, makes a movie like Syriana?

The political hero is the Arab prince who wants to end corruption, inequality and oppression in his country. As he tells his tribal elders, he intends to modernize his country by bringing the rule of law, market efficiency, women's rights and democracy.

What do you think happens to him? He, his beautiful wife and beautiful children are murdered, incinerated, by a remote-controlled missile, fired from CIA headquarters in Langley, no less -- at the very moment that (this passes for subtle cross-cutting film editing) his evil younger brother, the corrupt rival to the throne and puppet of the oil company, is being hailed at a suitably garish ``oilman of the year'' celebration populated by fat and ugly Americans.

What is grotesque about this moment of plot clarity is that the overwhelmingly obvious critique of actual U.S. policy in the real Middle East today is its excess of Wilsonian idealism in trying to find and promote -- against a tide of tyranny, intolerance and fanaticism -- local leaders like the Good Prince. Who in the greater Middle East is closest to ``Syriana's'' modernizing, democratizing paragon? Without a doubt, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, a man of exemplary -- and quite nonfictional -- personal integrity, physical courage and democratic temperament. Hundreds of brave American (and allied NATO) soldiers have died protecting him and the democratic system they established to allow him to govern. On the very night the Oscars will be honoring ``Syriana,'' American soldiers will be fighting, some perhaps dying, in defense of precisely the kind of tolerant, modernizing Muslim leader that ``Syriana'' shows America slaughtering.

It gets worse. The most pernicious element in the movie is the character who is at the moral heart of the film: the physically beautiful, modest, caring, generous Pakistani who becomes a beautiful, modest, caring, generous ... suicide bomber. In his final act, the Pure One, dressed in the purest white robes, takes his explosives-laden little motorboat head first into his target. It is a replay of the real-life boat that plunged into the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors, except that in ``Syriana's'' version, the target is another symbol of American imperialism in the Persian Gulf -- a newly opened liquefied natural gas terminal.

The explosion, which would have the force of a nuclear bomb, constitutes the moral high point of the movie, the moment of climactic cleansing, as the Pure One clad in white merges with the great white mass of the huge terminal wall, at which point the screen goes pure white. And reverently silent.

That this silence is meant to punctuate the climax of the film is no accident. That it echoed a shuddering climax of a far more unseemly sort on Mr. Clooney's behalf as he savored the thrill of Speaking Truth to Power is something I have no doubt of either.

How brave of him. No doubt the Patriot Act goons will come for him any moment now, as they came for Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, the Ditzy Chicks, and all the myriad artistes who dared to question the BusHitler's mad exercise of the Will to Power during the last five years. But as their haunted voices cry out to us from the mass graves under Hollywood and Vine, no doubt another courageous soul will raise the bloody standard and bravely soldier on.

How did we get to this point, where we sit meekly by and allow men like Clooney to distort reality so obviously? We should, of course, allow him to say whatever he wishes. Ths is a precept we rightly take for granted, for this is the American way. Freedom of speech. Democracy. Even fools like George Clooney get to speak their piece.

That he should do so unopposed by most of us when the 'truth' he is selling runs so manifestly counter to reality is another matter entirely. That we continue to vote with our dollars for the wrong things, or that we fear to oppose wrongheaded ideas with opposing speech for fear of seeming intolerant is a fearful thought, for there is nothing frightening or intolerant in the clash of mere ideas.

If we are no longer willing to stand up for what we believe in, we risk losing all. The rest of what my friend sent me is here. You may have seen it before. It is worth reading again in its entirety, though I quote just a small excerpt:

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me:

"Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident." This is true. Remember, the murder rate is six per 100,000 per year, and the aggravated assault rate is four per 1,000 per year. What this means is that the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another. Some estimates say that two million Americans are victims of violent crimes every year, a tragic, staggering number, perhaps an all-time record rate of violent crime. But there are almost 300 million Americans, which means that the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year. Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million.

Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin's egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers, and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful.? For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.

"Then there are the wolves," the old war veteran said, "and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy." Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.

"Then there are sheepdogs," he went on, "and I'm a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf."

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed

Let me expand on this old soldier's excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep live in denial, that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids' schools.

But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid's school. Our children are thousands of times more likely to be killed or seriously injured by school violence than fire, but the sheep's only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their child is just too hard, and so they chose the path of denial.

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, can not and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheep dog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.

Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, "Baa."

Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.

I was reminded of it the other day, perhaps ironically, after commenting on Iraq:

"People are not meant to be sheep. They want to be free, even when freedom brings insecurity, worry, electricity that doesn't work and shortages of certain commodities".

But Iraq, like Israel, Beslan, September 11th, and the post-Katrina Superdome in New Orleans pose vivid reminders that it takes just a few wolves to sow chaos among even millions of largely peaceful sheep. Yet who do we sheep (for most of us are, though we'd rather not admit it, closer to sheep than sheepdogs) blame when tragedy strikes?

Not the wolves, certainly. They might bite back.

We blame our leaders, our protectors. The sheepdogs. Those who want to take action, not those who encourage us to keep our heads firmly between our knees. Dummitude, the last defense of those who refuse to defend themselves or allow others to defend them adequately, kicks in.

"Why didn't you keep us safe?", we demand? "How could this have been avoided?". The questions come thick and fast. "What did you know, and when did you know it?". Investigations follow. Recommendations are made for security measures we have no intention of allowing in a "free society". Senators and pundits focus like a laser beam on one issue while completely ignoring questions of equal or greater import. Why do we bother?

The truth is that many Americans - too many - trust those who keep us safe far less than those who prey on us. After all, we can always ignore the ones who prey on us. They remain in the shadows most of the time, hidden from our sight.

The sheepdogs live among us.

They are different from us, and this makes us profoundly nervous.

We don't like the fact that they follow a stricter set of rules than we do. That they starch and iron their uniforms. That they carry guns. That they follow commands, have ranks, and stand at attention, salute, and call each other 'sir'. It's all so un-egalitarian. We don't really understand how they can submit to this. They must be mindless dupes, brainwashed automatons who can only follow orders and never had an original or rebellious thought in their lives.

We don't like the fact that they cut their hair a certain way, and keep their weight down, and PT once a day. All this regimentation seems somehow unnatural to us. We can't help suspecting that, given half a chance, they'd like to impose this lifestyle by force on the rest of America.

What the watchers, the suspicious ones, the media and Hollywood elite who glutinously feast on the benefits of freedom but are mysteriously nowhere to be found when the bill comes due, fail to realize is that the pony-tailed guy next door, the one with the slight beer belly, who doesn't talk much but seems like a regular guy, was once one of the sheepdogs and would be again if his country needed him. What foolish sheep don't realize is that those rules, that hidebound code of conduct that irks them so much is the best guarantee they have that the sheepdogs won't turn suddenly and savage them. That is why they submit to it, gladly, though at times it galls them too. They understand the reason it exists.

It exists to protect things worth defending. And in the end, the defining difference between the sheepdog and the sheep he protects is that the sheepdog is willing to defend those things, with his life if need be, so that they do not pass away.

So the next time you hear a lot of overheated pontification about how our precious freedoms are being eroded by the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, or the war in Iraq, ask yourself this question: precisely what is the speaker willing to give up to guarantee those freedoms for future generations? Which of his precious rights will he give up in service to a greater good? Which of his luxuries?

I can almost guarantee you the answer will be: not one damn thing.

Ask yourself a second question: what has the speaker risked by saying what he or she just said? Again, the answer is clear: despite all the blather, absolutely nothing.

When is the last time a big Hollywood star like George Clooney was sent to Guantanamo Bay for making a movie like Syriana? His speaking truth to power cost him precisely nothing. Contrast his "courage" with the unbelievable bravery on display each day at Walter Reed Hospital, where our combat wounded face painful and debilitating injuries with a fortitude Mr. Clooney can't even begin to imagine. That's a power he can't begin to speak truth to: the indomitable power of the human spirit when it believes in something more enduring than simple self-interest.

When was the last time a journalist went to jail for defending freedom? Judy Miller chose to spend 85 days in the Alexandria detention center to defend her "right" to defy a federal grand jury investigation into whether the identity of a "covert" agent had been leaked to the media, something that, if true, would make her a willing accessory to a federal crime. She got a cushy book deal out of the bargain. The real irony of her 'principled stance' is that she was obstructing an investigation her own employer, the New York Times, had demanded. Is this a "freedom" we really want to defend - the freedom to shield an accused 'criminal' from investigation?

Meanwhile, half a world away, 150,000 men and women lay their lives on the line every day for an idea: the notion that freedom is for everyone, not just affluent white Christian capitalist nations. And they are also defending another very important principle. The concept that the United States of America will not retreat before the kind of men who fly planes into buildings full of innocent civilians or strap bombs to teenagers. That democracy - and freedom - still matter. That they are still worth defending, even more than 200 years after the ink has dried on the Declaration that breathed life into them and the Revolution that gave them form and substance. That we shouldn't surrender our rights to the madman who threatens us from the shadows.

Like foolish children, we frighten ourselves with campfire stories because that is far less terrifying than contemplating the real monsters who lie in wait, ready to wreak havoc on our perfect world. It's always easier to contemplate the bad scary monsters of George Clooney's world if you are a sheep, because deep down inside, every single sheep-y one of us knows that not a single one of us will be forced to pay the ultimate price for our beliefs in his world unless we decide to, as the members of our armed forces have done.

And that is a truth Mr. Clooney does not want to face. Perhaps that is why he never mentioned them on Oscar night. Clooney imagines himself a brave man for speaking truth to power, but he is saying nothing that is unwelcome or unprecedented in the crowd in which he travels. There is, truly, no price to be paid for his 'courageous stance':

The brave guy in Hollywood will be the one who says that this is a fabulously great country where we treat gays, blacks, and everyone else as equal. The courageous writer in Hollywood will be the one who says the oil companies do their best in a very hostile world to bring us energy cheaply and efficiently and with a minimum of corruption. The producer who really has guts will be the one who says that Wall Street, despite its flaws, has done the best job of democratizing wealth ever in the history of mankind.

No doubt the men and women who came to the Oscars in gowns that cost more than an Army Sergeant makes in a year, in limousines with champagne in the back seat, think they are working class heroes to attack America -- which has made it all possible for them. They are not. They would be heroes if they said that Moslem extremists are the worst threat to human decency since Hitler and Stalin. But someone might yell at them or even attack them with a knife if they said that, so they never will.

Hollywood is above all about self: self-congratulation, self-promotion, and above all, self-protection. This is human and basic, but let's not kid ourselves. There is no greatness there in the Kodak theater. The greatness is on patrol in Kirkuk. The greatness lies unable to sleep worrying about her man in Mosul. The greatness sleeps at Arlington National Cemetery and lies waiting for death in VA Hospitals. God help us that we have sunk so low as to confuse foolish and petty boasting with the real courage that keeps this nation and the many fools in it alive and flourishing on national TV.


Posted by Cassandra at March 9, 2006 07:20 AM


I've been thinking quite a bit about the same topics -- probably because I read your blog, and so you've put me on the train of thought. :) I have a couple of posts up in the last day or so touching on the matter.

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 12:54 PM

I know. I've been reading, even if I don't always comment.

Sometimes you get me thinking and I want to say something that's too long or complicated for a comment. Or I just am too tired and I need to stop and think it over for a while. As I told you, I've just been working too many hours lately. Not conducive to clear-mindedness, as you can no doubt tell from my writing.

But sometimes it's better to attempt something and fall short than not to try at all, so I flail away in the limited time I have :)

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 01:10 PM

This talk of honor reminds me of a former aquaintence who gave the following toast to those assembled at a country club as it was being suggested he go home (he may have had too much to drink).

"Here is to honor.....getting honor and staying honor".

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 04:26 PM

Pile darlin', be careful.

You're so sharp you may cut yourself. You wouldn't, by any chance, have seen this fellow recently?

Perhaps in the mirror this morning when you were shaving?

*running away*

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 04:46 PM

Now you're paper thin
Yeah, they can see right through ya
You just cut you're little finger on the edge of the night...

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 04:47 PM

Me? No. I have been known to get drunk, and I love a spectacle as much as the next feller, but I don't like to be a drunken spectacle.

I merely bring it up as anecdotel evidence of the loss of honor.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 05:01 PM

Well I must say that is a relief.

If there is one thing I cannot abide (besides doddling service) it is an unsubtle drunk.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 05:14 PM

Nice use of Hiatt lyrics BTW.

The only bars I see these days have got lettuce and tomatoes.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 05:19 PM

You know, I shouldn't google lyrics though. I usually don't because I have a pretty good memory.

Those people are fricking illiterate and I knew those lines anyway by heart. I just wanted to see the whole song because I wasn't sure which stanza I wanted to use and it saved me time.

You just cut your little finger on the edge of the night

Morons... and I was in such a hurry I didn't even notice. What does that make me?

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 05:29 PM

The squirrels are going freaking insane in the mulch outside my window.

I had a stone retaining wall built on the other side of the walkway in front of the house and put a bed in it. In the winter all the hostas die back and so I have to keep it filled with mulch. They are diving in and out of the mulch, looking for all the nuts they buried last fall. It's hilarious.

Soooooo busy. I have these three metal quail thingies standing in the mulch by the iron railing going up the stone steps and there is the fattest squirrel in the known universe standing there looking at me like, "You want some of this?"

What a punk.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 05:34 PM

You just need to build you a a Tree Rat Launcher.

Posted by: Masked MenaceĀ© [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 06:34 PM

Where do you find stuff like that MM?

I would not want to be around when that particular nut buffalo seeks his revenge.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 06:43 PM


my brother told me about a different one. But I found that while searching for it.

Found it. It's not as good as the one he found, but still...

Posted by: Masked MenaceĀ© [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 07:01 PM

The laughter in the background puts me in the mind of serial killer.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 07:28 PM

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