Is honour still a value?
A hundred years ago, WW1 exploded. Today it is difficult to say why such an incredible event occurred. It was avoidable. It should have been avoided. But the fact is—that conflict of apocalyptic dimensions started and spread, each day of its incredible development consuming more than 6,000 human lives—and this is only a rough average. The damages were not only in terms of deaths. The entire of Europe, prostrate, stretched out, would have known the epidemic of Spanish flu just after the war—with millions of other victims—and then Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, WW2, which many historians consider the prolongation of the first one, genocides and the long subjugation of Eastern Europe. A terrific domino that changed not only the political face of Europe but also had extraordinary impacts all over the world.
Italy, or that weird assembly called Italy, a sort of unity consisting of components that have been forced together, made of different cultures and histories and languages, so young, so unprepared, should have avoided, too, that useless massacre. However, I don’t want to speak today about that. What struck me was an article by John Lichfield, in The Independent, on 3 August 2014, dedicated to Sir Eduard Grey, for eleven years the foreign secretary of the British government—‘the most powerful foreign secretary in British history’. The article starts with a strong statement: ‘A hundred years ago today, an aristocratic fly-fisherman and reluctant politician rose in the Commons and sentenced 800,000 British soldiers and sailors to death.’ And then it continues: ‘Sir Eduard’s Commons speech was the most effective he ever made – and a largely dishonest one… The House was fearful and confused, still believing that war could be avoided (as the Cabinet had fondly hoped until a few days before). By the end, there were “loud cheers” when Grey suggested that Britain could not “run away” from “obligations of honour”.’ So, through only one speech and the aimed indication to honour, the British government declared war.
By the way, even if it is not central in our discourse, Sir Eduard’s speech was dishonest—according to John Lichfield—because he declared that he had worked to preserve peace (while he had the key to defuse the conflict, but he didn’t use it); because he told the Commons that France too had no desire to be involved in war over a dispute with Austria, while he knew very well that France had been egging Russia into a showdown with Germany for weeks; and because ‘he warned of the threat to the coast of northern France if Britain remained neutral; a red herring since Germany had pledged not to use its fleet in this way. The passage was intended to stir pride in Britain’s mastery of the seas.’
In the second part of his speech, Sir Eduard underlined the ‘moral’ issue of Belgian neutrality, even if ‘a few days earlier, Britain (that is, Grey) refused to say clearly that a German invasion of Belgium would be a casus belli’.
Only in the final part of his speech did Sir Eduard admit the truth, but not in a clear way: the war was inevitable because self-interest prevented Britain from watching Europe fall under the domination of a single power, Germany.
Now, when studying the genesis of WW1, each country faced the same controversial issues: misunderstandings, red herrings, false statements, wrong sceneries, etc. So, I’m not surprised by Sir Eduard’s ambiguity. In the end, it was clear that ‘morality and honour were just window-dressing’. John Lichfield adds: ‘a recently discovered letter suggests that George V also believed that Realpolitik demanded the defeat of Germany. The king urged Grey the day before the Commons speech to look for a pretext to fight.’
So, if we are forced to make a synthesis of Britain’s position, a) Realpolitik pushed for military intervention aimed at preventing the dominating power of Germany; b) the cost of the fight against Germany would have been enormous (‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them again in our lifetime’); and c) the best ‘manipulation’ was based on ‘obligations of honour’. Thus, 800,000 British soldiers and sailors were sentenced to death.
Be careful, I’m not judging Britain or Sir Eduard Grey. As I said, each country faced the same problems back then, the same lack of clarity, the same distance between the desires of the population and the will of the leaders, perhaps the same dose of fatalism to the human costs of war. Yes, there is a sense of fatalism that pervades the start of WW1 and its development, as if the politicians were unable to oppose fate and ruin.
What hit me is the great power of the word ‘honour’, its meaning and value.
Honour is a strange ‘quality’ (the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right), you know, and maybe linked with an Old Testament-like approach. Sooner or later, in fact, someone or something will threaten or challenge your honour, your great esteem. And to save your honour you have to react. In an Old-Testament world, that means vengeance, mere, clear vengeance (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth): to keep your honour, sooner or later you need recourse to vengeance.
Nowadays, in individual terms, we are told that we must look for justice—because there is an overall justice that can provide for us. Our state, our government must provide for justice. So, what is morally right is to call for justice and wait for justice.
Thus, justice is another value, another ‘quality’. In short, we leave and in a certain sense delegate our honour to an external body able to assure justice and so to safeguard our honour as a person.
In terms of relationships among different countries, they tried to set up a body—before WW2 it was the League of Nations, now it is ONU—intended to supply justice and so to safeguard both peace and the honour of each single country. The League of Nations undisputedly failed. ONU has a very huge and increasing percentage of failures, and has showed many misunderstandings, red herrings, false statements, wrong scenarios, etc. ONU is a very controversial body, less authoritative the more complex the world is becoming. Maybe, also because of an unresolved dispute between the concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘justice/honour.’ Is peace an absolute value, stronger than justice/honour? Or vice versa? What should we defend first, peace or justice? What will be the long-term consequences of our choice between peace and justice? Would unconditional peace drive the world to an unbalanced, unfair and unjust situation, where the strong subdue the weak? Will a determined sense of justice push the world to an uncontrollable state of fighting?
In any case, the state of injustice creates tensions that can become uncontrollable, and today justice among countries (the only one that we are supposed to have, through ONU) is not working, as the world would. Moreover, many times, the concept of honour is used as in the past as a window-dressing to cover reasons of power or economics. So many times, wars have exploded without comprehensible and coherent reasons, and manipulations based on the concept of honour/justice have emerged only after, when the consequences and the results of the fighting were unchangeable. Think about the Western countries’ military intervention in Libya in 2011, for example.
In the end, what I want to mark is the discrepancy between the use of ‘honour’ in individual terms (of which defence is strongly condemned: you are just a primitive if you defend your honour by yourself) and the use of the same ‘quality’ in terms of countries and relationships among countries, that concept of honour so strong and followed that covers other dubious reasons too.
An entire nation was ready to condemn generations of young men to death but it was not to run away from obligations of honour (which were fake, by the way), and this possibility of manipulation and explosion is still present today, let us be aware, because nothing deep has changed in a hundred of years.
I feel a victim of hypocrisy.