The Soldier’s Honor

You can say a lot of things about a soldier without cutting him too deeply. Tell him that he’s stupid or ugly or uncouth or foul-smelling, and you might not even get an argument. Tell him that he lacks honor, and you are sure to get a passionate response.

Honor is at the heart of soldiering. It is one of the seven Army Values that every soldier starts to learn from the first day of Basic Training. Every officer (even the ROTC version) is shaped by the West Point motto: duty – honor – country.

For soldiers, there is no higher accolade than “honor” and there is no word more damning that “dishonor.” The highest award that a soldier can receive is the “Medal of Honor.” Conversely, the worst way of leaving the Army is by way of a “Dishonorable Discharge.” This description is not coincidental. A discharge for incompetence is merely administrative; a discharge for dishonorable acts is punitive. A “Dishonorable Discharge” can only be imposed by sentence of a General Court Martial and is usually considered a felony conviction.

No one can be angrier at a soldier who dishonors his uniform than another soldier. Dishonorable acts don’t only affect the victims; they stain the honor and good name of every other soldier, as well.

If anti-war Christians want to be in ministry with soldiers, they should know that words and actions which impugn soldier honor are among the most hurtful that they can use. If a Christian wants to understand what the word “dishonorable” feels like to a soldier, just imagine the word “faithless” or “unbeliever” or “heretic” being used to describe you.

To say that a person lacks honor is to move beyond the bounds of logical discourse; it is, instead, an attack upon one’s value as a human being. The ancient insult of spitting at a person gets at the visceral, non-rational aspect of honor. Perhaps that is why so many vets remember the “spitting on soldiers” incidents associated with the Vietnam era. I can’t say how prevalent such incidents actually were, but I know they captured the vets’ imagination. They dramatically illustrated the message, “Hang your head in shame, soldier, for you have no honor as far as we are concerned.”

Soldiers take their honor very seriously. It is a treasure to be protected. In a much earlier age, insulting a Soldier’s honor might have meant pistols at twenty paces. There is a reason that Article 114 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits dueling. In fact, dueling has been prohibited by military law since the very first Articles of War (30 June 1775). While there is nothing good to be said for dueling, the concept of “death before dishonor” serves a very useful purpose. Soldiers risk their lives to accomplish the mission in the midst of dangerous and soul-numbing circumstances. The Soldier’s sense of honor helps them do the right thing both on and off the field of battle.

Some may see honor as a useless relic of another age or culture. David deSilva has a good discussion of honor in the New Testament era in Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity. Many of these values live on today in Eastern cultures. Unfortunately, all that we in the West usually see is how a twisted sense of honor has caused some horrible crime.

In the context of military service, I don’t believe that the concept of honor is outdated. I think that America wants – or should want – its soldiers to value their honor. A Soldier’s sense of honor is not only important for achieving success on the battlefield, it is also important for preventing war crimes and other dishonorable acts inflamed by the passions and circumstances of war. If the profession of arms is not considered honorable, then Soldiers have no honor to lose. A nation that denies its soldiers honor will not get the Army that it wants or needs.