Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared

It’s said that, when asked why he had escalated America’s military campaign in Vietnam, US president Lyndon Johnson pulled down his trousers, whipped out his male member, and said “That’s why!’

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s quite plausible. For LBJ, Vietnam was nothing if not a test of manhood. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward … an unmanly man, a man without spine.”

It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man. But there’s something to it. And as I detailed in my 2006 book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, LBJ is hardly unique. Throughout the ages, war – like international politics generally – has been powerfully influenced by the search for honour, and perhaps even more by the desire to avoid dishonour.

One you realize this, a lot of international politics suddenly makes sense. Modern Westerners tend to be a bit uncomfortable with the language of honour. It sounds a bit archaic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant – just that we’re not very good at recognizing it in ourselves. A case in point is the incident last week when a British warship sailed through what Russia claims are its territorial waters off Crimea. But before we get onto that, we first need to take a little diversion into academic theory.

Honour, as Aristotle put it, is “the reward for virtue.” What virtue consists of is something we’ll come onto in a moment, but the key point is that honour comes from displaying virtue. Honour also comes in two forms – external and internal, otherwise expressed by words such as prestige, reputation, face, etc. in the first instance, or like conscience and integrity in the second. Seen this way, honour is, according to a well-known definition, the worth of a person in his/her own eyes as well as the worth of a person in the eyes of others. Either way, it’s a measurement of worth. But of the two forms (internal and external) the first is the most important – the reason one wants to be considered worthy in the eyes of others is because it makes you feel worthy in your own eyes. Ultimately, honour is all about feeling good about yourself.

Another way of looking at honour is to divide it into two other types. The first is absolute, and is often associated with female honour. This type you either have or you don’t – you’re pure, and so honourable, until you aren’t and you’re not. The second type is relative and competitive – or “agonistic” in the technical jargon. This type is traditionally associated with male virtues – strength, courage, prowess, and so on. Honour of this type has to be perpetually defended, lest one loses one’s relative position. It requires one both to challenge others and to defend oneself any time one is challenged.

This latter type of honour tends to flourish where governance is weak, and people or institutions feel that they need to exert themselves in order to survive. This gives it an instrumental purpose. But it also tends to get detached from this purpose. Strength, courage, prowess etc are considered important in the sense of being necessary to defend against threats. Because of that, societies tend to promote them as virtues, rewarding their display. The result is that people internalize them and feel a need to display these virtues even when it’s not appropriate. Because virtue and worth have become associated with strength, courage, prowess etc, showing strength, courage, prowess, etc becomes almost an end in itself – or at least, a psychological necessity to avoid the sense of shame that comes from failing to live up to the standard of virtue.

The result is a lot of utterly unnecessary conflict, as individuals, including state leaders, feel the need to challenge one another and respond forcibly to anything that is perceived to be a challenge.

Which brings us on to the shenanigans of the Royal Navy last week off the coast of Crimea.

In a recent post, I speculated as to what inspired this particular piece of foolish derring-do. Now we have an answer, courtesy of some waterlogged Ministry of Defence documents found abandoned behind a bus stop in Kent. In these, anonymous defence officials predicted that the Russian response to a British incursion into Crimean waters might be fairly forceful. But they also concluded that this was no reason not to direct the British warship HMS Defender to sail through the waters in question. Were that to happen, said the documents, people might get the impression of “the UK being scared/running away.”

At which point, I hope, the connection with what I said earlier becomes clear. One might imagine that the Russian-British spat was a matter of high principle or national interest. In reality, it’s about not wanting to look cowardly.

In effect, the Russian annexation of Crimea was a “challenge” to the West. As such, the logic of honour requires a response. Failing to face up to the challenge by sailing around Crimea would have meant ducking the challenge, and as such was unacceptable. The fact that the Russians might respond forcefully made meeting the challenge even more essential. If there was no chance of a forceful response, there wouldn’t be any cowardice in failing to meet it. It was precisely the possibility that things might turn violent that made the escapade necessary.

This seems strange, but the logic is entirely in keeping with the perverse incentives provided by the honour code. The possibility that an incident might escalate into war isn’t a reason to back off; it’s actually all the more reason to press on.

The thing about this, though, is that the challenge in question was purely imaginary. It existed in the minds of the Royal Navy, but not anywhere else. People weren’t actually going to think that the British were a bunch of cowards if they decided to sail from Odessa to Georgia by some other route. In fact, nobody would have noticed, let alone cared.

Thus, going back to what I said earlier, the internal aspect of honour is what matters here – it’s all about self-perception rather than the perception of others. What’s driving this is a feeling in the British establishment that their status in the world isn’t what it was. The sense of internal dishonour this provokes makes them feel bad about themselves. And so they incite a conflict in order to boost their self-esteem.

If you have a spare hour, I recommend Bill Moyer’s documentary LBJ’s Road to War. A lot of it consists of recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls with his advisors about Vietnam. What comes out of it is that all concerned knew that escalating the war was a bad idea and wouldn’t succeed. But more important from LBJ’s point of view was that he didn’t want to look weak. And the rest as they say, is history. The lesson is obvious, and its one that the Brits – and everybody else – would do well to learn.

28 thoughts on “Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared”

  1. Yes. More scared of taking the marginally longer route and being called a coward by US/Ukraine that doing the smart thing.

    This may well play out for BoJo though, when the US don’t enter Crimean water in next week or two.


    1. Some faulty commentary from another direction:

      I don’t agree that the recent UK act in the Black Sea was coordinated and approved by the US to provoke Russia. Note how quickly that Brit naval stunt was removed from prime news on the BBC, with US mass media not paying too much attention to it. US foreign policy politicos were also relatively limited in their support for Britain and condemnation of Russia.

      The reason for this lack of attention is twofold, having to do with a flat-out dumb move on the part of the UK and the Biden administration currently seeking to tone down its differences with Russia. Biden spoke of recognizing red lines. Putin no doubt told him what Russian red lines are.

      While being provocative towards Russia, the UK government also sees itself as America’s close, if not closest ally. Slowly, the West is acknowledging Kiev regime Ukraine’s shortcomings, as evidenced with Ted Galen Carpenter’s recent commentaries in The National Interest. He’s saying the same thing I did awhile back.

      As I previously said to some, the best whataboutism of 2021 might be Peter Hitchens who said: “So, say the Russian navy (even more clapped-out and shrunken than ours) managed to find a ship in good enough condition to get to the South Atlantic. Say it then loaded aboard some Moscow journalists. And say the Russians decided they were actively backing Argentinian claims to the ‘Malvinas’.”


      Some disagreement with Hitchens’ comparative reference regarding the Russian and British navies:


  2. Meh. To begin with, I doubt that Lyndon Johnson was afraid of looking weak as Lyndon Johnson, the person. He didn’t want the country to look weak. And that perfectly rational. Prestige. Respect. You show weakness, you lose respect, things start falling apart. Watch any mafia movie.

    Also, the Russian annexation of Crimea wasn’t, didn’t have to be, a challenge to the West. Actually, I feel that all the protestations, denunciations, all the hysteria was precisely a result of Russia showing weakness, allowing the West to take Ukraine. Sending a unit of paratroopers to Kiev in February 2014 would’ve prevented the whole sorry affair. And there would’ve been far less stink in the aftermath. Everyone would’ve understood: this is how it is, end of story. But Russia shows a weakness, so a pack of predators attacks. Naturally. There’s a reason why Putin likes those old Kipling’s allegories so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t understand people who propose the idea that Russia should have invaded Ukraine and taken Kiev.

      Who wants Ukraine?

      Why would anyone want to take over a hostile country?

      Ukraine is an independent country and it’s made its choices for better or worse – they have been governed by thieves and corrupt individuals – but I believe that at some point it will come right for them – they have to find their own way it can’t come from outside.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Not to ‘take over a hostile country’, but to restore the legitimate, elected government: the president and the majority party.

        Ukraine didn’t make choices. It collapsed, got dismantled, by unconstitutional seizure of power.

        The RF, as a highly interconnected neighbor, should’ve interfered, I believe. But the Kremlin fucked up, miscalculated. I remember Putin saying, in 2014, that the RF won’t need to intervene because the Ukrainian military will never shoot at Ukrainian women and children. Well, it has been shooting them for years now, and still does. He fucked up. This is only my personal opinion, obviously.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It is times like this that I feel embarrassed to be English, my Father fought for this Country in the 2nd world war/Great war. Russia were Allies to the UK and USA when fighting the Nazi socialists, then it was decided that Russia was an enemy – not by the people but but their respective Governments! To see how England/former UK has degenerated into a cesspit of lies, and moral degenerates, and where a minority of weirdo’s influence society makes many of us very sad, England is turning into a very depressing place to live, it is certainly not what my Father or anyone else who fought for this Country and gave their lives envisaged. I cannot apologize for my Government’s behaviour, there is no excuse for their constant lies, propaganda and deceit on a world-wide scale. This episode with the British Ministry Of Defense being caught lying publicly on UK media by someone leaving secret documents in a bus station should be a warning to all British citizens – and indeed all the world, do not believe a word our Government or any of it’s representatives say – regardless of political party.

    God bless you Russia, I wish you well.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for writing this Prof Paul – what this reveals is just how isolated the British establishment is, being unable to see the world from other peoples points of view
    The insecurity demonstrated by the British Establishment also shows that at some level the fact that Britain is not longer as important as it was has filtered through and that some people are desperate to show that Britain is still relevant by pulling off stupid stunts – a pretty hazardous situation
    I wonder what part Bo Jo is playing in this or was it some lower level nitwit

    The whole point about inner honour and self perception explains a great deal about virtue signalling in many spheres

    Liked by 1 person

  5. …I heard this theory (from Dmitry Dzhangirov) that the post-brexit UK becomes — to a higher degree than before anyway — a tool of the US foreign policy, an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. And for an aircraft carrier there’s nothing more dangerous than peace and tranquility: it becomes unimportant, unneeded. So, this could be a British reaction to the Geneva summit. Or it could be a coordinated (with the US establishment) attempt to increase instability; Petrov&Boshirov can only go so far. Who knows.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man.”

    Not to mention (literally not to mention!?) the untold number of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers who perished in that war.
    The Vietnamese themselves estimate that :

    “As many as 2 million civilians on both sides [i.e., Vietnamese civilians on both sides, not American civilians] and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters” perished in this war.

    Don’t Vietnamese lives count for anything?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point about the Vietnamese lives!

        What disgusted me about the British behaviour is the complete disregard for the lives of those sailors.

        A provocation is not innocent passage

        All those involved in agreeing to this adventure in the Black Sea have no honour.

        ///the best way for Russia to deal with a country so hung up on status and honour and being a world power is to ignore them.

        ///reduce the status of the embassy so that their is no ambassador to the UK

        Liked by 1 person

    1. P.P.S. – sorry, not to belabor the point (which I will proceed to do) but:

      That whole concept of “honour” or “chivalry”, I won’t say it’s just a Westie thing, because Eastern cultures like China, Japan, India, etc., they have that heritage too.

      But in any culture, Honour/Virtue is definitely a “class” or “caste” based concept.
      For example, in Western rules of chivalry (just picking that because I’m more familiar with Westie culture than Eastern), the virtuous knight must protect the sexual “honour” of high-born ladies, but is permitted to rape peasant girls at will, and even have their families torn apart by their hunting dogs, as needed.
      See, it’s all class/caste based. Lower class people literally don’t count. And that’s exactly what America was fighting for in Vietnam War: The honour and pride of the local compradore elites who were members of the landowning and capitalist classes. The lives of millions of peasants literally didn’t matter, they’re just grist to the imperialist mill, and are not even considered to be human beings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Samurai had the right to lop off a Japanese peasant’s head if he showed an inkling of disrespect to his superior. Bushido code of “honour”!


      2. There you go. These universal human “codes of honour” are disgusting, immoral, and implicitly violent. How about we institute new non-class-based rules of chivalry. Starting with:

        1. Let’s be nice to everyone and treat every human being with respect, even if said person is a slave or lives in a cardbox box. And not demean said person, nor lop off their head.


      3. the virtuous knight must protect the sexual “honour” of high-born ladies, but is permitted to rape peasant girls at will, …

        I guess the larger legal context was what made Shakespeare’s first play, a tale of friendship, superficially judged, so interesting. The Two Gentleman of Verona. 😉 Rape, Friendship, somewhat hidden traces of homosexualit via Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour, (1531). …


      4. The Vietnamese actually had the advantage because they really were fighting for their honor, whereas the Americans were being asked to commit crimes against a weak and non threatening “enemy” and were dishonoring themselves and their country, which eventually lost the war. This lesson has not yet been learned by the ghouls in the arms industry and their bought congressmen.


  7. Not to mention that Britain actually violated international Law. No matter if the countries border they violate is occupied or not, thye occupying country has then the duty to defend that countries security.
    ” Occupation also extends to the occupied State’s territorial waters (internal waters and territorial sea) to the extent that effective control is established over the adjacent land territory. Under the law of armed conflict, the occupant may take measures to ensure “public order and safety” in the occupied territory, including its territorial waters. In particular, the occupying Power may take measures “to ensure the security of the Occupying Power, of the members and property of the occupying forces or administration, and likewise of the establishments and lines of communication used by them.” Under the laws of armed conflict, the occupying power has the right to suspend in all or in parts of the territorial sea of the occupied territory the innocent passage of foreign ships, if it considers it necessary for imperative reasons of security.”

    But flouting international laws has been a sport by both the USA, Britain and France – i.e. Nato especially – ever since the conflict in Yugoslavia.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The whole thing has been positively Pythonesque. The British have been sold a dead parrot … again.

    British elites obsessing about themselves whilst the country burns to the ground and Covid deaths per capita are the worst in Europe.

    The British military are but vultures wishing they were Eagles – Iraq and Afghanistan proved as much, obviously they never learn.


    1. “Pythonesque” – I like that word!

      There are also elements of Gilbert & Sullivan here, the hubris and puffery of imperial greatness.
      I think it would have been funnier, when the HMS Pinafore sailed into the Black Sea, if all the sailors had burst out singing, something like, “For I AM an Englishman!” Then the Russians could have had a good laugh too, instead of everybody getting so stressed out.


    1. Russian jets not only chased Dutch ship away, but disrupted their electronics. Good for Russia!
      Although I expect this was some kind of drill to peek into Russian systems, and some intel might have been gained for NATO.
      Oh well, what can you do? Russia said next time they will start dropping bombs on the boats. Do what you gotta do!


  9. Sorry folks, just obsessing about that whole “honour/virtue” thing, because the Professor’s post really got me thinking about these concepts.
    I think most intelligent people can agree, that these concepts are class-based and impact only the upper classes. And that they are basically violent in nature, or lead to extreme violence. As in: One man’s honour is another man’s concussion.

    Case in point: in America the southern slave-owners regarded themselves as a kind of “aristocracy” and worked out a similar “code of honour” as other aristocracies do. Their “honour” was insulted if a slave got uppity, and their “virtue” was to respond with extreme violence. Even after slavery was abolished, these concepts of “honour” were extended to the white lower class, who were told they were entitled to blood honor if n-words got too uppity. So you had this situation where white crackers felt like they were the heirs to some type of weird aristocracy, with all its violent mannerisms.

    Example: Earlier this month, America “celebrated” the centennial of one of the worst racial pogroms in history, , the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Which started, as they all do, with supposedly saving the “honor” of a white female, in this case an ordinary teenage girl (who didn’t really want or need this mob’s help, thank you very much, as she was secretly dating the negro lad in question). Anyhow, it has always been a feature of violent racism in America that white “honor” must be defended, and that said defense is considered an act of “virtue”.

    Not that Africans are any superior in this regard, as individual persons. Within African societies themselves, there was the same division into “noble” and “not so noble”, and within the “nobility” the same habits of abuse. One man’s “honour” is another man’s degradation. Case in point: the famous story of Queen Nzinga (some African kingdom, present-day Angola, more or less), whose “honour” was threatened by the rudeness of the Portuguese ambassador, when he did not offer her a seat. To reassert her “honour” and display her “virtue”, Nzinga ordered her servant girl to get down on all fours so that Nzinga could sit on her, like a chair! How very virtuous of her! A truly “virtuous” person would have just sat down on the floor, side by side, and really give a scolding to that rude and ungallant Portuguese fellow: “Is this the way you treat beautiful women in your supposedly chivalrous society? Whereas the English Sir Walter Raleigh would have spread out his cloak for me…”


  10. article on the BMPD blog – a Russian military blog (in Russian) –
    ” In our opinion, the appearance of the British ship in the Crimean waters was primarily aimed at the Ukrainian audience and leadership, and only then pursued some interests in relation to Russia. This conclusion is prompted by the logic of the development of cooperation between the UK and Ukraine in 2020-2021″


  11. Two things on LBJ. First, no one knows the impact of the JFK assassination on LBJ. Some say he was terrified of being the next target, as if he understood why JFK had been murdered. Second, back in the sixties honor may still have played a part in combatting the communist bogeyman. Can we say the same today? Is there any honor is slaughtering defenseless civilizations that have no idea how they are the target for what seems to be the wrath of God? How can American servicemen feel any pride in what they are being ordered to do? How long can these men and women feel pride in endless drills and simulated battles and weapons operations conveying psychopathic death and destruction of the world?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s