Tag Archives: Honour

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.

Fighting for nothing

Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.

Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking Passchendaele? Why else throw the Sixth Army deeper and deeper into Stalingrad? Why else keep on fighting the Taliban long after it has become obvious that you’re never going to defeat them? The answer is that honour, under whatever name you choose to give it – face, prestige, credibility, reputation, self-respect, pride – is at stake, and so you keep on at it, however unsuccessful it may be.

According to Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving a political objective. The tactics chosen will thus reflect the objective in question, which may change as the war develops. At the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s object was to recapture its lost territories. It therefore focused its attention on capturing land and on strategic manoeuvres designed to destroy the enemy occupying that land. Now, though, it is quite obvious that recapturing the entirety of Donbass by military means is impossible. The objective, therefore, has changed. After the humiliating defeats at Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltsevo in February 2015, restoring lost pride is the only objective achievable. And so, the Ukrainian Army fights over villages which have ‘no military value whatsoever’ because they come to symbolize that pride. It is, in a way, rather more logical than it initially seems.

This, then, is what the war in Ukraine has come down to: restoring Kiev’s damaged pride. Ever since the Minsk-2 agreement in February this year, both sides have been shelling each other daily, probing each other’s lines, and exchanging small arms fire, without gaining more than a few yards here and there. From a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. But from a political point of view, abiding strictly by the terms of Minsk-2 would have meant that Kiev would have had to accept a political settlement forced upon it by a victorious enemy. The current small-scale fighting doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to a military victory, but it prevents that humiliation. If the warring parties in Ukraine weren’t fighting over Shirokino, they would have just have to fight over something else. In essence, fighting itself has become the aim. Muzhenko’s comment suggests that the General Staff don’t like this very much, and as a former army staff officer, I thoroughly sympathize. But given the prevailing political mood, I fear that there is very little that the General Staff can do about it, and the struggles over useless objectives will continue for some time yet.

Crackpot theory #4: Credibility is a vital interest

The fourth in my series on crackpot theories looks at the idea that nations must always be seen to be strong, lest they lose ‘credibility’ and thereby encourage others to attack them. This fits in with my class this week on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, which will examine ideas of honour and how they affect international relations.

The notion that ‘credibility’ is a vital national interest is at the core of the arguments of many foreign policy hawks. As Will Tobey and Will Imboden put it in Foreign Policy a year ago:

The most urgent matter is to re-establish the American credibility so regrettably squandered over the past several years — in Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing a surge and a retreat, in Iran with unenforced and ever-moving red lines, and in Syria with incomprehensible vacillation that left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a stronger position after American threats. Credibility is the coin of the realm in international politics. Allies and adversaries need to know again that America will defend its interests. When the president speaks of “consequences” and “costs” associated with violations of international law and failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the country cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve.

The language of credibility can be found again and again in justifications of wars. ‘U.S. Must Escalate Bombing In Bosnia to Boost Credibility,’ argued the Washington Post in 1994. ‘To walk away now would not only destroy NATO’s credibility but would also be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians,’ British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March 1999 in justification of NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. ‘To back down now would be the worst possible result’, a senior British official told The Guardian before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ‘We would have no credibility if Saddam Hussein was still in place.’ And so on.

Superficially, it seems logical that having a ‘credible’ reputation would protect one from aggression. There are, however, some serious problems with the theory:

  • However great one’s reputation, it can be destroyed by one moment of weakness, since credibility is only as good as the last time it was tested. It has to be continually defended. Consequently, one must be prepared to be forceful even over trivial matters. The result is disproportionate responses to minor crises, allied to an inability to distinguish between vital and non-vital interests. Credibility is supposed to keep one safe, but in the effort to avoid war, one runs the risk of being perpetually at war.
  • There is a lack of evidence that appearing weak does in fact invite attack in international relations. In essence the credibility theory is a variation of the old Domino Theory which justified America’s war in Vietnam. Yet, after the communists won the war in Vietnam, the dominoes did not fall. Indeed, far from becoming more aggressive, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War the Soviets reached out a hand to the West in the form of détente.
  • As Darryl Press has pointed out in his book Calculating Credibility, states do not base their judgements of other states’ likely actions based on those other states’ past behaviour, but rather on their assessment of  how important the issue in question is to others and what capabilities they have to do anything about it. The fact that you acted forcibly in one case will not convince others that you will do the same in another case in which a vital interest is not at stake and when you are in any case not capable of acting forcibly.
  • The credibility theory assumes that acting strongly will produce positive results. Often it doesn’t. One justification of the American invasion of Iraq was that American weakness elsewhere, such as in Somalia, had emboldened al Qaeda to attack the USA. The invasion of Iraq would restore America’s credibility. Instead, the insurgency which followed the invasion reinforced the image of American weakness.
  • If credibility is your objective, then in cases involving the use of force the objective is achieved the moment that force is first used. This means that there is little incentive thereafter to apply force in a manner designed to produce positive results. Wars fought for credibility are likely to be associated with poor strategy.
  • Using force over trivial matters may make others see you not as strong but as a bully. Rather than deterring enemies, the desire for credibility may create them.

In an interview last month, former British Defence Minister Liam Fox argued that the conflict in Ukraine ‘is about the credibility of NATO and the Western alliance. I think the defence of the Baltic, for example, begins in Ukraine.’ Consequently, says Fox, NATO needs to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe and also provide weapons to the Ukrainian Army. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has dragged Western states into unnecessary conflicts in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. It should be resisted.