Honor has always had an enormous influence on human affairs and the conduct of governments — until, evidently, the advent of President Joe Biden in the year 2021.
There’s no perspective from which his exit from Afghanistan looks good. But abstracting it from any considerations of honor at least takes some of the sting out of a deeply humiliating episode that would have been considered intolerable throughout most of our nation’s history.
It is dishonorable — even if you believe we had to get out — to throw away what we had sacrificed for in Afghanistan in this grotesquely reckless manner.
It is dishonorable to criticize our erstwhile Afghan friends, especially after we pulled the rug out from under them, and kowtow to our current Afghan enemies.
It is dishonorable to do things we told people repeatedly that we wouldn’t.
It is dishonorable to abandon Afghan allies who put it all on the line for us and believed that, if the worst came, we would get them out.
It is especially dishonorable, unfathomably so, to leave Americans behind enemy lines, a potentiality that the administration has been trying to prepare the American public for in recent days (and hopefully somehow won’t come to pass).
A counterexample that reflects a more traditional American approach is President Teddy Roosevelt’s famous handling of the Perdicaris Affair in 1904, which involved the massive deployment of naval firepower over the kidnapping of one American in a faraway land of which we knew nothing.
Roosevelt’s reflexive bellicosity can seem atavistic at a time when national honor has lost a lot of its purchase.
James Bowman, who wrote a book years ago called Honor: A History, argued that the declining influence of honor in our time is a function of the enormous destructiveness of modern warfare and the feminist and psychotherapeutic reactions to it.
But it hasn’t disappeared, and never will. “Honor is the name of one category of concerns and motives that has dominated relations among peoples and states since antiquity,” the great historian and classicist Donald Kagan once noted. “Although concepts of what is honorable and dishonorable can vary over time and place, sometimes superficially and sometimes deeply, and although other people’s ideas of honor, especially those of an earlier time, can seem silly or outmoded, such surface variations often conceal a fundamental similarity or even identity.”
As for TR, his response to the Perdicaris kidnapping combined a sense of outraged honor at the mistreatment of one American with a prudent view of what military force really could achieve. It added up to a successful foray in coercive diplomacy.
Both Jerry Hendrix in his book Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval Diplomacy and Edmund Morris in his biography of TR have good accounts of the episode. Ion Perdicaris was a 64-year-old expat who lived in Tangier. He was a prominent figure in the English-speaking community in the Moroccan town.
The sultan of Morocco had limited control over the country, with bandits running loose in outlying areas, especially the charismatic Moulay Ahmed el Raisuli.