On Memorial Day, Americans are asked to “honor” U.S. military members who fought and died to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the “values and ideals which set this Nation apart.” But to truly honor these members and the sacrifices they made, the nature of honor itself needs to be understood and practiced. In a world that pursues “winning at all costs,” honor may seem like an outdated ideal for an earlier time. But with disinformation on the rise, and efforts to combat disinformation beset by political division and personalized online attacks, understanding and embracing “honor” could increase respectful communication and resilience to mis- and disinformation campaigns. Embracing honor as integral to “American identity” and culture could help all Americans find a common ground to unite against enemies using disinformation to sow division and discord.
Though the idea of honor may have various definitions, it may generally be understood as having the following attributes: showing respect, adhering to a moral code or standard(s) of conduct, prioritizing dignity and humanity, doing what is right and fair, accepting responsibility, and speaking and acting with truth and honesty. Foremost, honor implies trustworthiness. And democracy requires communication that is trustworthy. Sources that consider alternative viewpoints in measured, fact-based, and respectful ways engender trust.
“Honor” as an American Standard of Communication
But how can we determine what sources are trustworthy when facts are in dispute? Honor can improve communication by creating a reliable standard of conduct we can trust. Specifically, sources that are honorable can be trusted, and those that “are not honorable” – that disrespect or ridicule others – should not be trusted. Being honorable does not require agreement, but it does require respect towards others. Respectful communication allows for debate based on facts instead of ad hominem or personal attacks. Personal attacks obscure the facts needed to ascertain the truth.
The denigration and disrespect of others could be a form of “narrative warfare,” in which those who tell the most compelling stories – rather than those who have the most robust or accurate facts – win the war for influence. Forms of communication that rely on stories that contain personalized attacks can appeal to base emotions. Using the above-described attributes of honor as a standard of communication, with a focus on how people communicate, could help to appeal to higher emotions to counter this destructive form of narrative.
In The Heart of Strategic Influence: Aristotle’s Contribution to Addressing DisInformation, Dr. Ajit Maan, CEO of Narrative Strategies and Professor of Global Security at Arizona State University and its Center for the Future of War, cites Aristotle for the idea that poetry, or narrative that speaks to the heart, cannot be simply countered with “truth” or “facts.” Thus, to counter disinformation, Maan argues we must explain “what the facts mean.” But while truthful information presented in a sterile form may not influence others, honor provides a reliable standard to convey meaningful facts. And a meta-narrative in which certain forms of engagement are considered more honorable could influence others by helping people find common ground – including a shared sense of honor that transcends temporary disagreements – and standing together against disinformation.
One could argue that authenticity, even if disagreeable to some, speaks to the heart and is honorable. But displays of authentic disrespect do not make one honorable. Honor requires the prioritization of humanity and dignity, and self-restraint. Thus, being honorable means controlling our conduct, regardless of the situation. And when we lose control and display less than honorable conduct – we own it. Accepting responsibility for our actions is the hallmark of honorable behavior. An inability to accept responsibility and differences evinces a lack of humility and bravery inherent in honor – and such inflexibility may be a symptom of extremism. Another example of possible extremism, and dishonorable behavior, is hate speech.
Pluralism and mutual respect for difference are foundational characteristics of the United States. They are among the core values and ideals that U.S. military members defend. To better understand the role that honor could play in defending those values, it helps to look at the role that honor plays in U.S. military culture.
All’s [Not] Fair in Love and War
“Service with honor” remains central to the U.S. military in three contexts: as a law of war principle, embodied in the Code of Conduct, and in its Core Values. In 2016, the Department of Defense Law of War Manual was updated, and one of the six categorical updates was to explain that honor is integral to the law of war.
But most importantly, the 2016 update clarified honor as – a way to distinguish the United States from its adversaries. U.S. military oaths of office require military members “to support and defend the [U.S.] Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” When fighting extremism and disinformation campaigns, it is helpful to consider the ways in which dishonorable methods of communication support and embolden those enemies. In the context of armed conflict, honor means that even the most just causes do not justify dishonorable conduct; honor, as a foundational principle for the law of war, places limits on waging war. And if war is hell, then honor – and its prioritization of humanity and dignity – may exist in the most difficult circumstances and under the harshest conditions.
The idea of “service with honor” is embodied in the Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces, which is codified in Executive Order 10631. This Code, for both combat and captivity, exemplifies what it means to be honorable in America: “I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free.”
Moreover, all branches of the armed services, and the Department of Defense separately, list “honor” as the most common U.S. military “core value” – a standard of conduct or ethic to guide the behavior of U.S. military members at all times. Arguably, all the various U.S. military core values could be encapsulated by the idea of honor. Honor requires duty, loyalty, and commitment to excellence; the courage and character to connect with, respect, and serve others; and integrity.
The story of Bathsheba illustrates how U.S. military ideas of honor demonstrate why “all’s [not] fair in love and war.” To cover up an affair with Bathsheba, King David sent Bathsheba’s military spouse to the battlefield front lines to be killed. By lying and abusing his power, King David was dishonorable as a Commander-in-Chief. His kingdom prospered only after he accepted responsibility for his actions. “Courage” to accept responsibility is a core value both on and off the battlefield.
Dishonorable Communication is Un-American
For those observing Americans communicating with each other in increasingly awful ways and wondering how “such behavior” became acceptable – “it” is not acceptable – not now, not ever. U.S. adversaries are betting on their ability to tear Americans apart by preying on their freedom to disagree. But disagreement need not mean disrespect. If Americans engage with one another in a way that honors differences, aspiring toward the founding ideal “to form a more perfect union,” U.S. adversaries can’t easily exploit them. For all competitors that consider life as a zero-sum game – full of winners or losers – perhaps we can redefine what it means to win. What if winners were only those who acted honorably? By culturally self-regulating our speech, such that we communicate with honor – the how – need not adversely affect – the what – of our communications with each other. What if we honored the sacrifices we recognize on this Memorial Day by recognizing the honor in one another?
The views expressed here are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, the Department of Defense, the United States Army, the United States Navy, or any other department or agency of the United States Government.