Does Honor Have a Future?

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in the March 1998 edition of Crisis Magazine.

It seems a bit strange that a well-worn former government employee and sometime philosopher like myself should be asked to address this assemblage on matters of ethics and honor, right and wrong, on the question, “Does Honor Have a Future?” But as Sir Thomas More said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the times.”

And what do we make of these times? These are good times and bad times. We all know that there have been troubling, even terrible, incidents here at the United States Naval Academy, and at other academies as well. While we should be bothered by these incidents, we should also be troubled by the superficial, flawed analyses these events have sometimes received. Most of these bottom on the limp excuse that the academy simply reflects more general changes in society. It goes something like this: “There are these problems everywhere—so why not here? The academy is just a reflection of the larger society.” To which I would respond: no, it is not. Whether we are talking about Annapolis, West Point, or Colorado Springs, you are supposed to be different—and in some important ways, you are supposed to be better. It was a wise man who said that when a man enters military life, he enters a higher form of civilization.

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Former assistant secretary of the army Sara Lister, who called the Marines “extremists,” did not sufficiently grasp this point. But thank goodness many other Americans still do.

So yes, the military is—and ought to be—different in some important ways from the world outside its walls. It operates with a different code of conduct; a different set of activities; a different way of life. I have no doubt that most of you—perhaps all of you—will leave this academy changed in many important regards. Perhaps you can see the changes in your own life occurring even now.

Last year, I visited the United States Air Force Academy and spoke with one of the cadets, the son of a friend of my wife and me. He told me about the grueling schedule: drills, training, study, sports, lack of sleep, the constant pressure to perform, officers yelling at him to do better and to be better. I asked him two questions: When you are home on vacation, do your friends understand what you are going through? He told me no. I then asked him: do you like it here? And he said, “Mr. Bennett, I love it.” And you could tell that he did—as I know many of you love the regimen here, even as you struggle to master it. And in mastering it, it is inevitable that you will draw back from some of the softness of contemporary civilian life.

I want to draw to your attention an extraordinary 1995 article in The Wall Street Journal, written by Thomas E. Ricks, about the transformation that took place in Marine recruits after eleven weeks of boot camp at Parris Island.

A Marine talked about his re-entry into society: “It was horrible—the train [ride home] was filled with smoke, people were drinking, and their kids were running around aimlessly.” Another private said this: “It was crowded. Trash everywhere. People were drinking, getting into fights. No politeness whatsoever.” But he went on to say, “I didn’t let it get to me. I just said, ‘This is the way civilian life is.” According to one sergeant major, “It is a fact of life that there isn’t a lot of teaching in society about the importance of honor, courage, and commitment. It’s difficult to go back into a society of ‘what’s in it for me?”

You know that this is, unfortunately, pretty accurate. There are plenty of people in the rest of society, living outside these walls, who do not identify with what you stand for; some who do not agree with it; and even some who scoff at honor codes and mission statements, feeling themselves superior to such things.

Here at Annapolis you learn obedience to orders, the responsibility of command, respect for authority. Here at Annapolis you have dedicated yourself to a high purpose and to a noble cause. But in the twilight of this 20th century, concepts like honor, nobility, and manliness not only do not elicit approbation; they often illicit ridicule, scorn, and mockery.

It brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man. There, Lewis writes, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

America is the greatest nation in the history of the world—the richest, most powerful, most envied, most consequential. And yet America is the same nation that leads the industrialized world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile violent crime, imprisonment, divorce, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, single parent households, teen suicide, cocaine consumption, per capita consumption of all drugs, and pornography production and consumption.

America is a place of heroes, honor, achievement, and respect, but it is as well a place where far too often heroism is confused with celebrity, honor with fame, true achievement with popularity, and individual respect with political correctness. From inside here you look out at a culture that celebrates self-gratification, the crossing of all moral boundaries, and even the breaking of all social taboos. And on top of it all, too frequently the sound you hear is whining—the whining of America, what can only be heard as the enormous ingratitude of modern man toward our unprecedented prosperity and good fortune.

Despite our wonders and greatness, we are a society that has experienced so much social regression, so much decadence, in so short a period of time, that in many parts of America we have become the kind of place to which civilized countries used to send missionaries.

Of course this does not change your duty in general, or your duty to this country in particular. It doesn’t mean you may not defend this nation, or be willing to give your life for it, because the ideals of this nation are still the greatest ever conjured by the mind of man. Because we are a free society—with all of its attendant virtue and vice—we expect you to defend the whole nation. Your job, as you know—like it or not—is to defend the worst, as well as the best, of us.

So there is a difference, isn’t there, between life here and outside. But let me be very candid and ask a question. There is doubt in Boulder, Birmingham, Boston, and Buffalo. Is there also doubt about honor here in Bancroft Hall [Naval Academy residence quarters]? Are the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy, and your colleagues, ever seized by mission doubt? Does doubt about honor gain any purchase here? Are you sure, in your bones and in your heart, as well as in your head, why honor is worthy of your allegiance?

I ask the question because I am told that among even the military’s best and the brightest young men and women there is confusion of purpose, attenuation of belief. What is it all about? What matters most? What is life for? What endures? These are the kinds of questions young people within and outside the military have always asked. They are worthy of your attention, and ours, and they deserve, from your teachers and others, an answer.

Let me very briefly try to begin to answer these questions by using two contemporary reference points which celebrated major anniversaries in the summer of 1994. The first was the 25th year reunion of Woodstock, which, you may recall, was a rock festival held in New York in 1969. It was attended by 300,000 young people in the first twenty-four hours, and it was marked by rowdiness, drinking, drug use, and even death.

The other 1994 reference point was the 50th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion under the command of General Dwight David Eisenhower. This was, as you know, the largest amphibious landing in history. It was attended by about 170,000 young people in the first twenty-four hours. Let me say a few words about each.

Back in the summer of ’69, Woodstock was called the “defining event of a generation”; it was undoubtedly the high point of the counterculture movement in America. “If it feels good, do it” was a kind of unofficial banner under which the participants walked. But it is worth noting, I think, that most of those who attended the 25th year reunion were not even at the original Woodstock rock festival. The reason, one can fairly surmise, is that for many of those who attended in August 1969, the memories were not good ones, not ones they wished to rekindle. Woodstock was not a place to which they wanted to go again. Many people grew up and grew beyond what Woodstock stood for; in adulthood, they consider it to have been childish, utopian, irrelevant, irresponsible, or worse. It was a chapter of their lives many would just as soon close, a memory they hoped would grow dim with the passage of time. And the deaths and sickness there were pointless, mindless, and avoidable. It was a season of drug overdoses and self-inflicted death.

Now compare the Woodstock reunion with the anniversary of D-Day, which took place on another coast, in the same year. What they were celebrating was something far different. Poignancy and dignity surrounded that event, precisely because the stakes involved were so high; the heroism so manifest; the examples so inspiring. Many listened to President Roosevelt’s prayer, broadcast on D-Day, as he recognized the horror that awaited the young men who had embarked on “the Great Crusade”:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor…. They will need thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard, for the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces…. They will be sore tried, by night and by day…. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violence of war.

As at Woodstock, there were deaths there. But they were different, in numbers and in cause. According to reports, in one ten minute period on Omaha Beach, a single rifle company of 205 men lost 197, including every officer and sergeant. These were not pointless or avoidable deaths. The price was very high—but that for which they died was sacred. We remember them, their comrades-in-arms remember them. And so those who could, came back.

My point is a simple one: Ephemeral things are the flies of summer. They drift away with the breeze of time. They are as wind and ashes. An event like Woodstock cannot hold the affections of the heart, or command respect, or win allegiance, or make men proud, or make their parents proud. It may be remembered by the media, but it leaves no lasting impression on the souls of men. It is forgotten. It was meant to be forgotten. People do not pilgrimage there, for it can give them nothing of worth.

Plato reminds us that what is real is what endures. Trenton, Midway, and Tarawa; those on the Bonhomme Richard and the crews of “Taffey Three” in Leyte Gulf; the Marines and brave naval offices at “Frozen Chosin”—these things endure.

In the Funeral Oration, Pericles said, “For it is only the love of honor that never grows old; and honor it is, not gain as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.”

Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve to be defended, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The questions remain: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?

So let me end where I began. Does honor have a future? Like all things human, it is always open to question. As free citizens, we can always fail to live up to those “better angels of our nature.” A lady reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, “What kind of government have you given us, Dr. Franklin?” The good doctor replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.”

And so honor has a future—if we can keep it, and if you can keep it. We keep it only if we continue to esteem it, uphold it, value those who display it—and refuse to laugh at it.

I have suggested a gulf—sometimes even a chasm— between your life here and the rest of America. But there are bridges across the chasm, too—bridges made by hands and words and ideas that reach across generations, across the centuries, from military to civilian, from civilian to military. I am thinking of a small group of men, not soldiers, not naval officers. They were civilians—only civilians. But it was not by accident or luck that our Founders pledged to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” They meant it. In this act of national baptism, we are all bound together.

It is your task, members of the brigade—it has been given to you, especially—to show the way as you and your forebears, alive and dead, have showed the way before. We outside know you will do it again, and the children will learn by your example what honor means.


  • William J. Bennett

    William J. Bennett is an American conservative pundit, politician, and political theorist. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. In 2000, he co-founded K12, a for-profit online education corporation which is publicly traded.

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