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A question of honour: how the 19th century can teach us to civilise today’s international conflicts

An Afghanistan national police officer helps a U.S. Army lieutenant, June 14, 2007. Can honour be restored in today’s international conflicts? Michael Bracken/US Army/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Historians and social scientists have been debating for decades whether the world as we know it is the product of a long transformation in social mores geared towards restraint and the avoidance of violence.

At first glance there may be little evidence for the existence of such a “civilising process”: as the victims of European imperialism discovered to their detriment, “civilisation” and the corresponding justifications for colonial expansion have often not been an antidote but rather the source of bloodshed.

The ethnic and geopolitical causes of today’s violent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia still bear the scars of empire. Moreover, according to a controversial 1996 book by the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, the religious and cultural antagonisms playing out in Islamist terrorism, the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar and Christian fundamentalism point to the emergence of a new “clash of civilisations”.

If “civilised warfare” is therefore in the eyes of some a pleonasm or, worse, a contradiction in terms because civilisation means conflict, what relevance does the term have for the improvement of the human condition?

The politics of shaming

The answer is important because the belief in the existence of universal values forms the bedrock of international humanitarian law. While the collective will to prevent unjust wars and to reduce war-related suffering has proved remarkably resilient in some respects – note NATO and UN diplomats’ penchant for invoking the general will of the “civilised world” in aid of their missions – it has lost force in other areas.

For instance, the valorisation of human rights in debates about modern warfare contrasts sharply with a declining respect for the personal dignity of adversaries. US President Donald Trump’s denigration of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man” may just be the tip of the iceberg.

In a Le Monde commentary published after the November 2015 Paris attacks, the historian Pascal Ory tellingly defined the enemy’s loss of face as a prime objective of terrorism, the “war of our days”. How pervasive modern societies’ preoccupation with shaming has become is also evocatively illustrated by an 8% spike in the US homicide rate over the last two years, which social scientists have linked to a heightened concern for the protection of individual status.

A question of tact

The above examples make clear, first, that progress in the containment of violence is not linear and, second, that however subjective a person’s sense of self may be, tact must remain at the centre of international conflict management.

For inspiration on how to be firm yet respectful towards antagonists, it pays to look to the past. Take the case of the revolutionary wars (1792-1802) that broke out in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789.

Although the French National Convention ideologised what was arguably the “first total war” by styling its cause a struggle of liberty against despotism and issued orders to military commanders in May 1794 to kill all British prisoners of war, soldiers on the ground for the most part continued to adhere to the principle of reciprocity.

This included giving captured officers the option to give their word of honour to abstain from further fighting for the duration of the campaign in return for privileges that were designed to ease conditions of captivity. Paroled enemies were thus frequently allowed to return home until properly exchanged or allowed freedom of movement in their assigned places of confinement.

Napoleon Bonaparte decorates a soldier from the Russian army with the Croix of Légion d'honneur (July 9 1807). Jean-Baptiste Debret/Wikimedia

Even if soldiers’ “parole d’honneur” was made subject to a growing set of restrictions, the custom nevertheless survived well into the darkest days of World War I and was moreover extended to captives who did not belong to the elite ranks of the officer corps, a topic I am currently researching. In short, the longevity of “parole d'honneur” showcases well possibilities that exist for adversaries to reward each other’s personal integrity, regardless of their political differences.

The innate right to honour

To be clear, the solution to contemporary crises is not to accord murderous dictators and racist presidents the benefits of 19th-century civility. Rather, what the past can teach us is to recognise and, where possible, build on that which the anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart calls the innate “right” of all human beings to be taken seriously. The polarisation of public opinion on many global issues ranging from the war on terror to Trump and Brexit make it all too easy for stakeholders in these debates to deny their detractors that dignity, as justice, morality and logic seem a priori to sit on one side.

Perhaps more than ever, the advice of the great 18th-century proponent of civilised warfare, Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel, applies that the settlement of disputes instead requires “methods which do not leave behind a legacy of hatred and bitterness’. Vattel intuitively grasped that alertness to the dignity of all parties is integral to the achievement of a positive outcome. Nothing displays the ethical superiority of one’s values better than to treat a foe with the respect due another human being.

Jasper Heinzen is pursuing a project on honour and warfare at the Paris Institute for Advanced Studies. The network of the four institutes of RFIEA has welcomed more than 500 researchers from around the world since 2007. Discover their work on the site Fellows.

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