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The Concept Of Honor In War – Analysis


By Andreas Herberg-Rothe

At present there is a hot debate about the success or failure of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This raises the parallel and equally important question of how the West’s enemies define victory and defeat in such contexts. That is an exercise requiring cultural and historical knowledge that goes beyond any straight-forward calculation of how violence may serve political ends.

It is well known that for the tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in FATA the concept of honor is of greatest importance. The young Clausewitz shared this outlook, despite his markedly different social background. In order to understand the dynamics of fighting for one’s honor, it is worth looking back at Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz’s reaction to the Prussian defeats at Jena and Auerstedt (1806) which he personally experienced as a junior infantry officer and, for a time, as a prisoner of war.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz
Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz

In the Political Declaration from 1812, Clausewitz finds existential meaning in war. It is not simply an act in which a nation pursues its interests, but an act of self-realization. At this point in Clausewitz’s intellectual development, war is not yet recognizable as an instrumentally rational act of violence that forces the enemy to conform to our will. Rather, war is a matter of asserting one’s will as such. Prussia’s military reformers, among which Clausewitz was a junior member, were inclined to believe that even a defeat if it were honorable would generate the moral strength to create a better society. In their eyes, resuming the war against Napoleon was not just a moral obligation. It also expressed their hope that the lost war of 1806 had cleared the way for a fundamental transformation in Prussia.

Clausewitz knew that the Prussian state could survive only if it changed. His analysis of the successes of France’s Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies convinced him that the new way of conducting war was linked to a transformation of social and political conditions. This posed a fundamental problem for Clausewitz: maintaining the Prussian state was possible only if state and society were fundamentally changed. Clausewitz’s position in the crisis of 1812 is marked by palpable tension between his loyalty to significant elements of the established order on the one hand—he had been an officer in the Prussian army since he was twelve years old—and his respect for the objectively impressive achievements of revolutionary France on the other. Clausewitz looked forward to the downfall of the estates-based social order in Prussia. He believed in equality before the law, an independent judiciary, ministerial responsibility, a limited franchise, and a parliament with advisory functions. He also accepted the necessity of a powerful centralized authority, as a kind of moral ballast for society and as the final arbiter of military and political decisions. This put him at odds with those Prussian conservatives who were more concerned with retaining the traditional social order than increasing the power of the state, and also with then nascent liberalism which sought to subordinate the power of the executive more firmly to representative institutions.

The transformation of the Prussian state that Clausewitz and others strove to achieve was based on more than insight into the new possibilities of warfare for maintaining the existence of Prussia. Even before Prussia’s defeat, he wrote that it was not total subservience that they should fear, but rather that shameful “languid period” in which civil existence was not yet threatened but the independence and dignity of the state were already lost. In 1811, before the alliance with France, but after the full weight of humiliation from 1806 had set in, Clausewitz wrote to Gneisenau that he expected that sooner or later Prussia would become embroiled “in a new catastrophe” from which it would have “trouble saving itself from total collapse.” In this same letter, however, he reiterates the primacy of honor over existence: if Prussia “perishes with honor, . . . I hope to perish honorably with it, or at least to sacrifice my existence.” In another letter to Gneisenau toward the end of the year, Clausewitz wrote that “the double curse of a dishonorable demise is resting upon us.” He thus distinguished between Prussia’s political survival, and a form of existence that preserved Prussia’s honor and recognition as one state among others.

Once a war is understood as existential, a distinction must be drawn among totally different forms of existence:

a. Direct “physical,” objective existence;

b. Existence as an intact, self-aware political community, society, or nation;

c. “Aspirational” existence, meaning an identity to be created by some act of self-assertion or liberation;

d. “Moral” existence, entailing recognition as an equal state among states, or as an equal citizen within a state.

Clausewitz’s Political Declaration implies a clear ranking of these forms of existence: at the very top he placed “moral,” followed by the continued existence of Prussia as a self-aware political community. For the sake of these first two forms, he was prepared to risk his own physical existence and that of the state.

Death and Recognition

In the crisis of Prussia’s existence that followed its defeat at the hands of France, Clausewitz believed that dying in the struggle for recognition was the most exalted form of death. He did not expect his own blood to be spared when the fight for honor was resumed. He believed that even if the Prussians were defeated, the fight would not be in vain. “Was blood shed in vain? Will this glorious hour of our death not bolster the courage of our descendants?” The king who “dies gloriously ennobles the nation, and his glorious name is a balm for their wounds!” Even the destruction of the nation “after a bloody and honorable struggle assures the people’s rebirth. It is the seed of life, which one day will bring forth a new, securely rooted tree.”

Clausewitz’s outlook bears useful comparison to the similar, but in some points diverging, positions of Hegel and Fichte. Hegel was also concerned with the concept of a life-and-death struggle for recognition. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel describes the struggle for recognition between two opponents. He argues that each self-consciousness risks its own life in order to demonstrate that it considers absolute freedom and recognition to be more important than death.

In the same vein, Johann Gottlieb Fichte also says that “freedom is the highest good. Everything else,” he continues

“is just the means, good as such a means [to freedom], evil if it hinders it. Therefore temporal life itself has worth only to the extent that it is free; it has absolutely none if it cannot be free but is an evil and torment. Its only purpose is first of all to use freedom, if not then to keep it, if not then to fight for it; if life perishes in this fight, it is right to perish and does so voluntarily because temporal life is a fight for freedom. Life itself, the eternal, never perishes, no power can give it or take it away: death is then where temporal life was not able to be the liberator.”

Fichte then offers this succinct formulation as well: “Who can coerce the one who is able to die.”

Fichte’s statement that absolute freedom is possible only when one accepts one’s own death is based on the idea that such a person has nothing and no one to fear, and thus cannot be forced into anything. However, the question is to what extent Fichte is simply celebrating the image of man as a solitary heroic warrior responsible only for himself and his honor. Furthermore, a distinction must be drawn between a willingness to die and the actual pain of dying. When pain is introduced, even people who don’t fear death can be coerced, people for whom death would even be a release—which is why torture has direct political significance. The “masters” as Wolfgang Sofsky has written, do not prevent insurrection through the fear of death, but through the fear of torture. “For it not only sustains the fear of death, which forces obedience. It generates a fear that is much more horrible: the fear of endless death agony.” The “omnipotence” of humans to coerce one another is first made manifest in torture.

For Fichte, death appears to be the ultimate proof of freedom in a contest of wills, because only the death of one opponent can finally prove that he valued freedom more than life itself. In contrast, Hegel argues that the contest itself is the proof, because each contestant risked his life and held it of no account, both for himself and for the other. The death of the other means there can no longer be any recognition. The crucial problem for Hegel is that, on the one hand, two opponents engage in a life-and-death struggle for recognition while, on the other hand, this recognition can only come from the opponent. Hegel concludes that if one of the two opponents struggling for mutual recognition dies, there can be no recognition. The survivor can be recognized only by an opponent who actually survives the life-and-death struggle.

This area of tension between the willingness to stake one’s life and the consequences of the death of the opponent is illustrated by the duel. In Clausewitz’s and Hegel’s day, duels were generally sanctioned by society, and society would look down on anyone who refused a justified challenge to a duel. But if a duel resulted in a death, it was prosecuted by the state and the survivor had to reckon with severe penalties. The death of an opponent in a duel could even be interpreted as dishonorable behavior on the part of the victor. Like nothing else, death violates the opponent’s equality—the very thing the duel and the struggle for recognition were supposed to restore.

Heinrich von Kleist describes the consequences of a struggle for recognition in which one of the opponents dies in his drama Penthesilea. After the Greek hero Achilles defeated the Amazon queen Penthesilea, he agreed to a new fight out of love for her. His intention was to lose this fight in order to restore Penthesilea’s honor as a warrior and to win her love. But Penthesilea saw through his plan, which compromised her honor even more than the original defeat, and consequently killed her lover. Yet the death of Achilles only increased her self doubt because, as the only one who had ever defeated her, the live Achilles was the only one who could restore her recognition. Kleist’s drama ends not only with Penthesileas’s suicide, but with a return to barbarism as a consequence of denied recognition. She mutilates and mangles Achilles’ body like a predator, thereby forfeiting the last remnants of her honor as a warrior. For Kleist, as for Hegel, death introduces a self-defeating contradiction into the struggle for recognition.

Clausewitz and Hegel appear to hold antithetical views of the life-and-death struggle. However, this opposition becomes less categorical when we distinguish between one’s own death and the death of the opponent. Clausewitz formulated a position that highlighted the willingness to die as a precondition for the struggle for recognition. Hegel, on the other hand, stressed that there can be no more recognition if the opponent dies. Clausewitz’s personal and political situation is characterized by the willingness to die as the basis for resuming the fight against Napoleon. Hegel, on the other hand, discusses the consequences of the actual death of an opponent.

Clausewitz’s view is shaped by the fact that one’s own honorable death is the precondition for the subsequent success of a collective subject, namely the nation or the “people.” According to Hegel, such a death intensifies preexisting contradictions, resulting not in a new self-awareness, but a compulsion to refight what is still perceived to be an incomplete struggle. The greater the preceding sacrifice, the greater the subsequent efforts must be to justify the sacrifice. Both aspects are visible, for instance, in the effects of the First World War. The “death” of the German Empire, coupled with the millions of individual deaths in the trenches, intensified the social contradictions that existed before the war. Its outcome was rejected, and replaced by a desire to renew the attempt to become a world power. This is evident, for example, in the character of German war memorials. Whereas most war memorials created by the victors contained elements of sorrow, it was different in the Weimar Republic, where thoughts of revenge dominated the public perception of war. The German war memorials represented the battle that would be resumed, in which the final decision on victory or defeat had yet to be reached.

The “honorable death” of the German imperial army encouraged belief in the transcendence of the “German People”—over all individuals, social groups, parties and historical periods. In time the masses would come to believe this transcendent people was embodied in the “Führer,” Adolf Hitler. It was only through the incomparably more absolute defeat of the German Reich in the Second World War—a defeat whose cataclysmic character resisted all mythologies of transcendence—that a fundamentally different society became possible.

To sum up: for Clausewitz and Fichte around the time of Jena, honorable death in battle was the highest form of recognition. In contrast, Hegel at this same time stressed that the opponent’s death not only nullified the struggle for recognition, but intensified preexisting contradictions. For Hegel, development was possible only through “delayed death” in the life-and-death struggle. A third position can be set against these two, in which death, the “ultimate end” of a political subject (e.g. a dictator), is the precondition for a genuine new beginning.

Self-Preservation and Self-Destruction Self-Transcending in the Life-and-Death Struggle

We must differentiate between two major theoretical threads in the life-and-death struggle and its meaning for the development of societies. The first is basically defined by Machiavelli and Hobbes. The English social philosopher Thomas Hobbes distinguished between the state of nature and the social state. He used the phrase “state of nature” to describe the general state of mankind if every governing political body were hypothetically subtracted from social life. In Hobbes’s conception, the individual maintains a stance of permanent self-defense, if not opportunistic aggression, toward his fellow human beings, and social relations generally become a war of all against all. Are such conditions possible in real life, or is the “state of nature,” like “absolute war,” merely an abstraction to be employed for purposes of analysis? The nearest historical approach to the state of nature may be found in the conditions created by social upheavals, uprisings, and revolutions. In these situations, the old political powers are no longer capable, and the new powers are not yet capable, of controlling social life. The “natural” struggle for survival fills this vacuum between the old sovereignty that has failed and new one that has not yet been created.

Hobbes used the theoretically constructed condition of a war of all against all to demonstrate that the contractually regulated submission of all subjects to a sovereign ruling power is the only reasonable outcome of an instrumentally rational weighing of interests. In this conception, instrumental rationality is central to limiting violence. The real-life return to the “state of nature” in societies shattered by violence can be analyzed in light of this theoretical tradition. If the state (or its equivalent central authority) is no longer capable of exerting political control over society, or is unable to maintain its monopoly of power, there is a constant danger that individuals or social groups may return to the natural state of the struggle for self-preservation.

This struggle for self-preservation presumes what Hobbes calls a “wolfish nature” in humans. He argued that it is enough to assume that a certain number of people have this characteristic to prove that it makes the war of all against all a necessity for everyone. Even peaceful people will be forced to commit aggressive acts if they wish to survive. Fichte presents a very similar argument in his essay on Machiavelli: anyone “who establishes a republic (or even a state) and gives it laws must assume that all people are evil and that all without exception will release their inherent evil as soon as they find a opportunity.” It is unnecessary for Fichte to debate whether this actually applies to everyone. He concludes that the state, as an institution possessing coercive powers, necessarily assumes that its subjects are evil, and this assumption in turn justifies its existence.

The second theoretical thread presented by life-and-death struggle leads to different conclusions, as Hegel’s work shows. Where Machiavelli and Hobbes hypothesize of a primal struggle for self-preservation, Hegel postulated a life-and-death struggle for recognition. It was his position that the struggle for recognition generates inner-societal pressure toward the establishment of political institutions that would guarantee freedom. For Hegel is the individual’s claim to inter- subjective recognition that creates social life, and also instills it with a moral tension that transcends the forms of social practice institutionalized thus far. Although this tension leads to recurring stages of conflict, its outcome is a state of lived freedom. For Hegel the struggle for recognition is recursive, so that the violation of established forms of recognition becomes the decisive motive for resuming the struggle for recognition.

Violation of existing recognition as a precondition for the struggle for recognition implicitly reintroduces the construction of the duel for honor, rather that for vengeance or victory per se. Duels were engaged in for the purpose of demonstrating one’s honor, rather than achieving a particular “decisive” result. It made no difference who was fastest on the draw or who dealt the most powerful blows. All that mattered was the fact that the two opponents braved a possibly fatal encounter, thus demonstrating that they valued their honor more than their lives. When courage and manhood, defense of character and the individualist spirit, idealism and honor, are spoken of in the context of a duel, they relate directly to the subject of recognition.

If we analyze the duel as an expression of the struggle for recognition, three distinct elements emerge:

1. The duel is provoked by the violation of one individual’s recognition by another. One person’s honor and dignity, their social standing, are violated and their recognition as a free and equal person is called into question.

2. Recognition can be violated only by a person of equal social standing. Honor and dignity, recognition and freedom, cannot be called into question by people who are not themselves recognized.

3. This serious, though regulated, life-and-death struggle restores the honor and recognition of the injured party in the relationship and thus his entitlement to freedom and equality. It must be emphasized that the duel was an authentic life-and-death conflict. A conflict that is merely feigned is a new violation of recognition. A duel presupposes that recognition that has been violated, and that only an opponent regarded as an equal can violate and then restore it. This dual construction—violation and restoration of recognition by an “equal”—means that the conflict also follows a regulated and limited course and that mutual recognition is maintained by the duel. Thus, the concept of a struggle for recognition in the form of a duel requires that this recognition retains its validity even within the conflict. It is not the outcome of the duel, but its initiation, that restores and “satisfies” honor.

Axel Honneth has argued that, within Hegel’s hierarchy of forms of recognition, the violation of an existing level is a necessary, though painful, step toward reaching a higher form. Hegel even granted “criminal acts” a constructive roll in the “formative process of [man’s] ethical life.” Even criminal violation of existing forms of recognition would unleash conflicts that would make individual subjects aware of underlying relations of recognition. Hegel’s construction was guided by the conviction that the only way to arrive at true inter-subjective relations was first to destroy inherited, unconscious forms of recognition. Only the awareness of recognition in inter-subjective relations can create a moral community over the long term. From this perspective, the “natural annihilation” inherent in war, violence and crime is directed against the “abstraction of the cultured,” and is the result of a previously incomplete recognition of individuals or groups within society.

Whether this explanation can be applied to all conceivable violations of recognition is hard to say. If we take it as absolute, each violation of recognition must be a positive step toward higher forms of recognition. However, Hegel did not go this far, and in his later writings granted the struggle for recognition only a limited role in human development. It is also necessary to consider whether the struggle for recognition is only a matter of violently coercing a previously incomplete recognition—of rendering established norms more general. But life-or-death struggle can also be a struggle for new forms of recognition or self-realization. Conceptually, such conflicts are triggered by the demand for the uninhibited development of one’s own subjectivity, independent of established codes of honor. Conversely, however, attempts to assert particular interests in which honor is not at stake can not be construed as a “struggle for recognition.” Violence that remains bounded by such interests thus lacks the moral grandeur and potentially transformational character of the life-or-death struggle.

Let us now return to Clausewitz’s position. Clausewitz regarded the violation of existing recognition as a major cause of the French Revolution. In his essay “Agitation” (1819), he attributes the social tensions in France to the nobility’s failure to recognize the bourgeoisie and the peasants. Originally, the rights of the nobility in society were a necessary consequence of the balance between classes, writes Clausewitz. But after nearly all European states had developed into monarchies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nobility retained its privileges only in relation to its subordinates, not in relation to the prince. As a result of these developments, the nobility no longer held a share of the sovereign power that legitimized its earlier privileges.

Because peasants and bourgeoisie were also subordinates, they saw the nobility’s retention of its historical rights as pure privilege, a kind of unwarranted favor. This violated the recognition due to peasants and bourgeois within the estate-based society. In Clausewitz’s view, the “totally changed condition of the nobility” and the “unhealthy place it was given in the new framework of the state” as well as the “cultural advance of the bourgeoisie” were responsible for the escalation of social tension in France, which eventually became so extreme that it had to be resolved somehow, “either gradually through voluntary changes, or suddenly by force.

Returning then to the Political Declaration, its existential view of war is characterized by the tension inherent in the idea of self-preservation as a moral identity through self-destruction of the physical body (or, for society, self-willed transformation). Nevertheless, despite the occasional blood-soaked metaphors and hyperbole, war remains a means and has a purpose, albeit one that Clausewitz’s emotional engagement seems to have obscured to some extent: at times it is to maintain the Prussian state, at others to create the German nation, to restore honor and recognition, or even, as in some utterances, to establish a better society.

To the extent that even existential war—war for recognition—retains an instrumental quality, Clauswitz’s view differs from the positions of twentieth century German nationalist revolutionaries. For them, war tends to be its own end, an end in itself, a notion that was totally alien to Clausewitz. In his novel Storm of Steel, for instance, Ernst Jünger vividly describes the violent upheavals of modern, mechanized warfare. At the same time, he celebrates the war as forging the identity of an entire generation:

Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.

In Jünger’s view, war was the “father of all things,” “who sired us as a new race in the glowing womb of the trenches.

Although Clausewitz’s defense of honor and recognition, and Jünger’s vision of “a new race” born in war may sometimes coincide in their hyperbolic use of language, the differences in political theory that separate them from each other, and from the earlier work of Hobbes and Machiavelli, are apparent. The conception of Hobbes and Machiavelli is dominated by the imperative of self-preservation. Their works reflect the self-destructive consequences of civil and internecine religious war, to which each was a witness, and emphasize the need for a state with a monopoly of power, to which the citizens conform out of rational motives of self-preservation. Because the imperative of self-preservation applies to the states thus formed, however, theory in this vein implies an instrumentally rational limitation of war.

The early Clausewitz’s theoretical approach, in contrast, emphasizes the impetus to violence arising from the violation of existing forms of recognition, and the unlimited obligation this imposes to seek honorable redress. His conception can be described as self-preservation through self-assertion and, if necessary, self-destruction. Hegel, finally, advocates a historical hierarchy of development, in which even the most transgressive acts of violence are supposed to sustain or advance the fundamental structures of state and society.

In contrast, for Jünger and others who experience war as rapture, recourse to violence has no externally or instrumentally imposed limit. Such views, in Jünger’s case, reflect the experience of the First World War, the experience of “losing himself” in violence that has become an end in itself, a world of its own from which, psychologically at least, there may be no real escape. For Jünger and many others of his generation, war set in motion a process of transformation by which old identities were lost, and new ones could only be maintained by continuing recourse violence.

Recognition in war as a precondition for the instrumental view of war

In the final analysis, self-preservation of the moral identity and self-transforming even through self-destruction are fundamental opposites in the political theory of war; yet, when viewed within a broader framework incorporating the existential values of honor and recognition, they belong together. In judging Clausewitz’s work as a whole, it is apparent that his sense of which of these frameworks—political or existential—provided a better avenue for understanding war changed over time.

Clausewitz’s mature concept of politics was shaped by the restoration period that followed the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), which ended the unrestrained war of the Revolutionary period. According to Carl Schmitt, expert on international law in the Weimar Republic, once again there were clear distinctions between war and peace, combatants and non-combatants, enemies and criminals. Wars would again be waged as wars between regular state armies, and between sovereigns with a legitimate claim on jus ad bellum—the right to go to war. With this customary legal framework opponents respected each other as enemies, and did not seek to stigmatize each other as criminals. True peace treaties again became possible, and even recognizable the normal, self-evident end of war.

Thus Schmitt distinguishes between a “bracketed” war in which the opponent is recognized as an equal, and an entirely different form of war in which enmity becomes a permanent state. In the latter case enmity is intensified through terror and counter-terror until it ends in extermination. Unlike a war between opponents who recognize each other as equals, this type of war is based on an irresolvable antithesis that, for Schmitt, is embodied by the partisan. The partisan enforces the death penalty against an enemy that he considers a criminal, and risks the same treatment himself. This is the logic of claiming just cause for war, without also accepting the legitimate belligerency of the enemy. For Schmitt, such an outlook represented a kind of historical reversion: in the late Middle Ages the idea of just war was permanently linked to non-recognition of the opponent—war could only be just if the opponent had transgressed the obligations of “divine right” bestowed by God. It is only after centuries of such struggle that sovereign states accept their mutual right to war, which in turn makes possible the recognition of the opponent as equal.

For Clausewitz, mutual recognition is an essential prerequisite and lasting condition for restraining war’s tendency toward absolute violence. Clausewitz’s concept of politics, and of war’s instrumental nature, depends on social conditions that are capable of checking war’s unlimited escalation. The denial of mutual recognition leads to existential war. Granting recognition makes the limitation of violence possible, and reveals wars instrumental nature. Clausewitz’s seminal conception of war as a political instrument only makes sense when linked to the requirement of mutual recognition between adversaries.

Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Dr. phil. habil., is at present a private lecturer in Political Science at the Institute for Social Sciences, Humboldt-University Berlin. An associate of the Oxford Leverhulme Programme ‘The changing character of War’ (2004-2005), he has written widely on military history, war and peace, and together with Hew Strachan he was the convener of the conference ‘Clausewitz in the 21st century’ (Oxford 21.-23. March 2005).


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