A code of honor is a set of principles that an individual follows at all times. Individual codes differ, but they all require "honorable" behavior by a standard set by the code. It usually involves the willingness to risk death rather than being considered dishonorable. This is because codes of honor usually, though not always, develop in cultures where the force of law is not present, whether it be because the culture has no main government, such as a nomadic people; the main government is distant and cannot influence things, such as the Old West; the government cannot be involved, such as among criminals, or the law effectively does not apply to the people in question, such as among those in the upper class of many periods.

There are, and have been, many different forms of such a code. Chivalry had its set of norms knights had to follow; later, a watered-down version of those ideals was considered proper for a gentleman. In the Far East, samurai had bushido. Pirates and brigands might or might not have some sort of honor code -- sometimes, there is honor among thieves, particularly among some of the Tong gangs. Many of these senses of what is honorable are sexist and based in a male-dominated view, but not all of them are; and someone with a personal code of honor might have some surprising ideas about what is honorable!

There are, however, some common themes in a code of honor. One must often retaliate strongly (often by a duel) against insults or challenges, though the enveloped groups often change; usually, against oneself and those one is close to, and occasionally the culture/nation to which one belongs. Sometimes this extends to protecting certain groups, often those considered unable to protect themselves. Another commonality is that, honor often involves not breaking one's word. Sometimes honor demands equal circumstances when fighting; in chivalry, this extended even to open war. A certain amount of politeness is sometimes expected directly or implied by a given code of honor, as well.

My Personal Code of Honor

For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honor more than I fear death.

--Shakespeare, Julius Caesar I.2

  1. I will be honest at all times; I will not lie, cheat, or steal.
  2. I will be clean in body, mind, word, thought, and deed.
  3. I will protect, defend, support, and serve my family and friends.
  4. I will be merciful to those in need, and offer help when I am able.
  5. I will greet strangers hospitably and treat them fairly.
  6. I will give no comfort to those who prove themselves enemies.
  7. I will not return dishonor with dishonor.
  8. I wlll not allow an insult to honor to pass unchallenged.
  9. When I am wrong, I will promptly admit it, and seek to remedy my error. But I will not be swayed by faulty appeal, however passionate.
  10. I will fulfill every commitment that I make.
  11. I will strive to excel in all that I do.
  12. I will, in my life, seek to fulfill a great quest.
  13. I will uphold honor to those around me, and never fear to speak openly of honorable matters.
  14. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of my actions. When responsibility appears to fall upon a group of which I am part, I will examine the issue and either take full responsibility alone, or none.
To save our imperiled honor everything
must be sacrificed, even virtue.

-- Jean Racine, Phaedra III.3

Naturally, because it is the modern way, many readers will demand that I explain, qualify, and justify these points of honor. Entire books could be written about any one of the three terms of just the first point. I do not wish to discourage discussion of the meaning of this code, but I feel that most who read this and present objections are looking for loopholes. There are none. This code of honor is absolute. If you are wondering if it applies in a given situation, it probably does. It is not abrogable in case of pique, inconvenience, or public perception.

This code itself contains all possible qualifications. Of course, your notion of, say, personal cleanliness may vary from mine. Once I get to know a stranger, even a little, he may pass quickly into the category of enemy. I challenge insults to my honor and that of others, but I do not insist on a duel. And I do not, without provocation, stand on a public bus and lecture my fellow passengers on the meaning of honor. It is not always immediately obvious where honor lies.

It is not possible to be honest when treating with some entities, such as governments; the way they are constructed does not permit them to absorb the truth. For instance, when I am presented with a form containing a one inch long box demanding my occupation, it is not possible for me to be honest. I do not have a single occupation, to begin with; and any remotely accurate description of my occupations could not fit into the space provided. When treating with entities that are unable to accept truth, it is not possible to lie.

My code is perfect and absolute, but I am human, corrupt, and fallible. I often fall short of my code, which is one reason why the point about error and remedy is so important. Sometimes, I am driven to fail my honor under the pressure of circumstances, but this must never be taken as an exception to the rule. Such failure is not "honorable-because"; it is merely expedient. I am often moved to review all the decisions I have made which lead to such failure, and find I need to restructure my life in order to avoid such desperate conflict in future. This is particularly true in regard to commitments; I have changed my life a great deal so as to avoid being led to make commitments I cannot keep.

It is not possible to give a reason for adherance to a code of honor. It is a basic principle, an axiom. A code of honor is what distinguishes man from beast. The point of a great quest is not the goal itself, but the manner in which quest exalts the human spirit.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...

-- John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice University (1962)
-- thanks to JFK Library and Museum

All these points are equally important; none have priority. However, I feel that the first and last points are key to maintaining the rest. There are many ways to be dishonest, and I seem to learn new ways every day. All must be avoided. Honesty to oneself is critical. Personal responsibility is the cornerstone of civilization, and acceptance of it the mark of an adult. Group responsibility is a sham, and must be eliminated in concrete and in abstract.

Dishonorable persons present a great temptation. They often appear to have an advantage, in that their freedom of action is not restricted. It is vital not to descend to the level of the dishonorable opponent; victory thus obtained is hollow.

I cannot help all in need; many need help I cannot give, and many pitiable ones cannot be helped at all. Tragically, some of the neediest become my enemies when they seek what I cannot give. I feel I must be merciful, but I give them no comfort.

I don't believe that I myself have worked out all the implications of my code of honor. For instance, there is the matter of a family member who has proven himself my enemy. I have been trying for many years to understand where my honor lies with this man.

This is my code, and I do not propose to alter it for any reason. If you discover it useful to you, then you are most welcome to assume it. I urge all to do so! But I beg of you, please do not idle away your energies and mine seeking a modification of my personal code of honor.

(However, comments on my bombastic rhetoric are always welcome!)

Fame is something which must be won;
honor, only something which must not be lost.

-- Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life (1851)
-- thanks to Bartleby.com

Code of Honor was Harold Coyle's last novel in the series that begin with Sword Point, a series of novels that focused on the effect war had on people's personalities. Before Sword Point, he had written one book, Team Yankee, set in a different history than his later books. Even his first book stood above most other war novels in its psychological take on warfare, a trend that would continue to build with his later works.

The plot of Code of Honor, which was written in 1995, deals with the United States Army getting involved in supporting the Columbian government in their war with communist insurgents. Unlike the works of Tom Clancy, Coyle treats the communist insurgents very sympathetically, even portraying them as the more just side in the conflict. The book is a detailed and thoughtful investigation of the social, political, psychological and other factors that go into a war, differing quite heavily from the usual techno-fetishism that marks war novels. The central characters in the plot are a meglomaniacal general who bullies the soldiers under his command, and the army officers who eventually stand up to him. The eponoumys code of honor in the title is the moral dillemas that the soldiers and civilians in the book must face, all dealing with whether to follow the letter or the spirit of the military code, all in the face of a growing, demoralizing military defeat to a guerilla army.

Along with this, the book is a fast, exciting read. Although Harold Coyle stands out above other military fiction writers, his books are still the type of books you can read in an airport. A recommendation for the military fiction fan.

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