CNN on line recently ran an article concerning two World War II pilots. One had been returning to base in a badly torn B-17, his crew injured, dead and dying. The other was a German fighter pilot who saw the wounded aircraft and went after it. When he realized the condition of the crew, he took a protective stance and saw the Allied craft safe from German ground fire until close to safety – despite the fact that one more “kill” would have made him an ace. When asked years later why he saved the American crew from a certain death, the German replied that shooting a wounded enemy would be an act without honor.
As children, most of us read the tales of chivalry, of knights refusing to accept a challenge from individuals weaker than they, and defending those who could not defend themselves. We hear the story of Saladin saving Richard the Lionhearted – twice, no less – by sending him a horse when his was slain, and again by sending fruit and medical aid when Richard was ill. Sir Walter Scott is credited with glamorizing the Code of Chivalry to the point that many young men in the Civil War considered adherence to it more important than obeying the commands of their officers. The instances of individuals offering aid on the battlefield to persons from the opposing army were probably more common in that war than in any since.
This type of honor is not the honor bestowed on person because of something that the individual has done, or a great deed accomplished. Rather, it is the sense of fairness, of right, of morality which can only come from inside a person. It is that inner code which will not allow the person to take advantage of another, to answer with a shade of dishonesty. It is something which many would argue is sadly missing from our society today.
When talking with people – juveniles and adults alike – who are accused of damaging property or getting into fights, it is not uncommon to ask the reason for the fight or defacing of property. The answer is frequently that the victim “disrespected” the person who caused the damage or injury. Some word, action, or even look was interpreted as being disrespectful enough to cause violence.
Respect is bestowed on a person from others. It can be earned, and it may be owed a position – such as a judge. It is not, however, a right of the individual. There are people who respect me because I am the County Attorney; most of them respect the position I hold, as they do not know me at all. When I was in grade school, I had a teacher who tried to convince me that “open range” was a thing of the past. I knew better, because I had seen open range, and tried to disagree with her. The result was a letter from her to my parents; and I learned the value of respecting the position, if not the person holding it. While I never had the respect for that teacher that I had for others, I respected her position as my teacher as much as any.
A true person of honor receives respect. Think back to the people that you know who exemplify the term – those to whom “duty” and “loyalty” aren’t just words but a way of life. These are the folk that you trust implicitly – and with anything. They are the ones you know will step up and accept responsibility for things that need to be done in the community, not because of any fame or notoriety, but because these are the things that need to be done.
The German pilot in the CNN article had just lost his brother in an Allied bombing of a German city. He was angry, and, when he took off, intended to blast the American plane out of the sky. When he approached and it didn’t fire on him, he could have simply brought it down. Instead, he came closer, and could see that the tail gunner was slumped in an unnatural position and covered with blood. He could see men in the plane caring for their wounded companions. No one would have blamed him for shooting the plane down; in fact, his country would have accorded him the highest honor it could for getting that “one more kill.” Instead, the man’s code of honor would not let him shoot, but he brought his plane close, looked into the eyes of the pilot, and spared them.
It seems to me that somehow we have become confused. When it appears to us that a person has not accorded us the respect we believe we are owed, personally or due to our position, we are comfortable with the idea of physical retaliation. Yet – that action is completely opposed to the traditional person of honor, the one who protects and defends others, but demands nothing for self. Imagine what our community would be if filled with people of honor, instead of those demanding respect for self.
An old Girl Scout song starts “On my honor I will try, there’s a duty to be done, and I said ‘Aye’; there’s a reason here, and a reason up above – my honor is to try, and my duty is to love.” Imagine…an honor filled world!
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .