Worthy of Honor?

Harvard Professor vs. Indian Peasant
by Matthew P. Schneider, LC | Source: Catholic.net
Boom! Crack! Splinters flying everywhere! Seconds later, another boom! Umrao Singh sits at his gun trying to protect himself from the bombardment. Then, after 90 minutes, no more 75mm rounds, no more splitting trees, just silence – every bird in the forest is audible, the croaking of frogs is deafening. From the opposite side of the Kaladan Valley, an unintelligible scream splits the darkness and two companies of Japanese kamikaze his position. Bullets whiz by in both directions. Minutes later, a second wave storms in, leaving him with only two companions and limited ammunition. A third wave quickly exhausts his last bullets, so Mr Singh picks up a metal bar that was part of his gun, and kills three soldiers. As the sun rises on 16 December 1944, a counter-attack finds him unconscious and barely recognizable from his injuries; from his Indian Army unit, he is the lone survivor.

Looking in the mirror, the miniature monkey seemed to recognize itself. Professor Marc Houser was elated: training cotton-top tamarins in his Harvard lab was a success. This feat of self-recognition had now been achieved in a monkey under 1 lb previously thought reserved to men and great apes. This was 1995. In 2002, Dr Houser published and in Science, demonstrating what distinguishes human and animal language. He showed that man is able to combine complex ideas in language; while animals only seem able to make simple relations (technically this difference is called recursion). This paper got wide applause: Science’s
website lists 57 articles citing it. One of these two men went on to greater honor in life while the other went on to dishonor.

When someone does something difficult to contribute to the common good they deserve to be honored – such work can be military, political, scientific, or humanitarian. We give out awards for such acts. Every culture honors certain people even if they don’t like the word honor; a statue of George Washington honors him, an Oscar honors a film director, and even the simple attention we give to some celebrity honors them.

Today, everything seems to be honored, especially if it is original. Videos abound of things like a person shooting a TV, of a natural disaster, or a celebrity wearing insufficient clothes. Julian Assange got praise for dumping thousands of classified documents online via his website WikiLeaks. Janet Jackson got publicity after her “wardrobe failure” during the Super Bowl. A couple got fame claiming a balloon took their boy away while they hid him in the shed.

At the same time, people deserving of honor are often forgotten; take for example, Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire, the only Westerner who tried to prevent the Rwandan Genocide and saved thousands during it. On January 22, 1994, a DC-8 airplane loaded with arms landed in Rwanda; as the UN commander, Dallaire knew what was afoot and tried to stop it, but was left powerless by the UN rules. He sent a request immediately to seize the weapons, and then for 2,500 additional troops to prevent genocide. Both his requests were rejected; then when the genocide began, his force was reduced from 2,500 to a piddly 270 and told not to fire unless fired upon. He managed to save 30,000 from death but was forced to sit and watch as Hutu extremists hacked 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis to death with machetes. He was the world’s conscience but the world has swept him under the mat.

Honor is also a man’s attitude; he must continue to live up to the honor due him throughout his life. A single action does not make one honorable but a continuous pattern of actions throughout life. A man can be honorable and loose it: Benedict Arnold was honorable for a time and if he had died in 1778, he would be remembered as a patriot rather than as the man who surrendered West Point. Others were against independence during the Revolutionary War but none have his label.

Dr Marc Houser went on to receive many scientific awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship and publish other articles. Based on studies of the moral reasoning in hypothetical situations, he published Moral Minds in 2006. However, on August 20, 2010 his Harvard Dean announced, following a 3-year study, he was found solely responsible for 8 counts of intentional scientific misconduct, and is taking a year off. His research “showing” that cotton-top tamarins can recognize themselves in the mirror along with two other papers have been retracted. He was the top man in his field, so his fall was ground-shaking. Could it be that, although he did real science, the title of his book in preparation demonstrates an underlying thesis: Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad? Eventually his lack of internal honor caught up and ruined his external honor.

Captain Umrao Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. (For those of you not graced to be a loyal subject of Her Majesty the Victoria Cross [VC] is the highest honor in Commonwealth Armies, similar to the Congressional Medal of Honor.) When he died in 2005, The Times of London included the following in his obituary:

In 1983 he was farming a two-acre smallholding inherited from his father in his home village. He owned a single buffalo and a cart, lived in a small mud-brick house and was finding life hard on a basic Indian Army Pension of £14 a month. A friend who knew of his award suggested that he should sell his decoration as he had heard that a VC had recently been sold for £20,000 in London. In spite on his straitened circumstances, Captain Singh refused to sell his VC for an offered sum of £32,000, saying to do so ‘would stain the honour of those who fell in battle beside me.’ Subsequently he received a Haryana state pension of £50 per month.
Every time we watch a TV program or view someone’s YouTube video, we honor those who made it. A society is known by what it honors: the honor paid to wealth shows that the USA is a business driven society. This culture also honors the wacky and macabre such as the Koran Burning day last September; while simultaneously failing to honor bravery and sacrifice such as the President making no sign of respect during the Star-Spangled Banner at a military graveyard. To build a better society, each one needs to go against the grain and start honoring what is truly honorable.

Matthew P. Schneider, LC is a religious brother and seminarian with the Legionaries of Christ. He can be reached at

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