In Greek histories, Spartan mothers sent their sons to war with the commandment, "Come back with your shield, or on it."

Spartan mothers loved their babies, too -- they did not want to see dead bodies of their son brought back, as was the custom, sprawled on their shields.

But if a warrior returned alive and unarmed it meant he had broken ranks and run. It meant he had thrown away the shield that protected -- not his own life, but, in the old method of fighting in phalanxes, the life of the man next to him. He had broken faith with his comrades; he had forgotten his warrior's code.

They wanted their sons back alive, but whole in spirit as well as body. They wanted them with honor intact. Everyone today who loves a soldier, sailor or Marine understand this. We want them alive, we want them victorious -- and we want them to have lives worth living when their battles are over.

The troops now fighting on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan need to see that the criminals in their ranks will be found and purged. They need to see that we at home don't make excuses for bad behavior. Because if they see us doing that, it could weaken the certainty in each warrior's own mind that he and we alike understand what he is going through, and honor the effort.

And the warrior code will weaken by that much more in the minds of American soldiers and Marines still trying to do an honest job. Modern armies sweep into their ranks hundreds of thousands of people. Not all are fit to be soldiers. Those who are not, when discovered, should be weeded out and sent home, and if they have committed crimes in the meanwhile they should be punished for them.

But this is not just a matter of good soldiers and bad apples. Certain kinds of combat, or duty, wear down the military codes of honor. The warrior's code frays, then the seams fall apart. Then horrible things begin to happen. Warrior codes, whether in Sparta or in West Point, distinguish soldiers from murderers. Warriors have rules that govern when and how they kill. Learning them is part of the purpose of military training. We give soldiers the power to take lives, but only certain lives, in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons.

The purpose of a code "is to restrain warriors, for their own good as much as for the good of others. The essential element of a warrior's code is that it must set definite limits on what warriors can and cannot do if they want to continue to be regarded as warriors, not murderers or cowards. For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances." [Shannon E. French, "The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present"]

Yet the danger of crossing that thin, sharp line that separates warriors from murderers is greatest in exactly the kind of conflict Americans face in Iraq: war not among great powers, evenly matched, but of well-equipped armies pitted against weak but merciless foes who hit and run and hide among civilians. It is the kind of place people blow up public buildings to make a political point. There is no warrior code in that; a terrorist is a terrorist, however he justifies himself.

It is not the justness, or lack of it, in a war that makes the warrior code deteriorate in any one soldier. Tennessee soldiers who fought with honor and discipline at Shiloh in 1862 turned into murderous bushwhackers by 1864. Many soldiers in Hitler's army behaved to the end with utmost military discipline. Some of the Soviet troops who defeated the Nazis raped, murdered, and pillaged their path halfway across Europe. Japanese soldiers, brutalized by experience in China, did it to American soldiers in the Pacific and Americans did it in turn to the Japanese when they found out about it.

When warriors and murderers clash, the murderers risk nothing but death. The warriors risk more. "Their only protection is their code of honor," French writes. "The professional military ethics that restrain warriors -- that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary, and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities -- are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor."

And it is part of what we owe them to both believe in their honor and to remind them, and ourselves, how much depends upon it.

The issue here is a particular government's dealings with non-citizens who go to war against it, in or out of uniform. Governments have a historical tendency to eventually treat their own the way they treat others. "Law and order" are paired in our national rhetoric, but there's always an element that would trade "law" for "order."

Modern terrorism is a direct challenge to democracy. A very few angry people with a relatively small stash of money can melt into an open society and unleash doom on a biblical scale. That, as far as I know, is a relatively new thing in the world. The Geneva Conventions really are antiquated when it comes to this.

Governments and legal systems haven't even yet untangled knotty domestic problems that run along the same lines, such as what to do with chronic sexual predators. Freedom doesn't mean everyone always has good ideas. Democracy means bad ideas get aired, exposed, stripped, and buried before they become policies or laws -- and if they do get that far, they get corrected.

The domestic debates and court wrangles over the Patriot Act, Guantanamo detentions, and similar matters are not proof of American totalitarianism, as some hold. If anything, it is the opposite. "Checks and balances" doesn't mean all the branches stay safely within their perogatives and avoid elbowing one another. The American system is built on the expectation that presidents, senators, judges will try to overreach their authority. They're expected to try, and the system is meant to rebuff them and keep its balance.


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© March 19, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"