[November 29, 2020] He came over to shake my hand. My new neighbor next door, Mr. Jed Neidigh, had a big smile, a head full of white hair, and a firm grip. Howdy! He said as he welcomed my wife and me into the neighborhood. “I see you’re an Army man, like me.” Mr. Neidigh was the doughboy next door for the next eight years.
In those years, Mr. Neidigh and I had many conversations. That is how I first learned the true meaning of honor.
The guns of the First World War had fallen eerily silent in 1918. It was seven decades later after the signing of the Armistice that I would meet a man who fought in that war; businessman, family man, devout Christian, and now the doughboy next door. He had been part of the “Great War.”
Those of us alive have little understanding of honor. We think we know what it is but find it difficult to articulate. Today we might define “honor” as a set of personal ideals or being a person of integrity. And while that may be correct in our modern use of the term, it doesn’t capture the concept as used historically.
Except for a few pockets of society, as those in the past like doughboy Neidigh understood honor, it barely exists in the modern West. When folks in mainstream society do bring it up, it is usually done so in jest. In America and other Western nations, we lack a positive notion and healthy appreciation for the kind of classic honor that compelled our ancestors.
There are many fine books discussing honor. Psychologists, sociologists, and historians have tackled the subject by describing various parts and expressions without ever finding its core. I have concluded that these educated experts aren’t entirely sure what honor actually means. I will admit that it is not easy to recapture and describe something that was once so intrinsic to people’s lives that they did not feel the need to explain it.
During the Third Battle of the Aisne, doughboy Neidigh told me how the Allied forces were taking a terrible beating from the Germans. It was brutal combat, the kind you cannot see or ‘feel’ unless you’ve been there. He lost his rifle in one of many attacks. Never, ever, lose your rifle, for it protects you and your buddies. But “since there were thousands just lying around, I just picked one up.” The implication was obvious.1
I never could understand how the foot soldiers of WWI could charge across a vast, open no-man’s land into the face of a well-armed, determined enemy. Those massive Infantry charges resulted in horrific casualties in the tens of thousands in just minutes. Such devastation is beyond my imaginations. Despite the fact that I spent three years in combat, I still cannot grasp the full impact of such a battle.
The classic understanding of honor is the mutual respect given within an exclusive, close-knit group of equals. Honor must be earned, and its loss results in great shame. Honor, therefore, is based on the severe judgment of others within the exclusive group. And one who does not uphold the standards of the exclusive group can no longer be part of it.
Honor compelled these men, in the face of mortal danger, to do their duty. The American doughboy Private Neidigh was part of an exclusive group. He earned the honor to be an American Infantryman, and I was privileged to know him as the doughboy next door.