Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Billy Budd (I)

Get this edition.

Captain Vere must send boys to their deaths. War is a fact, not a debatable proposition. We will send our good boys, and their instinctive and noble fighting spirit will get them killed, just as Billy's did him. And just as in Billy's case, the justice of their fate will be owing to the requirement of a society to defend itself and not to any inherent criminality of their acts.

We can if we like demonstrate to ourselves the need for our country to send good men to their deaths in order to protect the country. Vere argues carefully to his jury (a drumhead court-marshal) that Billy must hang. The problem is that sending Billy or any other decent young man to his death is an indecent act. It make one ill. It renders Vere a broken man.

Billy is an even better man than most, perhaps even Vere. He causes peace and harmony where he dwells. He accepts the sentence Vere hands down and blesses Vere. This expresses the position in which one finds oneself with regard to some soldiers: embarrassed by their superior character and infinite sacrifice.

In war one says, as Billy did on the occasion of his being impressed into the navy, "Goodbye to you, old rights of man." War overrides its participants' rights to be treated with decency and as worthy of respect. War is therefore a fact of the human predicament which is irreconcilable to the rationalistic position that the moral rules demanded by decency and dignity hold absolutely. They don't. We can, however, aim at accepting this reality and this justice as easily as Billy did. In his utterance, he did not mean that war violates our boys' right to life and liberty. And in fact it doesn't. It overrides them.

Of course, there are layers upon layers in Billy Budd. This is only one layer.