Thursday, April 10, 2008

Billy Budd II

In Omoo, Melville writes:

I do not wish to be understood as applauding the flogging system practiced in men-of-war. As long, however, as navies are needed, there is no substitute for it. War being the greatest of evils all its accessories necessarily partake of the same character; and this is about all that can be said in defense of flogging.

Billy sees the results of a brutal flogging and is cowed by it, resolving never to do anything to bring such punishment down upon him. If flogging is justified, then so is the death of a sailor or soldier in battle. Because navies are needed. Because war is unavoidable.

Melville's little tale of criminal justice aboard the Bellipotent is a thumbnail sketch of the justice of sending Billy to war. Billy is a man least deserving of death at war. Yet it is just that he be sent to that fate.

The Dansker says, "Baby Budd, [Claggart] is down on you." Billy: "What for? Why, he calls me 'the sweet and pleasant young fellow,' they tell me." But this is precisely why Claggart intends to send Billy to his death. Rather than being those who we should send to war last, the good are the very ones we need at the front lines. They are the ones who can look death in the face without blinking, as Billy does.

Claggart does not represent just leaders who justly send men to war, of course. He is unsuccessful in his mission to send Billy to his death. The punishment of death comes to Billy for the act of eliminating this enemy out of an instinctive and natural rage and indignance for him, the sort of instinct the young and good, those who we must send to war, should have.

War's evil: Billy and Vere, good men, are accessories to it who necessarily partake of the same character.