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February 7, 2005

"every subject's soul is his own"

(Continuing Friday's theme. ...) There is no doubt, after Nuremberg, that soldiers must question the justification of their side's conduct during a conflict--and disobey any immoral orders. But should they worry about the purposes and legitimacy of the whole war? "Adam K. Anonymous" argued "no" on this blog. "In a democracy," he wrote, "the military is a tool, subjected to our elected representative[s], who should worry about the legitimacy of the war. The military, who don't represent the people, should not be in a position to make autonomous decisions about the legitimacy of the war." One could add that soldiers don't have all the information available to high elected officials, so they should simply follow orders about whether to wage war.

On the other hand, it might seem that soldiers in a democracy bear a particularly heavy responsibility for deciding whether to participate in a war. In a dictatorship, it's very hard to obtain information relevant to a moral assessment of your country's foreign policy. If you want to object, you may have no practical options; you certainly can't agitate publicly against the government. And passive resistance will probably just get you killed. All of these problems are less serious in a democracy, so perhaps the individual soldier must treat the decision to participate in a war--and thus to help kill other human beings--as a matter for personal judgment.

I'm not sure what to think, but I'm struck by the relevance of Henry V, act IV, scene 1.

King Harry is prowling through the English camp incognito on the night before Agincourt. His troops are weary and outnumbered five-to-one; they expect to die. He meets two disgruntled soldiers and defends the conduct of their leader (actually himself), ending: "methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable." The first soldier, Williams, replies: "That's more than we know." Williams implies that it's impossible for an ordinary "grunt" like him to assess the justice of the King's position in the war.

A second soldier, Bates, sees an advantage in their ignorance: they are absolved of moral responsibility: "Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." (Today, most of us do not see a monarchy as legitimate, but in the world of Henry V, the religious foundations of kingship work like democratic elections for us--they render Harry a legitimate ruler.)

Williams sees a corrolary of Bates' point: if they are innocent because they follow the orders of a legitimate ruler who has access to information, then Harry is in moral peril: "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection."

The King understandably resists the implication that he is responsible for everything his men may do. Still concealing his identity, he says: "So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation: but this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where they feared the death, they have borne life away; and where they would be safe, they perish: then if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare."

To paraphrase: subjects must obey the king's decision to wage a war, at least after they have offered their services as soldiers. But their conduct in bello is their own moral responsibility. Left alone, Henry speaks a soliloquy about the lonely responsibilities of the king:

We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry V is one of my least favorite plays of Shakespeare. It seems impossible to separate the perspective of the playwright from that of the king, who dominates the entire work with his particular vision. A monarchical ideology is built into the structure of the plot, and dissonant voices (such as those of Falstaff's old crew) are virtually suppressed. In contrast, Shakespeare usually displays "negative capability," or the capacity not to hold a doctrine of his own. He is "myriad-minded"--inhabiting the minds of all his thousands of characters. Given the overall shape of Henry V, it is tempting to assume that Harry wins the argument with Williams and Bates. However, I'd prefer to see act IV, scene 1 as a place where Shakespeare employs his usual "dialogic imagination." Harry has one perspective; Williams another; and it's up to us to decide what we must think.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:45 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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