The Crime That Cannot Be Wiped Away

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One of the great tragedies of history is that too many men have been all too willing to kill for the state. Even worse is that most of the killing has taken place in senseless and unjust wars.

Regardless of who orders them into battle, regardless of whether they are drafted, and regardless of the reasons they are told the war is necessary, it is the soldiers who do the actual fighting, maiming, and killing. This has been true throughout history.

Even if we accept Hannah Arendt‘s principle that “in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands,” the soldiers at the bottom still bear diffused responsibility for their actions. Responsibility is not all concentrated in the state’s leaders.

To soothe their consciences as they kill and plunder for the state, soldiers justify their acts of death and destruction by the doctrine of concentrated responsibility. This is the idea that the responsibility for the murder and mayhem we call war is concentrated in the sovereign or the heads of state responsible for ordering the troops into battle. This has also been true throughout history.

We can see this in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, written about 1599, which deals with events surrounding the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 — an English victory against the French in the Hundred Years’ War. In scene 1 of act 4, King Henry disguises himself and wanders about the English camp on the night before the battle begins.

Three soldiers — Bates, Court, and Williams — are standing around talking when they are approached by the king in disguise.

Court: “Brother John Bates is not that the morning which breaks yonder?”

Bates: “I think it be: but we have no great cause to desire the approach of day.”

Williams: “We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think we shall never see the end of it. Who goes there?”

King Henry V: “A friend.”

Williams: “Under what captain serve you?”

King Henry V: “Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.”

Williams: “A good old commander and a most kind gentleman: I pray you, what thinks he of our estate?”

King Henry V: “Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.”

Bates: “He hath not told his thought to the king?”

King Henry V: “No; nor it is not meet he should. For, though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.”

Bates: “He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as ’tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.”

King Henry V: “By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king: I think he would not wish himself any where but where he is.”

Bates: “Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.”

King Henry V: “I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds: methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.”

Williams: “That’s more than we know.”

Bates: “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.”

Williams: “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 u2018We 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.”

King Henry V: “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.

Williams: “‘Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the king is not to answer it.”

Bates: “But I do not desire he should answer for me; and yet I determine to fight lustily for him.”

Nothing has changed. Soldiers think they can have the best of both worlds. They think they can kill with impunity in a just cause and with immunity in an unjust cause. But should some of the king’s soldiers get a little reckless and cause some collateral damage, even though the king, like General Tommy Franks, says “we don’t do body counts,” they are the ones who are fully responsible since “the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers.” And as for soldiers determining to fight lustily for king and crown or for president and government or, as so many of them think, for flag and freedom or for God and country, there has never been a shortage of willing participants.

Are soldiers excused for the death and destruction they cause in an unjust and immoral war, like say, the war in Iraq? Just what is it that excuses them? Because their government tells them to do it? Because their commander in chief tells them to do it? Because their commanding officer tells them to do it? Because they wear a military uniform? Because they need to fight “over there” lest they have to fight “over here”? Because they are defending our freedoms? I have answered all of these questions in the negative here, here, here, here, and here. The terrible truth is that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are fighting and dying for a lie.

In King Henry’s reply to Williams, he eludes taking blame by his elaborate analogy. But Henry is missing something here. Sending soldiers to fight in a foreign war is not the same as a father sending his son or a master sending his servant on a legitimate business trip. Bombing, invading, and occupying other countries, and otherwise fighting foreign wars, are illegitimate — even when done under the guise of defense, liberation, regime change, national interest, national security, or humanitarianism.

There are thousands of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and thousands more on the way (thanks to the new war criminal in chief) who just a short time ago could neither spell Afghanistan nor locate it on a map. And as far as I know, no Afghan ever lifted a finger against an American until our troops landed on their soil. U.S. soldiers, like most soldiers throughout history, have been duped.

The crime of unjustly killing another human being cannot be wiped away. No matter what his religion, skin color, ethnicity, or nationality. No matter who tells you to drop the bomb, launch the missile, throw the grenade, or pull the trigger. And no matter what kind of uniform you are wearing.

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