A Billy Bud Moment

Photo of Herman Melville

Photo of Herman Melville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Herman Melville’s Billy Bud, a Sailor (1962) aptly conveys the propensity for human self-deception. Captain Edward Vere applies a strict-scrutiny adherence to naval law and condemns Billy Bud to death for accidentally killing his superior John Claggart. Claggart falsely accusing Billy of mutiny generates the dispute between shipmates, due to his speech impediment Billy’s immediate response is manifested physically. The question Vere faces examines the convictions of upholding the law even as it reveals its own moral inconsistencies. Billy’s fate is sealed as soon as he lands the fatal blow. Vere constructs the terms based on his narrow-mindedness: “His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise” (Melville, 1962). The final judgment is acquired through self-deception; Vere convinces himself of the superiority of his ideas and in doing so, “never heeds the frontier” (Melville, 1962) or faces reality.

Acts of war involve human costs, usually at the behest of appropriating the authority of one action over another. Political leaders determine this based on whether gains outweigh losses. The rhetorical options are nothing more than a self-deceptive practice, especially considering the entanglement of people’s lives. Irrespective of the course of history or the context of any specific period, the ethical considerations that ensue following acts of war persist through generations. The collateral costs beg us to ruminate whether war can ever be deemed moral? No matter how President Obama presents his case concerning military action in Syria, the moment is rife with self-deception. The push for war in Syria outlines a certain disavowal of relevant information and the responsibility entailed.

The clearest examples of moral inconsistencies in history are found in the American Civil War and World War II. Despite their reputation as two of the more just wars in history, the collateral damage that concurred suggests an entirely different narrative. The American Civil war was partially waged to ensure the freedom of Black Americans from compulsory enslavement. The failures of President Lincoln and Johnson’s Reconstruction hampered the South, as Freedmen became second-class citizens and poverty prevalent. The Jim Crow laws that resulted systematized a number of economic, educational, and social disadvantages for Black and poor white Americans. The compromise reached in1877 that ended reconstruction removed Federal encroachment on the politics of the Southern States. The deal granted Hayes the Presidency yet emboldened the South to pursue agendas related to “separate but equal” policies.

The effects of World War II also demonstrate the moral inconsistencies and self-deception of Western Allies in their commitments. The overriding reason behind the alliance within the European theater was to prevent Nazi Germany from expanding their fascist objective as well as prohibiting the spread of totalitarianism. The historical evidence of the Munich Agreement and Yalta Conference provide a contradictory picture as it relates to buffering totalitarianism. The concessions of the central and eastern blocs of Europe to Stalin pertain to nothing more than Realpolitik. The results left many Baltic States feeling betrayed and existentially isolated. The political gamble may have kept Western Europe and the United States from an un-winnable war with the Soviets. The long-term cost initiated the nightmarish Cold War, which sustained tensions between the East and West until 1991.

The outcomes of warfare leave disadvantageous guarantees. Moral considerations cannot be overlooked through the use philosophical methods. Convictions of political authorities over the benefits of war can only be reached through a dissociative relationship with reality. Captain Vere decides Billy Bud’s fate through some disconnection with other moral considerations. The spoils of victory are obtained through the denial and elimination of the opposing side. There is technically no way of approaching war pragmatically. Pragmatism suggests approaching decisions based on practicality or success. In war human lives are sacrificed for declared ends, the loss of life should never imply success. Realpolitik as a philosophical tool for the discourse of war is a dissociative one that denies the other integrated whole. The consideration of some moral obligations over others concerning military action in Syria reflects the American Governments very own Billy Bud moment.


HERMAN MELVILLE. Billy Budd, Sailor. Eds. Hayford, Harrison and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s