We went to see Shakespeare in the Park last week.Â The play was Julius Caesar, and it was a good production, but what came to my mind, sitting out on Art Hill on a perfect summer night, were some words from another Shakespeare play, words that have been coming back to me again and again for the past few years.Â Theyâ€™re from Henry V, in the scene where King Henry is in disguise and talking with some of his soldiers the night before a battle:
KING HENRY V
. . . methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honorable.
That’s more than we know.
Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kingâ€™s subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.
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
King Henryâ€™s response to this accusation, after some lame analogies, is that the king is not responsible for soldiersâ€™ deaths because their deaths are not his express purpose in going to war.Â This is also the argument that no one is morally responsible for â€œcollateral damage,â€ even though such deaths, like soldierâ€™s deaths, are a certainty of going to war.
I saw my brother play the soldier Williams when I was a kid, but if you Google â€œBut if the cause be not goodâ€ and â€œIraqâ€ together, you get over a hundred hits, covering everything from casualty numbers to the justification for the war to torture and atrocities,Â so clearly I am not alone in being haunted by this scene.
And itâ€™s worth mentioning that in Julius Caesar, replacing the â€œkingâ€ doesnâ€™t help, as long as those who replace him suffer from the same blindnesses.