Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Restraining evil and the corruption of power: Fiction and nonfiction reflections

From David Gemmel's Waylander, page 127:

As he came near, the priests gathered around him silently, leaving a path to the tent at the center of the circle. When he approached, an elderly man stepped from the tent and bowed deeply. Dardalion fell to his knees before the abbot and bowed his head.

"Welcome, Brother Dardalion," said the old man softly.

"Thank you, Father Abbot."

"Will you remove the garments of war and rejoin your brethren?"

"It is with regret that I must refuse."

"Then you are no longer a priest and should not kneel before me. Stand as a man, freed of your vows."

"I do not wish to be free of my vows."

"The eagle does not pull a plow, Dardalion, and the Source accepts no halfway heroes."

The old man reached down and gently pulled Dardalion to his feet. The young warrior priest looked into his eyes, seeking righteous anger but finding only sadness. The abbot was very old, his face webbed with the weight of his life. Yet his eyes were bright, alive with intelligence.

"I do not wish to be free. I wish to follow a different path to the Source."

"All paths lead to the Source, whether for judgment or for joy."

"Do not play word games with me, Father Abbot. I am no child. But I have seen great evil in the land, and I will not sit by and watch it triumph."

"Who is to say where triumph lies? What is life but a search for God? A battleground, a cess pit, a paradise? I see the pain you see, and it saddens me. And where I find pain I bring comfort, and where I find sorrow I bring promises of future joy. I exist to heal, Dardalion. There is no victory in the sword."

So goes a critical exchange between one of the two most important characters in Gemmel's book. This excerpt highlights a prominent theme in Waylander: the question of the morality of violence, or perhaps better said, what part good plays in restraining and destroying evil in the world.

What I appreciate about Gemmel's book is that he does not water down either side of the question. From the beginning of the book, the Source Priest Dardalion wrestles with the profound implications of his partaking in bloodshed. It corrupts him, he adds to the pain and death in the world, but he simply cannot bring himself to stand by and watch others killed by the spread of evil power in the world. It is not that Dardalion fears death (in fact, he would prefer all along to be a martyr, but he believes it is weakness and selfishness to become one, since to die would be to rid himself of the moral dilemma and to leave alone those whom he would protect).

Time and again, Gemmel raises the question in the lives of his characters. The book is full of noble self-sacrifice, the redemption of evil men who give their lives at the last moment for the sake of the unworthy, the corruption of men who would grasp power to conquer evil, only to be brought down by the desire. This is a thoughtful book besides being eminently readable, action-packed, and well written.

I appreciate authors who are capable of raising questions like this in tension, considering honestly the implications of both sides and authentically living out these implications through the drawing of complex, conflicted characters. His is an example from which other authors could benefit.

The question Gemmel raises is one that faces our nation today, embroiled as we are in a war with hardly the moral one-sided-ness of World War II. What role ought the U. S. to play in a world rife with power corruption, death, terrorism, and war? No doubt by any reasonable standard, Hussein was a thoroughly evil man, but the question looms large in many, many minds: was it worth the cost of human life? Was it ours to rectify?

A moment ago I mentioned the moral one-sided-ness of World War II. In the minds of most Americans, World War II was a moment in our history where it was easy to see a struggle of what is good against that which is evil (at least at the scale of nations and ideology). This was a war of citizen soldiers defending themselves and their European brethren against a mad dictator bent on world domination.

But as Gemmel's work reminds us, perhaps it never is quite so simple. Max Hastings, a well-known and respected British military historian, raises questions of moral complexity in the midst of the Third Reich's defeat at the end of World War II. His book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, explores the questions of what sort of person is effective in warfare? Can a man hold up western/Christian/"civilized" values and at the same time carry a gun onto the battlefield? Hastings' answer is yes, but with interesting qualifications:

"...if we wanted British and American soldiers to fight like the Waffen-SS, they would have needed to become people like the Waffen-SS. And then, of course, the very values for which the whole war was fought would have been out the window. We have good grounds today to be enormously grateful that American and British veterans mostly preserved all the inhibitions and decencies of citizen-soldiers. In the main, these veterans never thought of themselves as warriors. They were bank clerks, laborers, train-drivers, and so on, thrust into uniform to masquerade as warriors for a time. They wanted to do their duty and do it right, but equally they wanted to live to come home and share the fruits of victory. All this is very admirable, but of course you do pay a price because it takes much longer to win a war against German fanatics."

Important questions (along with others explored in a thought-provoking interview with Hastings). Both Hastings and Gemmel have noticed the complexity of what's involved when discussing what role violence plays in the restraining of evil, and how far one can go to carry the rod of war without being lost in its primal evil. I am thankful for their reflections, and continue to struggle with them myself.


Gunslinger said...

Big stick diplomacy baby. Big stick diplomacy. Something that the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen also all fought for during WWII, was to rid the world of evil powers that would do harm to others. Even though there was a draft, thousands of American men volunteered to do their part to help make this world a safer place to live. It would be a great dishonor to say that they did not make this a safer world, but if you look around today, how much safer is this world? Granted, thanks to these brave and honorable men, we have no concentration camps, we are free to go whereever we like, we dont have to speak German, but there is still evil in this world. Not the kind of "He isnt taking care of the economy or medicare" evil, but true evil. The hatred of a people based on generations of hatred. Hatred and contempt for Americans and other free economy nations by people bent on destroying our free way of life. I am ranting and probably not making any sense, but so long as there are people who want to hurt, kill, and drive people who can't (or wont) defend themselves, there is a need for military action. To rip off a movie quote, "I like them because they stand on a wall, and they say 'nothing's going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch."

Anyway, where is the line I stand in to sign up for the Crusade?

Dwayne Hilty said...

Allow me to deepen the complexity further. I've never been in the military and, personally, would have a hard time siding with a government and proceeding to kill others in that government's name. Perhaps it's my Anabaptist roots. However, I have to be realistic in saying that although I myself aren't "out there" I am well aware of the fact that my dollars support that cause.

I sometimes feel like I live in an unsolvable tension with regard to this issue. I can certainly see the side for defending those who can't defend themselves; that is a very biblical concept. However, I struggle with "how" to defend them. Is there a better solution than war?

ted said...

Ah, another Gemmell convert.

If you want to see what he's got to say about citizen soldiers, read Legend. It has a couple of characters who are just that. Well, one is a citizen soldier (a farmer drafted to defend a wall for his nation) the other is a farmer who discovers that being a soldier is what he was made to do and has no intention of returning to the farm.

I think the Tom Hanks character from Saving Private Ryan is a perfect example of what Hastings is referring to. He was an English teacher and husband before the war. During the war he is one hard-boiled sunovabitch. There are hints in a few scenes that it is fully his intention to return to his life as an English teacher and husband after doing what had to be done.

That mindset is what allowed many WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam vets to return and both hate what had to be done, but also be proud of what they accomplished. Many had an attitude toward war that could probably be compared to most men's attitude toward having a prostate exam. No one likes it, but darn it, it has to be done.

The current war we are involved in is a holy war. The problem is that only one side will freely admit it. That gives our opposition the luxury of hating us completely. In fact, as is proven by their use of suicide bombers, their hate for us is stronger than their love of their own lives.