On Oct. 13th, D. Will said:
Thanks for bringing this up, because it really bears on the cultural context (and
it's something I like to think about).
The tradition of civil disobedience in our culture has roots in texts like the Illiad
(Achilles doesn't want to fight because his time
(tee MAY) or (personal honor due to be expressed in material form by giving him Briseus as spoils) has not been properly recognized by King Agamemnon. He gets convinced into fighting, finally. (Read the book, everyone who doesn't know how and why he finally fights.)
There's a nice little item tucked into the text in the form of his shield which we might label "what Achilles carried." The shield has pictures of everything in the Greek world, all in place, all over it. When Achilles stays in his place (the position of the warrior, behind his sheild, fighting) he is protected and the world "feels right" to Greeks. When he puts it down, he is outside the world, on his own with his spear or individual will. The Greeks understood the basis of Achilles' wrath at his king's lack of personal recognition. Greeks recognized the unfairness of Achilles's going to war to get back Helen and not being able to have Briseus for it, but having the king keep her, too. (I will leave out the women as property resentment for now because I know this is long and I hope someone will read it).
Another Greek text in which this tradition has early roots actually has a female protagonist. In Antigone
the title character defies her uncle by burying her brother. She takes the penalty of death, on purpose to make her point about how bad King What's-his-name is and how good she is, a "feminine" politics of turning weakness to strength, perhaps. In this case, the issue is not personal warrior's honor, but a woman's right to fulfill her spiritual duty. It is both conservative (it is her traditional, spiritual role to bury her brother and the king has no right to forbid it) and radical.
In both of these Greek texts, there is an acknowledgement that an individual has a personal right to his or her traditional cultural identity which a tyrant may sometimes trample upon in a way that is not fair, not spiritually right. The two stories resolve differently, but the ethical problem is posed and the absolute right of a king is rendered forever morally conditional. There is a higher law which needs to be obeyed, even by the king, a distant forerunner of Rousseau's social contract, perhaps.
This idea goes through all kinds of permutations in the writings of Christian dissenters, but by the time it gets to Thoreau, he has taken to reading the Bhagavad-Gita
, (in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
) from the perspective of a 19th-century American who can basically live with very little material help from society; yet he is bound to a political state which has subjugated and continues to try to subjugate the natural world, Native Americans, African slaves, and Mexico. The government wants him to pay for that. What comes out is a "strong misreading" of the Bhagavadgita
in which Thoreau declares, "Arjoon is right!" and Krishna wrong. He checks Antigone
and finds that as long as he is willing to go to jail, he is respecting the law as much as he has to to be a moral citizen. He does not have to pay war taxes or taxes to a state that returns slaves to the South or does anything with his money that Higher Law (which he knows in his, basically Protestant, conscience) says is wrong.
By the Twentieth Century, these ideas have become so familiar to the Western mind that not only the idea of Conscientious Objection to war, but the idea of War Crimes, crimes of conscience, has been created. In Nuremberg it is argued that "just following orders" can be a crime committed by a soldier. Has the soldier no individual higher moral sense? Apparently, yes. In Tim O'Brien's war, Vietnam, there is another case, the case of Callie and the MyLai Massacre, where it comes up again: what should an individual soldier know is wrong? Who is responsible? There is a very strong Western tradition which now says, not only are you not
morally bound to follow orders; you are morally responsible when you choose to follow an immoral order. (There's a book that traces all this named Crimes of Obedience
which I read about a dozen years ago and I've forgotten the author's name,
but it articulates especially this last part and I want to give him credit and let people find the book by the title if they want to).
This is the philosophical context in which Tim O'Brien is placed in a double-bind. He is going to feel like a coward no matter what he does. His society has gotten to the place where we all have to take responsibility and either become sane as a whole political body, or admit we are reproducing insanity by the systematic exploitation of young men for profit. I'm hoping that this issue will be what is under discussion in The Limits of Power
as well, but I've just started that.
I'm sorry I'm so long-winded. I hope there's enough content here to warrant it.