Billy Budd, three Navy Seals, and the spirit of the law 224

Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, is the story of an innocent, good young man, an illegitimate orphan, who is impressed into the Royal Navy when England is at war with France in 1797. The Captain of the ship on which he serves loves him, and so do all the crew except for one man, John Claggart, the Master-at-Arms. Motivated by malice, hate, and envy, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of planning mutiny. An astounded and disbelieving Captain Vere has to confront Billy with his accuser. Billy cannot answer the charge. Not only is he bewildered by the accusation which he only understands as a blatant lie, and has no idea how to convey his denial having never been taught to express himself, but in addition he is hampered by a speech impediment. In his frustrated and  desperate need to defend himself, he strikes out at Claggart and accidentally kills him. Captain Vere has no choice now but to have Billy court-martialled. As the only witness to the event, he defends Billy, sincerely believing in his profound innocence. But then, deeply paining his own feelings, he himself actually persuades the court-martial panel to sentence Billy to death, because although it is unjust, it is what the law prescribes. If an enlisted man kills an officer in a time of war, even accidentally, the law says he must be executed. So Billy Budd, a personification of human goodness, is hanged as a criminal.

What has recalled Billy Budd to our minds is the case of three Navy Seals in Iraq. One of them, Petty Officer First Class Julio Huertas is being tried today in Baghdad on charges relating to the hitting of  an enemy captive. The accusation has been brought by the captive himself, Ahmed Hashim Abed.

The US Marines had been searching for him as the leader of a murderous attack on four Blackwater contractors. Abed and his fellow Islamic savages killed the Americans, dragged their mutilated and burnt bodies through the streets of Falluja, and hung two of them on a bridge.

In what seemed like a triumph for justice, three brave Seals captured Abed, for which they should be commended and rewarded.

They handcuffed and blindfolded him, and proceeded to interrogate him. Later the prisoner was to complain that one of them had struck him. If so, the Seal was surely being all too merciful, considering that servicemen are paid not merely to strike but to kill the enemy. Astoundingly, however, all three of the Seals are to be court-martialled.

The other two are Petty Officer 2nd. Class Matthew McCabe  and Petty Officer 2nd. Class Jonathan Keefe.

Huertas and Keefe – who is also to be tried in Iraq – are charged with dereliction of duty, not taking more tender care of their captive.

McCabe is the one accused of hitting the terrorist murderer. He’ll be tried next month in Virginia.

Who, we’d like to know,  made the decision to try these three men, and why? Are they torn in their consciences like Captain Vere? Or are they merely small bureaucratic minds, long gone blind to justice as they scurry about in the purlieus of legal minutiae, intent on obeying the letter but not the spirit of the law?

Jillian Becker  April 21, 2010

Update April 22, 2010: Petty Officer First Class Julio Huertas has been cleared of all charges.