A Heavy Reckoning for the King

Who is responsible for wartime atrocities?

Published under the title "Our King George Faces A Reckoning" in The L.A. Times on May 16, 2004.

"There are more Williamses, at this point, than Bateses in American uniform."

In the poetry of war, few passages have a nobler ring than does Henry V's oft-quoted speech on the eve of the historic battle of Agincourt. Henry asks his men to imagine themselves years hence, on St. Crispin's Day, the anniversary of the battle, telling the grand tale to their sons and grandsons. St. Crispin's Day, he says,

....shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

After Agincourt, the king promises, the lowliest footsoldier will die a nobleman.

But will he, or does a different reckoning await him? In a quieter scene, earlier in the play, Henry finds himself in a surprisingly frank discussion—conducted in prose, not in poetry—with two of his knights, Williams and Bates. The king states the conventional view of death for one's country: "Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honorable."

But of the king's crucial closing condition, Williams boldly says: "That's more than we can know."

Then Bates breaks in: "Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us."

In the vernacular of our day, the king has said, "Trust me," Williams has answered, "How can I?" and Bates has countered, "I do trust you because then whatever goes wrong, I have the excuse ‘I was just following your orders.'"

Williams speaks next; and like the King in his St. Crispin's Day speech, the veteran soldier looks forward to the end of time. What he foresees, however, is no glowing legend but rather an agony of private guilt for the soldiers and public infamy for their commander. Many of the men will end their lives knowing that, in the heat of battle, under the pressure of loyalty, they have committed terrible crimes, crimes that will damn them quite rightly on judgment day. But on that same "latter day," the king whose wrongful ambition created the occasion for their crimes will bear his own great burden of guilt. On that awful day, the dead and the bereaved on both sides will rise up to accuse him. Williams speaks with the gravity of a soldier who knows too well that "few die well that die in a battle": 

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 a 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 anything 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.....

In his public reply to Williams and Bates, Henry asserts stoutly that every soldier must ultimately be responsible for his own actions. The king cannot possibly be held to account for what the individual soldiers may do, even invoking his name. Privately, however, after their exit, he confesses in a painful soliloquy that Williams's vision of final judgment has shaken him more than he have his subjects know.

Well it should, for as John Adams would say almost four hundred years after Agincourt, "Great is the guilt of unnecessary war." St. Crispin's Day, though a glorious outing for England's longbowmen, would prove, in the end, no more than a temporary victory in an unwinnable war of one hundred years' duration. Britain sought to conquer France. Thousands of lives later, France won.

Who is responsible for America's abuse of Iraq's prisoners of war? Is it our king, George W. Bush? Is it one of his ministers, perhaps Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? Or are the individual knights and pawns responsible for their own actions? Shakespeare would answer, I think, that, though the responsibility is shared, the greater portion of it rests with the President, for it is he who sent these men and women into an unnecessary war.

Soldiers want to believe in the justice of their cause and of their commander. How can they want otherwise? But read the transcript of Rumsfeld's Q&A with the troops in Iraq. Read the Army Times editorial of May 17: "This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level. This was a failure than ran straight to the top." There are more Williamses, at this point, than Bateses in American uniform. And for the king, the heavy reckoning is about to begin.