Civil Liberties and Temporary Security: Billy Budd and Guardians
"People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither." Benjamin Franklin's statement is often invoked in times of warfare, when civil liberties tend to be most at risk of curtailment, yet it crucially fails to describe the one sector of the American population that is most involved in warfare: the military. Historically military service has not exactly been the voluntary affair it currently is. During the U.S. Civil War cities like New York and Philadelphia would have riots over Lincoln's imposition of a military draft; the First and Second World wars would see the invention of "conscientious objector" status, and Vietnam made "dodging the draft" a generational meme among baby boomers. But leaving aside the question of whether or not military conscription is a gross violation of civil liberties -- to some extent, this depends upon the culture, as mass conscription continues in places like Switzerland or Israel with relatively little domestic controversy -- it is worth noting that an army private has given up not only his or her freedom, but also his or her own personal security. The loss of freedom is literal, as he or she becomes subject to a code of "military justice" rather than the free and unrestricted enjoyment of customary civil rights but which includes substantial policies intended purely for reasons of social engineering (such as the exclusion until very recently of "out" homosexuals, or the continued status of adultery as a punishable offense in the army). But the loss of security is total, as the conscript will be effectively ordered to kill or be killed in the defense of some larger idea of national security. I would like to consider the intersection of military justice and ideas of imprisonment as they occur in two texts by American authors. Herman Melville's Billy Budd is written after the Civil War, as a consciously mythic invocation of a "pressganged" sailor (the eighteenth-century naval equivalent of the military draft) dating from America's earliest days. Peter Morris' Guardians is a monologue drama about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, originally staged in New York in 2006, with "L-Word" star Kate Moennig playing a role based on PFC Lynndie England. I would like to examine the way in which two American authors -- one in the nineteenth century and one in the twenty-first -- approach issues of confinement, civil liberty, and public security. I believe that reading Herman Melville and Peter Morris will extend the sense of Franklin's observation -- in the military, the trade of freedom for security results in the loss of both, and of life.
Rothman in the Oxford History of the Prison notes the many ways in which the birth of the prison in the nineteenth century "followed the military model" in terms of its patterns of hierarchy, organization. Herman Melville's Billy Budd is therefore a sort of prison narrative: Billy has been "pressganged" against his will and conscripted into naval service. Considering that naval service in 1797 would entail gender segregation and physical confinement within an actual naval vessel, it is close enough to be defined as a sort of imprisonment with a punishment of forced military servitude. In the eighth chapter of the novel, Melville characterizes the matter of these pressgangs -- which were hardly uncontroversial -- in terms that sound like a mass suspension of civil liberties with ironic results:
But the sailors' dog-watch gossip concerning him derived a vague plausibility from the fact that now for some period the British Navy could so little afford to be squeamish in the matter of keeping up the muster-rolls, that not only were press-gangs notoriously abroad both afloat and ashore, but there was little or no secret about another matter, namely that the London police were at liberty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large and summarily ship him to dockyard or fleet. Furthermore, even among voluntary enlistments there were instances where the motive thereto partook neither of patriotic impulse nor yet of a random desire to experience a bit of sea-life and martial adventure. Insolvent debtors of minor grade, together with the promiscuous lame ducks of morality found in the Navy a convenient and secure refuge. Secure, because once enlisted aboard a King's-ship, they were as much in sanctuary, as the transgressor of the Middle…