Concluding his remarks on the wartime imperative to observe the rule of law absolutely, Vere demands swift and decisive action by the court, either to acquit or to condemn. The sailing master proposes to convict but to lessen the penalty, an alternative that Vere dismisses as damaging to the integrity of authority and discipline on board the Bellipotent and potentially leading to mutiny. With this, Vere returns to the porthole to contemplate the sea once more, leaving the adjudicators to make a decision. The adjudicators decide to convict Billy Budd and sentence him to death by hanging at dawn.
Vere’s decisions in these chapters represent the heart of Billy Budd, because the central moral problem posed by this novel is the question of what the just response to Billy’s crime would be. Vere, notwithstanding his sophisticated grasp of the complexity of the situation, is never truly in doubt about what must happen to Billy. He has known from the moment he witnessed Billy strike Claggart dead that Billy has to hang. In these chapters, Vere plays the part of Pontius Pilate to Billy’s Jesus, because Vere refuses to use his authority to do what he thinks is right, just as Pilate washes his hands of the question of Jesus’ fate. (Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judaea—from 26 BC to 36 BC—responsible for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.) But if Vere plays Pilate’s role, he does not do so by abdicating responsibility for making a decision—if anything, he is even more aware than Pilate of the consequences of his actions. His summoning of the drumhead court is not intended as a way to shift the responsibility for the decision away from himself, because he knows that the court will defer to his judgment. Vere’s proceedings are all calculated to create the appearance of due process and fairness for the benefit of the crew—the outcome, however, is never in question.
Vere knows that Billy must be executed quickly. Otherwise, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, the rest of the crew will only understand that Billy killed his superior officer and got away with it. Consequently, the crew will either be outraged that mutiny was treated with such unfair lenience, or tempted to similar action because of Billy’s success, or both. Moreover, Vere does not bend the law at all in his strict instructions to the court. The Mutiny Act, under which Billy is condemned, was implemented precisely in order to deter mutiny by punishing any act of violence against a superior officer with death, no matter what the circumstances. Vere upholds the spirit as well as the letter of this law, and if we feel that the outcome in this case is unjust, as we probably do, then we have to consider why the Mutiny Act itself is unjust.
Vere provides all the clues to what is wrong about executing Billy. In the first place, he says that God would certainly acquit Billy, and no doubt will do so on judgment day, but that naval officers are forced to set aside considerations of God’s law in rendering a decision according to military law. Furthermore, the decision that Vere urges upon his reluctant subordinates clearly violates own conscience, every bit as much as theirs. Vere feels that Billy is fundamentally innocent, even angelic, and when he visits Billy to inform him of the verdict, he seems to feel that he owes Billy something, both as a friend and as a fellow human being, that conflicts with his duties as a captain. Apparently Vere feels that his duty as a soldier is at odds with God, morality, and his own conscience—all of which oppose the sacrifice of an individual life for the sake of another end, in this case, the security and success of the British navy.
Ultimately, Vere makes plain that judging Billy under the Mutiny Act is no different from killing an enemy soldier in a war. In war, the soldiers on one side will kill those of the other side, even if they were forced into service against their will, and perhaps even sympathize with the cause against which they are forced to fight. The essence of war is to sacrifice individual lives in the service of larger ends, and as Vere sees it, that is what has happened to Billy as well. What Melville tries to show through the case of Billy Budd is that waging war requires a nation to be as brutal to its own subjects as it is to its enemies. It is worth noting, in this context, that military law is very different in principle from civilian law. There are many different views of what laws are and what they mean, but one way to view law is as the embodiment of principles of justice, and when courts apply a law in a particular case, they seek to bring about a just outcome. Whether or not this is true of civilian law, it is clearly not true of military law, particularly not in the case of the Mutiny Act.