Here’s the way wars were fought 200 years ago (or at least, an ideal example reflecting the values of the era)…
The Royal Navy was much demoralized by its initial encounters with the tiny United States Navy in the opening months of the War of 1812. It was the greatest naval force in the world, and had been accustomed to dominating French and Spanish opponents for a generation. Yet in the first few single-ship encounters of the war, the Americans had taken four British frigates, and several smaller warships.
Captain Philip Broke of the 38-gun HMS Shannon, determined to restore the universe to its proper shape, was blockading Boston, and he knew that there was one frigate in the harbor ready for sea, the 38-gun USS Chesapeake. To even the odds, he sent his consort away to Halifax. Then, on June 1, 1813, he sent a note of challenge in to Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake, assuring him that if he brought his ship out to fight, it would be a fair contest:
As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her main deck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarter-deck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We have both noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.
Lawrence brought Chesapeake out that very day (although, apparently not in response to the note), and followed Shannon out to a point where there was plenty of sea room for a battle. As they took their positions both ships passed up opportunities to fire upon their opponents without return fire, waiting until both were bringing their broadsides to bear.
After the first shot was fired, the battle lasted less than 15 minutes, but it was unusually bloody. Shannon raked Chesapeake‘s decks again and again with rapid and deadly accurate fire, quickly depopulating its quarterdeck. Lawrence was mortally wounded — his last command was “Don’t give up the ship!” But the British boarders, led by Broke, took the ship anyway, at great cost. Broke received a terrible head wound, which his surgeon believed he would not survive. Shannon‘s first lieutenant was killed, one of 228 men killed or wounded on the two ships, making it proportionally one of the bloodiest battles in the age of sail.
Lawrence died as his captured ship was being taken to Halifax, and the Royal Navy buried him there with full military honors.
Broke lived to receive a hero’s adulation, and would die in 1841 as a rear admiral. But his active-duty career was more or less at an end, as he never entirely recovered from the head wound.
To read about that time, Broke’s challenge (“We have both noble motives.”), the gallant and gentlemanly way in which the two captains brought their ships together, and the horrific murder they unhesitatingly unleashed upon one another in the name of honor and glory, is to read about a breed of men who seem alien today.
Anyway, I got to thinking about that this morning when I saw The Guardian raise the question, “Are unmanned military drones ethical in battle?”
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones’, is one of the most controversial elements of modern warfare. The technology allows for the delivery of bombs and bullets with no risk whatever to the attacker. But does the use of drones create new ethical problems? Guardian columnist Seumas Milne and Peter Lee, a military expert at Portsmouth University, discuss the moral and political questions raised by drones
The headline when I got to the actual video debate was a bit more overwrought than the one in the Tweet that had led me there, to wit: “Is the use of unmanned military drones ethical or criminal?” As I said, overwrought.
Today, among most military commanders, any tactic or technology that allows you to strike the enemy with minimal (or no) risk to your own people is a boon to be embraced. And it most certainly is not “criminal.”
But it occurs to me that 200 years ago, the fictional Jack Aubrey (whom Patrick O’Brian placed aboard the real-life Shannon for that epic battle off Boston) would have described slaughtering the enemy without risk to one’s own life as “not quite the thing.”
We’ve changed since then. The question is, have we changed for the better or not? That’s a legitimate subject for debate. As I said above, the idea of pronouncing drones “criminal” is absurd. But we still might legitimately ask whether this is the way we want to fight, in the present and the future.
A few days back, we had a discussion of whether we are evolving into better people, with some of my liberal readers taking the optimistic view. As Kathryn put it, “Right triumphs sooner or later, if one is of a progressive bent. One works to make it sooner.”
I expressed my doubts. I believe every individual, whether born into the 18th or 21st centuries, has an equal chance to do good or evil, and just as big a challenge determining which is which. We may do so in dramatically different cultural contexts, but we face the same struggles.
I think Broke’s fair-minded way of killing presented its own challenges, as does our ability to kill with drones. And neither he, nor we, necessarily hold the moral high ground. I’ll admit that, throwback that I am, I prefer his way. But gentlemanly slaughter can also appall.