This is one of several episodes set close to the end of a war, in this case, the end of World War II in the Pacific theater. In contrast to the beginning of a war, when no one knows which side will prevail, and each side is certain about the end to attack their opponents, at the close of the war, there is clarity about the outcome, but far less certainty about how or even whether to continue to attack the enemy. When the enemy is all but beaten, is one obligated to engage as one has engaged earlier, or does morality require that one take the changed circumstances into account, and perhaps even show sympathy for a weakened and compromised enemy? “A Quality of Mercy” is about whether jus in bellum, how one ought to behave in war, includes the quality of mercy toward the almost defeated enemy. This is the question of ex jus bellum, how to end a war, which is a somewhat different question from how to treat the defeated enemy when a war has ended, or jus post bellum.
A small platoon of U.S. soldiers have a group of twenty to thirty Japanese soldiers pinned in a cave. Should they attack the enemy in the cave, who are wounded and of little threat to the Americans, or should they simply go around the cave and advance without attacking the current target? There are at least two different questions here. There is the question of strategy and tactics: What is the best tactical move? But there is a moral question: What are they obligated to do? They are still fighting the Japanese enemy, and their obligation as soldiers has been to kill and capture the enemy. Surely this is their obligation still, or so argues their new, young commanding officer, Lieutenant Katell. His inferiors argue that the right thing to do is to avoid the cave. They argue that further killing, at this point in the conflict, is wrong.
Who is right? This is where possible worlds can help. There is a possible world in which the tables are turned, and it’s the Americans pinned in the cave, and the Japanese are poised to attack them. If, in that world Katell is a Japanese officer, but still somehow Katell, the American officer, what should he propose to do? This is the possible world presented in the episode, and it’s clearly confusing, for Katell, for his fellow combatants, and for us. How can Katell be a Japanese soldier and somehow feel that he is a displaced American soldier? We can’t answer those questions, and we don’t have to. What matters is that after switching back to being an American soldier, Katell now has “a quality of mercy,” which is an understanding of what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence. He heard his Japanese superior using the very arguments he used to command his American troops to attack the cave, and he no longer buys it. Even soldiers in war need to adapt their actions to the context in which conflict takes place. Katell now he hears the call for death with an understanding of what such actions will entail, in the context of the imminent defeat of the enemy, and he recoils from them.
Killing in war is still killing. Killing in proximity of the end of war is different from killing at the beginning of war, or in the middle of war. Moral theory is not comfortable with such sliding scales. This episode suggests that moral theory addressing the morality of war, still has some work to do.
Carsten Stahn, Jennifer S. Easterday, and Jens Iverson Jus Post Bellum: Mapping the Normative Foundations (Oxford University Press, 2014)