I just finished reading the newest Drizzt Do’Urden book, The Orc King. Truly, R. A. Salvatore is a master of his craft, and I have always enjoyed reading the many books he’s written over the years. And not only for the simple pleasure of combat against monsters that so often appears in fantasy stories, but also for the more complex moral issues that his books have been developing recently.
This latest book, part of a new series designed to continue the story of this legendary dark elf, raises powerful and complicated issues. When should past wars and past crimes be forgiven? When can they be forgiven? How does one balance past sacrifices against future peace?
In fantasy stories, such questions are often black and white. Orcs, a typical fantasy race of humanoid monsters, are listed in the Dungeons and Dragons (version 3.5) rulebooks as “often Chaotic Evil,” an alignment that basically gives adventurers free reign to kill them without consequences. Many Dungeon Masters, including myself, can and will just put orcs in as an enemy that can just be fought and killed, without any lingering moral quandaries.
And at the opening of The Orc King, that’s the prevailing view. An orc horde had recently (during the events of the previous trilogy) swept out of the mountains and fought their way to the very gates of Mithral Hall, the current home of Drizzt. That army had been fought to a stalemate by the dwarven armies of the Hall in concert with many allies from around the nearby region. When winter weather forces a pause in the conflict, the King of Mithral Hall vows to see the orcs routed from their new territory as soon as can be managed.
Why would that be a desirable goal? The arguments in its favor are simple and obvious. If only because of the many people that lost their lives during the orc attacks, one would think such a course justified. But of course, also, the orcs are warlike and vicious, and leaving such brutal creatures so close by will only result in more suffering when they attack again.
Are the flaws visible yet? The weakness in that plan is simple: it is motivated purely by hatred, most of which is unjustified and prejudicial. One can try to claim virtuous motives in pressing a war, but in a great war where vast amounts of bloodshed on all sides is assured, there are no victors, only survivors. Claiming justice or virtue behind a bloodbath is ridiculous.
As I illustrated in my argument for such a conflict, the lives already lost in battle are often raised as justification for continuing. Aside from the need to exact revenge on the enemy for those lives lost, wouldn’t we be turning our back on those casualties if we avoided a war that they had died for? I strongly disagree with that line of thinking.
Revenge is a destructive impulse, and one I refuse to be controlled by. One can kill every person that had any connection to a terrorist attack, but what will that accomplish? It won’t correct any of the security failures that contributed to the attack. It won’t mitigate the damage done. And it certainly won’t heal any of the physical or emotional injuries that were inflicted. All it will do is offer a fleeting moment of righteous pride that will vanish either in a loss of purpose, or worse, in the damage and casualties of the revenge that the allies of those terrorists will respond with.
But what about the feelings of the casualties? How can we abandon a cause that so many have fought and died for? The problem with those questions is the certainty behind them. There can be no certainty when the people in question can no longer be questioned about their feelings. I can only speak to my own motivations, yes, but I would not want a continued trend of violence, death, and destruction in my name, even if I had died in a war.
I don’t believe that the cause that we devote ourselves to should be the destruction of the enemy. Rather, the priority should be ending the threat that they present. And there are far more ways to accomplish that goal than merely killing all of the enemy; in fact, simply killing is rarely enough to end a war. The cause that soldiers have died for need not be one of annihilation, and it need not be considered disrespect for us to end the threat they fought with diplomacy rather than destruction.
The real price of hatred is best seen, however, in the second “justification” to proceed with annihilation. For some, there is a certainty that any respite or truce the enemy offers is nothing but a trick, a façade to gain an advantage. Allowing the orcs from the world of Drizzt Do’Urden to remain in their position without challenge will inevitably result in a future attack by those enemies.
I would hope that the prejudice and hatred in that defense would be obvious. Again, there is too much certainty there; too much faith in a prejudicial look at the enemy beliefs. In The Orc King, there were two major factions in the orc forces: those that wanted to continue the war, and those that wanted to hold their current ground and establish more cordial relations with the surrounding kingdoms.
As the example shows, it’s a rare enemy that cannot be negotiated with or handled nonviolently. Not that they don’t exist, though; I’m not advocating a halt on all war. I freely admit that there are some enemies that must be fought with. What I will strongly argue for, though, is that we are as open-minded as we can possibly be. That we remember that even in war, the other side is composed of people as well, with their own motivations and desires.
And how can we say that those people cannot be talked to? If we refuse to give diplomacy a chance, then it will fail by our own choice, not by anyone else’s. The prejudice and hatred that gives rise to statements like, “They can’t be trusted to keep their end of the agreement!” or, “We can’t negotiate with them, we have to kill them all!” will set the future on a path to destruction. Had the King of Mithral Hall insisted on fighting the orcs, a great war would have begun. Many lives on all sides would have been lost, and the outcome would have been uncertain.
Would that be a better result than the peace that the two sides managed to find? Who would prefer the uncertain outcome of a certain bloodbath to the uncertain outcome of a truce between bitter foes? In the end, the price of hatred must be measured in lives. If one would insist on hating the enemy as opposed to merely pacifying them, one must be prepared to sacrifice the lives of those on both sides. And if Mithral Hall and the (orc) Kingdom of Many Arrows had insisted on clinging to racial hatreds, they would have been unable to avoid that bloodshed, as will we if we can’t abandon our own hatred.