Driven by a complicated sense of justice, Captain Vere believed it was possible that even justice can cause the innocent to suffer. While Vere had compassion for Billy, he felt that he was bound by a strict loyalty to his duties. Because the law is clear in this matter of striking an officer, Captain Vere was serving justice based solely on Billy’s immediate actions. In defense of Captain Vere, it is necessary to take a closer look at what conventions he was acting on. Vere’s actions were based on four weighty and controversial principles: upholding communal justice over individual justice, maintaining discipline on the ship, the letter of the law in a wartime setting, and an obsession with his oath of service to the King. All of these reasons provide significant testimony and justification for Captain Vere’s intentions.
Captain Vere, in the interest of maintaining order and discipline on his ship, immediately activated a drumhead court in order to convict Billy Budd. His decision, although harsh and unsavory, was necessary; such sacrifices are required in order to ensure that society, although imperfect in nature, is functioning in a reasonably harmonious matter. In the case of the captain, it was important to ensure unquestioned order on his ship, especially in an unsteady, precarious time of war. There are compromises made when an individual trades, whether willingly or not, their natural liberty in order to gain the order and protection promised by government. Vere was representing a general public order that opposed Billy’s individualism. Even though the other officers on board the ship asked Captian Vere to push Billy’s trial to a later date, he denied their request because he realized that waiting would show weakness. Vere knew that the consequences of displaying weakness would not be pretty.
Captain Vere had many reasons for his decision to continue with the execution of Billy Budd. One of these was his need to maintain order and discipline on the ship. In a time of severe dissatisfaction among the majority of the sailors due to impressment laws, Vere deeply understood the risk of showing any weakness to his sailors. Amidst the climate of dissatisfaction, the Captain was preventing a potential full-scale mutiny. If executing Billy for a crime he clearly committed prevented mutiny, then Captain Vere’s actions were protecting the greater good. Billy’s actions, if left alone, outwardly showed the other sailors that they could express their dissatisfaction of authority through physical means. This could escalate quickly and put many more lives at risk than just Billy’s. Captain Vere’s decision not only upheld the law, but it protected the ship, and potentially the British navy.
"Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang." These words were exclaimed by Vere shortly after Billy ended the life of Claggart. They suggest that Billy, although thought of as an angel, would still have to abide...