On Mercy

Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

13 thoughts on “On Mercy

  1. There is an long excellent article on How the US Military Is Failing by Yves Smith. https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/04/us-military-failing.html
    Tally up the number of three- and four-star generals who have commanded the Afghan War since 2001. It’s roughly a dozen. None of them has succeeded in bringing it to a successful conclusion. Nor does any such happy ending seem likely to be in the offing anytime soon. The senior officers we expect to master war have demonstrated no such mastery.

    The generals who followed one another in presiding over that war are undoubtedly estimable, well-intentioned men, but they have not accomplished the job for which they were hired. Imagine if you contracted with a dozen different plumbers — each highly regarded — to fix a leaking sink in your kitchen and you ended up with a flooded basement. You might begin to think that there’s something amiss in the way that plumbers are trained and licensed. Similarly, perhaps it’s time to reexamine our approach to identifying and developing very senior military officers.

    Or alternatively, consider this possibility: Perhaps our theory of war as an enterprise where superior generalship determines the outcome is flawed. Perhaps war cannot be fully mastered, by generals or anyone else.

    Perhaps our military system should put greater emphasis on avoiding war altogether or at least classifying it as an option to be exercised with great trepidation, rather than as the political equivalent of a handy-dandy, multi-functional Swiss Army knife.
    Carrying through with failed plumber scenario above, our failed plumber (generals) deep inside know they cannot stop the leaks. They cannot publicly admit the mission is doomed to be a failure. We know you can breed animals and develop hybrid plants to exhibit certain traits and select against others. It does appear at some level in the Defense Department the hybrid commander is selected to exhibit the desired traits the Military-Industrial Complex wants. I suspect mercy is a trait selected against. The “Mad Dog” or “Blood and Guts” traits is a sought after desired result.

    Although, there are numerous examples to the contrary a grunt soldier can be merciful one on one vs his enemy. The person with his finger on the “Go Button” to launch a Tomahawk Missile, drop some cluster bombs, spray Agent Orange, or call in the artillery does not have to think about the human casualties, enemy, friendly, or neutral – it is mission – just a set of map coordinates.


      1. The m-word that interests the powers to be most is money, not mercy.
        “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” — General Smedley Butler, USMC, double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.


  2. The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.
    Reminds me of the “not in my name group,” surviving relatives of 9/11 who foresaw the needless killing that took place in the Middle East after that event. . .
    Not in Our Name (NION) was a United States organization founded on March 23, 2002 to protest the U.S. government’s course in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks; it disbanded on March 31, 2008
    The Pledge is written by Starhawk and Saul Williams, in the style of free verse, beginning:
    We believe that as people living
    in the United States it is our
    responsibility to resist the injustices
    done by our government,
    in our names
    Not in our name
    will you wage endless war
    and concluding
    Another world is possible
    and we pledge to make it real.


    1. Without a Congressional declaration of war, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people. They are governmental/corporate wars. Congress is sidelined and cowed and corrupted by money. The American people are kept deliberately isolated from war, and often misled by government lies and half-truths. The people are told to “support our troops” and otherwise to salute smartly.

      Why should the people take ownership of America’s wars when they’re not being fought in their name and for their interests? What we need is to change our government and to reassert Congressional authority over war-making.


      1. Showing They ‘Learned Nothing’ From Iraq, Corporate Media Help Beat War Drums for Trump Attack on Syria: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald argued that it is the “standard tactic” of the corporate media to smear opponents of U.S. wars in an effort to shut down legitimate questions about the rush toward military action.

        “This climate arises that you’re just supposed to cheer when it comes time to drop bombs on other countries, not ask whether there’s evidence to justify it, not ask whether it will do any good, not ask whether it will kill any civilians,” Greenwald said. “And if you do ask one of those questions it means you’re on the side of America’s enemies. It’s an incredibly authoritarian tactic that gets used to suppress debate.” https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/04/11/showing-they-learned-nothing-iraq-corporate-media-help-beat-war-drums-trump-attack
        The presumption in articles like this is that McMega-Media was duped into buying Bush the Younger’s War in Iraq. There were plenty of reporters who had lived through the false hoods and lies the Military spewed out during the Vietnam War and should have questioned the drumbeats to attack Iraq. Now like back during Vietnam and Gulf War 2 the McMega-Media is just carrying out their mission of hyper-rabid Militarism.

        Not so oddly the McMega-Media never mention our own chemical attacks with Agent Orange in Vietnam.


      2. Yes. Agent Orange gets classified as a defoliant. Let’s not forget White Phosphorus (Willy Peter). In fact, strictly speaking, most weapons nowadays are “chemical,” including bombs, bullets, and missiles. They all depend on chemical reactions. It’s not like we’re killing people with swords and clubs.

        Poison gas was a great horror of the Great War (World War I), and it was and should be outlawed. But killing innocent people with “defoliants” and bombs and so on — how is this less objectionable and less horrible?


      3. People say that the Constitution allows only the Congress to declare war but that’s not exactly true, it states “The Congress shall have Power To declare War.” Nevertheless the Congress was employed for war-making until Korea. Subsequently came the war powers act which was supposed to curb presidential war-making power, but didn’t. It’s simple, they just don’t use the word “war” except in meaningless ways such as war on terror.
        It then became fashionable for the US to attack a country, overthrow its government, install a puppet government, and then fight the locals who objected to all that. They were called militants, terrorists, insurgents etc. with the US fighting an “insurgency” which of course was mistaken. It never worked.
        During all this time the US would conduct attacks on various countries citing some righteous purpose, but they weren’t wars either. And so it goes on cutrently.
        It all goes back to the National Security State on which I commented earlier. That all is affected by the greatly increased corruption in Congress and in the media, with citizens getting the short end. The people are allowed to “vote” every so often, for one schmuck or another, then sit down and shut up and let the insiders do what they do, not only in military matters but in every other way. And that’s at every level, from local to national. The system just doesn’t work, and some will argue that it was never intended to work.


  3. Appropos of the whole LOTR thing, I came across the following comment on the Vineyard of the Saker blog:

    “Isengard swears to shoots down any and all firey rocks flung at Moria! Gets ready Isengard, because Sméagol hikes up loincloth! Catapults comes fast, nice and hot and “tricksy!” You shouldn’t be friends with Balrog Taming Orc who kills beings and enjoys it whole!” – Acacia [quoting “@realGollumTrump”] at Saker blog.

    Then we have some foul-mouthed sanity from youtube:

    Paul Joseph Watson: ANOTHER STUPID F**KING WAR (Video) — What could possibly go wrong?


    (2) href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_ieErBsjnE”>Warmongering Democrats Get Wish – More War!

    Now, back to America’s Mundane Mediocre Media which will buy into any stupid and transparent false-flag “chemical” bullshit. How fucking dreary can you get?


      1. Strange, isn’t it, that some of the best news commentary comes from comedians in the USA. John Oliver is especially good on HBO.

        The rush to war: Yes. So easy it is for chickenhawks to call for war when they risk nothing. Nothing. So concerned they are at puffing themselves up and looking tough.

        They’d rather be wrong for the right reason (the right reason being showing “toughness” through military action) than right for the wrong reason (the “wrong” being using one’s brain and conducting a full investigation before marching off yet again to war).


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