Thursday, December 23, 2010
In our modern world, we have the luxury of seeking the painful test of endurance that is a flogging (and the pleasure of watching another man endure his own test). Most of us probably started out by taking a belt or jump rope or something like it to our own backs out of curiosity and then sought a partner to inflict floggings in a manner befitting our curiosity and desires. It is easy for us to engage in the sport of endurance flogging—and seek ever harder tests—when we know that no damage or permanent scars will result.
In times past, though, flogging was a true punishment: bloody, permanently scarring, and humiliating. Something to, in fact, be avoided. I am thinking specifically of military summary judgments which allowed commanding officers to inflict savage floggings upon their personal order—for any offence, actual of perceived—with soldiers having no right to appeal and no choice but strip off their shirts and accept it or face harsher punishment. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not trying to discuss past injustices, I am trying to understand how soldiers subjected to this kind of discipline viewed it.
Soldiers undoubtedly feared their officers because the officers controlled the whip, and that fear became the basis of military discipline. That discipline taught soldiers their military being and bearing—how to respect and obey officers, behave in garrison and in the field, how to march sharply on parade, and how to face enemy cannons. It created (at least the appearance of) courage in the face of the enemy because soldiers feared the certain threat of the lash more than the uncertain threat of battle.
While it is easy to understand why soldiers would resent having skin flogged off their backs, how did they individually react to it when it was they who were seized up? Officers wanted/needed to make an example of each offender, so the pain of a military flogging probably overwhelmed many young men and broke them into screaming and begging for mercy (we don’t see that in the movies for the most part, but we read about it in historical accounts (mostly from people opposed to flogging as a form of punishment)). How does a genuinely brave man face his peers when they have watched an officer’s lash break him? This is where the humiliation aspect of the punishment comes into the picture.
But what about the long term? Did the humiliation break a man’s spirit and last the rest of his lifetime, or did it wear off as the wounds healed (and other men were put under the lash)? Did soldiers hide their scars because of their past humiliation, never removing their shirts when doing soldiers’ work outdoors? Or did they expose their backs at every opportunity to display their experience, prove their personal bravery, and demonstrate their manly disregard for pain?
Have a Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope Santa leaves a lot of leather under your tree!