Prosecute Yourself

There’s a billboard on the way to work. It’s a recruitment billboard for the Marines. A young man in fatigues with a rifle is wading through water. In the background, other soldiers appear to be running with him. He looks tired. His arms are not in the position of the typically military runner, they are almost listless at his sides. And his expression is less grim determination than hollow stare. Framing him, in big block letters, the sign reads, “Battles Are Won Within.”

The billboard was part of an advertising campaign, created by the same ad agency that came up with “The Few, the Proud, the Marines.” Despite this unsavory origin, the “Battles Won” campaign has some great values. “Battles Won” is designed to drive home the message that mental, moral and emotional strength are as important as physical toughness. The campaign was created around three concepts, fighting self-doubt, fighting the nation’s battles and fighting for what’s right, officials said. They put out a commercial as well:

The billboard fascinated me, less as a recruiting device, but more as an unintentionally profound reflection of life. It has long since been replaced by a “turn to Jesus” billboard. But it returned to my mind as I’ve been reading The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield. In a chapter entitled, “The War Inside Ourselves,” Pressfield discusses the Bhagavad Gita.

In the well known framing story, Krishna instructs Arjuna to kill his adversaries, even though they are his friends and comrades. I’ve always wanted to like the Bhagavad Gita, although it bored me at places, even though it’s very short. In the past, I was drawn to Krishna’s exhortations to work without attachment to results. I was familiar with descriptions of Arjuna’s conflict at this moment. Pressfield had something new for me; something I wasn’t expecting.

The names of these enemy warriors, in Sanskrit, can be read two ways. They can be simply names. Or they can represent inner crimes or personal vices, such as greed, jealousy, selfishness, the capacity to play our friends false or to act without compassion toward those to love us. In other words, our warrior Arjuna is being instructed to slay the enemies inside himself.

Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos, at Ch. 26 [emphasis in the original].

Pressfield devotes two chapters to the Gita, pointing out that the higher struggle for a warrior is to battle his own baser nature, to battle his own vices, to battle the demon within, so to speak. He might as easily have said that this is the role of the veteran, to use the toughness and fighting spirit that he has learned to overcome himself. After all, when you can no longer fight the war, that doesn’t mean you have nothing left to fight, or nothing left to fight for.

There is a lesson for the prosecutor here as well. The tools that we use for justice and truth can be used to make us just and true. Epicurus says, “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation.” (Frag. 522 Usener.) Seneca, after quoting this approvingly, continues.

He who does not know that he has sinned does not desire correction; you must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself […] Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times be harsh with yourself.

(Lucius Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (Collins 2020) at p. 48.)

Treat your life as if it were a case. Take a cold, dispassionate look at the facts. What reasonable inferences can you draw? What possible defenses are there. And then make your charging decision. Consider what you have done. What crimes have you committed against your better self? What crimes have you committed against your loved one, against strangers? Are they infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies? And maybe the hardest question: what do you deserve? Or maybe break the question into two questions, as we do during case evaluation. What is the maximum allowed by law? Then, what is the just amount?

Once you have taken a hard look at yourself, apply yourself to correction and rehabilitation. That’s what the system prescribes for the criminal. But we are all guilty of something. So ask yourself what you ask of others, every day. What have I done? What can do to correct it, in myself and in the world? So you will be fighting the battle within, and applying the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, and of course, the wisdom of the advertising agency.


I also enjoyed Pressfield’s references to the Bible, especially the Old Testament concept of “Purity of Arms.”

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