I’m reading The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield, a short work that seems to be mostly a collection of aphorisms for soldiers. Each brief chapter seems like it could be a starting point for a much more detailed examination of how to be ethical while fighting for a cause. I’m reading it with a group of prosecutors with an eye to how it applies to our work. Pressfield discusses the Israeli Defense Force’s doctrine of “purity of arms,” which he translates as “purity of weapons.” He says the doctrine derives from two verses in the Old Testament. I went looking, and found the two that I think he might be referring to:
9 When the host goeth forth against thine enemies, then keep thee from every wicked thing. 10 If there be among you any man, that is not clean by reason of uncleanness that chanceth him by night, then shall he go abroad out of the camp, he shall not come within the camp: 11 But it shall be, when evening cometh on, he shall wash himself with water: and when the sun is down, he shall come into the camp again. 12 Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad: 13 And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee: 14 For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.Deutoronomy 23:9-14
Deutoronomy is sometimes exalted and sometimes quotidian and specific. For example, this chapter starts out with what to do if you are wounded in the testicles, and this quote discusses “nocturnal emissions” in some translations. For exalted language, it’s hard to find a passage better than verse 14. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers calls it “[a] most beautiful argument for purity in every sense.”
It is harder to find the second Bible verse that Pressfield is referring to, but I think this may be it:
And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.Joshua 6:18
If The Warrior Ethos is mostly a collection of aphorisms for soldier, what can the prosecutor do with it? What is purity of arms for the prosecutor? The most obvious interpretation is this: don’t break any rules when you prosecutor rule-breakers. This is a cliche, and like most cliches, it is both obvious and true. But there is deeper truth here that we should dwell on. The same tools that we use against others can be used against us. Many of our ethical lapses are crimes themselves. For example, in California, it is a crime to withhold evidence. This is a recent change to the law. But before it was a crime, it was unethical. It has always been unethical. You may be prosecuted for withholding evidence. Keep yourself from this accursed thing, lest ye make yourself accursed. And if you do, all of us will be shamed by it. You won’t just be incriminating yourself, you are making every prosecutor look bad, cursing our camp and troubling it. Instead, we should follow both the letter of the law and its ethical spirit. Many of us believe that we are the good guys in the room. They point to our higher ethical standards and our responsibility to do justice, rather than win. This only remains true while we remain true to our principles. While we keep our work pure, so that there is no unclean thing there, and God does not turn away from us.
Pressfield also draws valuable lessons from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, which help me understand why I’ve been obsessed with a billboard.
Deuteronomy, the source of the first quote above, has criminal law in it. It includes laws concerning the appointment of judges, rules for witnesses, and proscriptions against kidnapping and rape.