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War at its Worst: The Ultimate Practioner

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

When I first began the “War at its Worst” series, I knew I had to include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. One of the most violent novels of all time, McCarthy tells the anarchic tale of a rebel gang rampaging through Mexico killing Native Americans and Mexicans. Almost every other page contains a murder, stabbing, rape or molestation. The Glanton gang fights in battles, takes over towns, and tyrannizes an entire region of the country.

But no passage stood out as an example as “War at its Worst”.

Perhaps it was the complex prose. Perhaps it was because the whole thing is so violent, no one passage could stand above the rest. Perhaps it is because a tree decorated with the bodies of infants isn’t war at its worst, it’s just pathological. Whatever it was, I couldn’t find a passage.

Then it hit me. The Judge, himself, is war at its worst.

The Judge. Judge Holden, one of the great villains of modern literature, a giant sketch-pad-wielding albino who may be the devil, or the embodiment of Death or Violence. Or a gnostic demi-urge (essentially an imperfect lower God who created the universe. Harold Bloom debunks this idea here).

War at its worst is absolute war, with no regard for morals, ethics, customs or traditions. It destroys society and civilization, favoring a survivalist, winner-takes-all anarchy over everything humans value. It means you have to become the Judge.

The Judge explains:

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way

“...it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.

“The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.”

“War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

War, to The Judge, is amoral, fought only for the sake of fighting, with the ultimate prize on the line.

If I’m being intellectually honest, I’ll admit that a quote isn’t true or false based upon the speaker alone. Idiots say wise things, and intellectuals say stupid things. Not everything Einstein said was brilliant. Not everything Marx wrote was wrong.

You can, however, judge a person’s philosophy if following it would lead to abhorrent action. We condemn Hitler’s philosophy because that sick ideology led to moral catastrophe; the two are inexorably linked. The Judge doesn’t espouse a quote so much as a philosophy: all existence is a competition, and the greatest competition is war. The Judge embodies this philosophy.

The Judge isn’t just a murderer, but also a child rapist and murderer. Throughout the course of the book, at least half a dozen children go missing. The book ends with the Judge, naked, pulling the Kid into an outhouse, presumably to rape him. This is a man who, at the town Jesus Maria, buys two puppies just to throw them into a river. (This is the second worst thing he did that chapter. A child went missing a few pages before, and the Judge presumably attacks the child he bought the puppies from--Blood Meridian is vague on the point.) This is a man who scouts the desert, with the Glanton gang, searching for Indians to kill at a price. When they can’t find any, they kill Mexicans, scalp them, and sell those scalps back to the Mexican government. This is a man who opens the novel by convincing a crowd to kill an innocent priest, just for kicks.

Which begs the question: in addition to embodying “war at its worst”, is the Judge a “war is war”-ior? Yes and no. If you define a “war is war”-ior as an win-at-all-costs, ends-justify-the-means philosophy, the Judge only makes it halfway. Though he believes in win-at-all-costs, he has no ends to fight for.

For the Judge, there is no morality; why you go to war doesn’t matter. For “war is war”-iors, this isn’t the case. Those who promote or defend war--the Just Theorists and the patriots and the “war is war”-iors--do so because they use morality as an explanation. War isn’t moral, but its end state could be morally justifiable, the argument goes. They go to war for noble pursuits.

Once you get there, though, the gloves come off. The Judge embodies the gloves coming off. If you believe morality ends when war begins, you’ve given yourself permission to become the Judge. You’ve become war at its worst.

Ask yourself, is this place you want to be?

three comments

I probably need to read Blood Meridian. It was pretty demoralizing reading my last two Cormac novels, though. He’s not very uplifting and this one seems more depressing than any of them.

Also, I ultimately agree that the judge is not a “war is war”-ior. He doesn’t fight for a purpose. However, a lot of “war is war” talk will end up in the same place, which is the point.


I don’t know what to make of Judge Holden (though I’m not sure McCarthy wants him to add up to any one thing). I’m not a lit guy, but I have to think there’s something going on with the fact that the Judge is a child murderer but doesn’t go after the kid until he has been called the man. Then you see the Judge in the saloon again. I have to wonder if the kid/man wasn’t so much killed as turned. Or if McCarthy might be asking if there is that much of a difference between the two.


Michael, you haven’t read it yet? I’m a little disapointed. The relationship between the Judge and the Kid is a fascinating one. MTBradely raises a good question — why does the Judge wait so long?