and whoever loses his life will preserve it."
There was a war. It was the same as the war before, same as the one after: somebody somewhere wasn't happy. And like all wars, men felt the guilt of it. (Or was there war because they were guilty?)
Not all men were in the war. Some men were glad of that. But the guilty men hated the men glad not be in their war and made rules allowing them to force the unguilty into the fray. The guilty men were oh so ashamed and feared to be cast out.
Billy had no guilt, so when the guilty men spotted him they knew right away they must make him as they were and to fear the reaper. For this, Billy was put aboard a ship of war.
Old man Claggart had wasted his intellect and life and sought refuge in the sea where cruelty was still condoned. He'd allow no man to touch him with his Pilgrim's pride but lived for the lovely lashings on Billy's ship of war. The men on the ship hated Claggart's injustice and the thieving of their lives but Billy only saw the loneliness Claggart's cruelty wrought himself.
Claggart was humiliated by Billy seeing him as anything but the evil monster he wished to portray. Billy did not have the black heart like the rest of the ship's crew and Claggart knew in time Billy's pure heart would expose Claggart's pathetic existence as inexcusable. Panicking, afraid, desperate and a loser, Claggart fictionalizes an accusation of mutiny against Billy.
The captain uses Claggart as his sledgehammer to "maintain order" but realizes his sledgehammer has gotten out of control, creating chaos. But his guilt from using him in the first place stops him from directly confronting Claggart. Instead, the captain plots and waits until Claggart goes too far and the almighty law can be invoked. Claggart's obvious libel against Billy gives the captain just such an opportunity.
But Billy is not prepared to face such outright evil the captain has prepared for him to confront, for Billy sees no reason for it in this lovely world. Unable to speak, he strikes Claggart and accidentally kills him. The men, the officers and the captain are all happy and cheer Claggart's death. But they too fear the reflection of Billy's pure heart. Billy has drawn one man out into the open, only a matter of time before he exposes them and their guilty war.
Coming to realize this, it is decided Billy is to be hanged under the pretext of maintaining order to preserve the illusory sanctity of their war. How can they fight if they're revealed as simple fools? How obvious they fight in the end only to hide their love, just like Claggart did. Billy did not betray himself as the rest of the ship had. What is the purpose of any act outside of love?
When their ship is attacked the men cannot fight back. They know their own truth now and feel its peace. But they soon reject that peace, destroying life in the name of saving lives, and the war resumes after this singular pause to live.
Guilty is as guilty does!