Too bad people don’t do poetry anymore. Our grandparents found it eased their toil through this life to memorize scraps of verse. Today I offer two tragic prose quotations as I struggle with “the meaning of life.” The second quote offers me comfort. The first quote I memorized years ago.
Imagine a big WWII prisoner of war camp. The prisoners retain their rank, and associate with peers of their rank. Why? The Geneva Convention, certainly. Folks of higher service rank will be in charge of the committees for things like justice, entertainment and escape. But what of a camp where they are crowded and mistreated like so many rats: Unlike Nazis, the Japanese don’t honor Geneva. There is very little group purpose for the prisoners, no escape committee.
As I see it, in both war and peace, hierarchy is human. For example, any professional sports team will give higher status to those on the varsity, less to those on the second string. When the superstar speaks, every athlete listens. When a collection of individuals come together with a group purpose, whether for sports, a service club, or whatever, the best status goes to those who best help the group achieve its purpose: the president, the tireless volunteer, the treasurer.
If people are penned together without a group purpose, such as in a high school, then, according to essayist Paul Graham, the hierarchy of status degenerates into a “popularity contest.” (Link) Graham noted how the fluttering palace courtiers of French kings were vicious in their pursuit of empty status. I would add that in small towns the social hierarchy for adults is not only frozen, but serves no sane purpose that I can see.
In a healthy army, within a healthy society, the best status will go to whoever is best helping the army to function. Competence at the top means competence at the bottom: The best cavalry will take care of their horses; in the best army, the officers will cheerfully go to the very end of the lineup for the mess hall; a competent general will not, during a mass retreat, push a private out of his jeep to make room for his personal refrigerator. But this actually happened in South Vietnam. (Two years before the fall of Saigon)
Saigon simply did not reward competence and honesty. (And since the U.S. Army was there to advise, not occupy, they could not hire or fire any Vietnamese) And this meant Saigon had lousy officers: Such a cliché, applicable to many governments in the past.
And the future? Must corruption, political and economic, continue down the generations? The science fiction satire End of Empire by Alexis Gilliland is based on lessons learned from history. The novel opens during the desperate last hours of a mass retreat by civilians. A competent honest colonel puts a space shuttle container (think railway car) labeled as a specific general’s “furniture” off to one side. This means one more container of desperate refugees can be flown up to safety. It turns out the “furniture” car was actually full of expensive artworks being shipped by that general. The general is furious. Throughout the novel, the general keeps tugging on his white gloves and saying to his high-ranking fellow losers, as regards the honest colonel, “…after all, he is not one of us.” No wonder the empire falls.
Meanwhile, back at the 20th century Japanese prison camp, depicted in the novel King Rat, by James Clavel… an honest junior British officer, Peter Marlowe, notes the senior officers hanging around together, and tugging on figurative white gloves. A dirty senior officer has bribed a young officer by promising him a permanent commission after the war. Later, the officer later says to his corrupt senior peers over a card game: “My God, what bloody nerve—to think I’d recommend him for a permanent commission. That’s just the sort of guttersnipe we don’t need in the Regular Army. My God, no! If he gets a permanent commission it’ll be over my dead body.”
When the servicemen are finally freed, at the end of the war, young Marlowe looks back and wonders.
Marlowe is processed; he learns his father, in the Royal Navy, was on the allied convoys to Russia’s arctic coast to supply the port city of Murmansk. Sometimes the convoys would steam really far north hoping to avoid the wolf packs of U-boats. Sometimes that worked.
Marlowe is told his father was killed.
Marlowe thinks of his respected senior officers; he wonders about a class system with corruption and incompetence, with no relation between rank-status and serving the army, or the greater social good. Like bureaucracy, this seems to be what every respected senior officer, by his actions, believes in. Maybe Marlowe could conform, maybe go along with everybody else, but he has just been through hell—what did it all mean—what is Right?
“And Peter Marlow knew, tormented, that the only man who could, perhaps, tell him, had died in freezing seas on the Murmansk run.”
My own small equivalent of poor Marlowe would be the years I wondered if I should ignore the lessons of Vietnam, and instead “serve the bureaucracy” like everyone else does. Did the war mean nothing? In the end, I left work that would take me away from serving clients by inappropriately serving red tape; in the end, I lowered my university grade by going off topic by doing my second of two term papers not on the class subject, but on “red tape.” My professor apologized for having to downgrade me, but I told him I was still passing the class, and that was fine.
It seems to me that just as people have anger issues with their heavenly father, they can have issues with their earthly father too. My family was British and alcoholic and we sure as hell didn’t use the word “love” around our house. Did they care? Have concern? Today I would think so; back when I left home I felt like a prodigal son, “not good enough.” At least, while I was living over a dozen mountain ranges away, I had the sense to seek the clarity of a counselor and the comfort of a church. Was my parent’s love real? In their old age, when first they came to use the L word, I didn’t know quite what to believe.
When my father came to my university graduation I didn’t tell him about lowering my mark; I never asked him about leaving my job. He died last year.
Connie Willis spent five years writing her grim Doomsday Book—time well spent.
The winter solstice, Christmas, is traditionally a symbol of death, as the earth lies in winter’s grip, and also a symbol of birth, as the world begins at last to move back towards spring. Doomesday Book unfolds both in Oxford in the future, and in a village in the medieval past. Both time-locations have Christmas, and God, and a deadly plague. (Oxford invokes a police-patrolled quarantine)
For research, the university has a time machine portal. Time travel involves a so-called drop zone, or “drop.” Because of the science of time-linkages, it’s crucial to be back at the drop for your pick up, or else be lost...
A young graduate student, named Kivrin, is sent back to a few years before the plague will arrive and, of course, Something Goes Wrong. As the book’s back cover explains, Kivrin misses her drop…
Kivrin has surgically installed a futuristic recorder, hiding it in a fake wrist-bone spur. She had promised an archeologist, before she left, that if, by some terribly unlikely chance, she missed her drop, then she would try to be buried in a local churchyard: They could dig her up, look for her bone spur, and learn about medieval life. In Kivrin’s final recorder transcript, she is talking to her old professor.
“It’s strange. When I couldn’t find the drop and the plague came, you seemed so far away I would not ever be able to find you again. But I know now that you were here all along, and that nothing, not the Black Death nor seven hundred years, nor death nor things to come nor any other creature could ever separate me from your caring and concern. It was with me every minute.”