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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II



21:  STIFFY

Every camp needs its dominant: and ours has drawn the lot of Stiffy, who is very masterful. He does not pretend to be an officer: perhaps he harbours a latent grudge against the officer-class: he so likes to take them down before us. 'Mr. Squire, your damned cap isn't fit for parade.' Indeed, he wants to be the sole ruler here and humiliates the sergeant major, the sergeants, even the corporals, by public curses.

Having thus got rid of competition Stiffy turns to build up. He tries to impose on us his standard which is the barrack-square, pure and simple. To fail there is Failure: and things not done on square do not seriously exist. With our lips we follow him: but our acts are not in accord. We all know Sailor to be the best man of us. Yet on square he is nothing. We set him over us, voluntarily, because of his forcefulness. My influence is wide, off-duty. Yet I'm painfully, consciously, awkward at drill.

Even Stiffy is not consistent. He subordinates all our life to drill-periods and then blacks drill by calling it a means to make us airmen. Lip-service, that. Stiffy has not an idea what an airman is, while he has an idea - more, a conviction - that drill is worth doing perfectly for its own sake. The queer regard of a grown man for bodily antics!

If Stiffy's staff all believed with him, they might carry us along: we have the attitude of being taught. But the corporals assure us it's army bull-shit which does not persist beyond this depot. By their inadequacy the Depot fails to be continually fierce. It is disjected, a place of fits and starts, full of newnesses which are uncertainties. Particularly the school (not under Stiffy), where they beg us to be intelligent and to work for our private sakes. So school opposes square.

But failingly. We grow sheepish. Classes with teachers go well: private-study men languish or nod over their books. My French class showed me the fatuity of beginning to learn a book subject, while our bodies were in the mill. We have grown to do only what we're told. In the first eagerness we did more and suffered for the crime of initiative. We were eager for hot baths, to wash all over. Now, being almost troops, we know that our inspected part is from the hair on the neck to the top edge of the gym vest. It takes little cleaning: so we learn conservation of energy, which alone enables us against the rush of work.

This learning to be sterile, to bring forth nothing of our own, has been the greater half of our training and the more painful half. Obedience, the active quality, is easy. We came in wanting to be very obedient and we are pathetically grateful to Taffy for ordering us about from dawn till dark. The common tone and habit of the camp helped us and taught us obedience, atmospherically.

It's quite another thing to learn to flop, passively, when the last order's completed: hard to wait supinely for the next. Fellows want to forestall orders out of self-respect. Self-respect is one of the things troops have to jettison, as a tacit rebelliousness of spirit, a subjective standard. We must have no standards of our own. Our decency is in the care of the officers and N.C.O.s, when they remember it; and our honour is what they think good enough for us. After a while of this regime troops' intellects and wills go back to God, who made them. It's queer to see our minds bend when we lean on them. As walking sticks to stay instinct or character over a rough place they are now as useless as a stem of ivy.

Our hut used to arrive at an opinion by discussion, by contradicting the early word that the first fool rushed out. Later this turned into instinct. We have come, unknowing, to a corporate life. Today we think, decide, act on parade without a word said. Men are becoming troops when like one body they are sluggish (to a bad instructor) mulish (when angered) willing (to an openhearted man). We have attained a flight-entity which is outside our individualities. The self-reliance each has singly lost is not lost to us all. As a flight we're stiff-necked and spirited as though the excellencies of Sailor and Snaggle had been buttered thinly over all the fifty heads. The person has died that to the company might be born a soul. For six weeks more: then we are trained men and our unity will be broken into fifty bits and scattered. But we are no nearer knowing, today, whether the new fifty will be their ancient selves, or microcosms of the flight, than we were on that first day when we came in so shyly through the gate with Sergeant Sheepshanks.

 



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