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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint




The Air Ministry recognises a rightness in our worship of the technical engineer, by promoting sergeant or sergeant pilot the best men from the ranks: those who have understanding of the souls of engines, and find their poetry in the smooth tick-over.

They form our aristocracy of merit. Against them, over them, stand the lords spiritual, the commissioned: whose dignity comes extrinsically, from some fancied laying-on of hands. When they are forceful souls, Tims or Taffys, one to a squad, all is well. The basic lesion of character in every enlisted man makes him ready to laugh or cry, always, like a child: but seldom leaves him sober. So the hand of a father seems neither incongruous nor disagreeable to us. We earn force, by our root-folly.

Our conscious inferiority excludes Tim from comparison or challenge: but there is rising up a second category of airman, the boy apprentice. They disrupt us now: for the men don't like the boys: but this inevitable phase is a passing phase. Soon the ex-boy will be the majority, and the R.A.F. I knew will be superseded and forgotten. Meanwhile there is jealousy and carping.

The boys come fresh from school, glib in theory, essay writers, with the bench-tricks of workmen: but they have never done the real job on a real kite: and reality, carrying responsibility, has a different look and feel from a school lesson. So they are put for a year to work with men. An old rigger, with years of service, whose trade is in his fingers, finds himself in charge of a boy-beginner with twice his pay. The kid is clever with words, and has passed out L.A.C. from school: the old hand can hardly spell, and will be for ever an A.C.2. He teaches his better ever so grumpily.

Nor do all the ex-boys make the job easier for those they are about to replace. As a class they are cocky. Remember how we, the enlisted men, have all been cowed. Behind us, in our trial of civy life, is the shadow of failure. Bitterly we know, of experience, that we are not as good as the men outside. So officers, sergeants and corporals may browbeat us, and we'll lie down to it: even fawn on them the more for it. That sense of inferiority may not save us from the smart of discipline (your bully will always find his way to be severe, if it's merely to put the fear of God in us) but it gives us the humility of house-dogs, under discipline.

The airmen of the future will not be so owned, body and soul, by their service. Rather will they be the service, maintaining it, and their rights in it, as one with the officers. Whereas we have had no rights, except on paper, and few there. In the old days men had weekly to strip off boots and socks, and expose their feet for an officer's inspection. An ex-boy'd kick you in the mouth, as you bent down to look. So with the bath-rolls, a certificate from your N.C.O. that you'd had a bath during the week. One bath! And with the kit inspections, and room inspections, and equipment inspections, all excuses for the dogmatists among the officers to blunder, and for the nosy-parkers to make beasts of themselves. Oh, you require the gentlest touch to interfere with a poor man's person, and not give offence.

The ex-boys are professionally in the R.A.F. as a privilege, making it their home. Soon, when they have made their style felt, officers will only enter their airmen's rooms accompanied, by invitation, guest-like and bare-headed, like us in an officers' mess. Officers will not be allowed to slough their uniform for social functions, while airmen walk about branded everywhere. The era of a real partnership in our very difficult achievement must come, if progress is to be lasting.

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