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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Paralysis, action (and obstruction)

Two parables of initiative and leadership, and one of selfishness versus the general good:

World War Two: the Chindits are behind Japanese lines in the Burmese jungle in the lead-up to the battle of Imphal. The Gurkha column is turning right, towards a road they must cross. The Brigade commander, Jack Masters*, reaches the turn:

"I glanced up, and saw, straight ahead of me, a hundred feet distant, four soldiers [...] I realised that the four soldiers were Japanese. They were staring at me. I moved behind a tree, called the nearest officer, Baines, pointed out the Japanese, and told him to kill them. When he had done that he was to keep the huts under observation until the rear of the force got well past the spot. Baines, too, stared at the Japanese. 'My God, so they are,' he said. The Japanese kept staring. 'Get going!' I snapped. The Brigade Defence Platoon ran down the ridge, firing. Two Japanese ran away, two were killed. They were all armed. Ten minutes later, we crossed the road, unmolested.

"This incident, at an unmarked place on a vague map, still baffles me. What were those Japanese doing there, staring at us as we marched by? Why had no one in front of me seen them? It was inexplicable..."

3 September 1666: John Evelyn** witnesses the Great Fire of London. Oddly, as the flames spread, no-one makes any rational move...

"The Conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonish'd, that from the beginning (I know not by what desponding or fate), they hardly stirr'd to quench it, so as there was nothing heard or seene but crying out & lamentation, & running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was upon them..."

Then the King takes charge:
"It pleased his Majestie to command me among the rest to looke after the quenching of fetter-lane end, to preserve (if possible) that part of Holborn, while the rest of the Gent: took their several posts, some at one part, some at another, for now they began to bestirr themselves, & not till now, who 'til now had stood as men interdict, with their hands a crosse, & began to consider that nothing was like to put a stop, but the blowing up of so many houses as might make a <wider> gap, than any had yet ben made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with Engines: This some stout Seamen propos'd early enought to have saved the whole Citty: but some tenacious and avaritious Men, Aldermen &c. would not permitt, because their houses must have ben <of> the first..."


 * "The Road Past Mandalay" by John Masters (Michael Joseph, 1961), pp. 212-213
** "The diary of John Evelyn" ed. Guy de la Bédoyère (The Boydell Press, 1995), pp. 154-155


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