Power and Equality
Millions of young men died because a minority of people in power couldn't get along
The old soldier and I sat together and he talked for a long time
It has become almost a ritual that on Sunday mornings my wife and I, after doing our grocery shopping for the week, go to a certain restaurant for morning coffee. We’ve been doing it for years and, of course, many other people fall into such routines. One such person is an elderly man who turns up driving his battery-powered wheel chair. He’s in his nineties. This gentleman comes in and quite often sits close to us, often striking up a conversation. As a rule, he talks briefly of the usual common place subjects: the weather, what’s in Sunday newspapers, and what is going on around the area. But today as we sat he talked for al long time, and I was fascinated by the things he told me. He really opened up.
Jack was at Buna where some of the worst fighting took place
Jack was already twenty-six years of age when Australian and American Army battalions were fighting the Japanese at Buna and Gona in 1942. He was a sergeant and, out of his battalion at the end of this horrific fighting, his unit had only a hundred men left. Those that hadn’t been killed or wounded were down with dysentery or malaria so, when the chance came after three months of being at the front of some rest, Jack was very glad. They move back a distant airstrip.
It was a rag-tag lot like these who slowed the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Track
Some people have to wield power even when it's not needed
The battalion pulled back way behind the front lines. They were now in comparative safety and the American soldiers were confident enough of their position to actually rig electric lighting that night. On the other hand, a very officious Australian Lieutenant, who had been a school teacher before the war, ordered the Australian soldiers to dig trenches and to ‘turn to’ as if they were still at the front. Jack, being a sergeant had to order the men to do this. But that was not all.
Just putting on their boots was agony. It truly was a green hell
After the men had dug in, the Lieutenant ordered Jack to find seventeen men to be sent out on a night patrol. No one wanted to go. This was not because of any form of cowardice. They knew they were far removed from the likelihood of action. Most of the soldiers had ring-worm in their feet. They were suffering. Putting on their boots was absolute agony. Trying to walk on feet so badly affected was even worse. However, Jack managed to get fifteen men who would do it. The remainder were so badly affected he felt he could not make them. So he reported to the lieutenant that he’d been around to every available man in his section, and even tried in other sections, but fifteen was all he could come up with. He was two men short.
Naval ratings on parade in the 1950s. Boot camp toughening.
Jack was charged with not carrying out an order
Jack was charged with not carrying out an order, and when he tried to argue his case, was charged with insubordination. Such are the ways of the military. I suspect it is still not much different today, though I hope it is. For I can recall a particular unfairness that occurred to me during my own years in the military, my six years with the Royal Australian Navy. Sometimes the impossible is asked and when one falls short, the response, so often, was a disciplinary charge. And these charges were significant; the punishment was so often out of proportion to the offense. For example, seven days stoppage of leave and pay for being a coupe of minutes late in reporting back aboard one’s ship, even when it wasn’t under sailing orders. If it was, the charge was worse. There were gaol sentences for things which in Civilian Life would get one nothing more than a good behavior bond or a small fine. It seemed that power went to the heads of any in authority and they were just about always ready to wield it.
There is a subtle difference between discipline and fear
Such attitudes towards power stems from the culture of the organization
Such attitudes towards power over others stems from the ‘culture’ of an organization and the military are infamous for it. Turn back the clock far less than two centuries and the Navy were still flogging men with the cat-of-nine-tails, and the Army ‘breaking men’s bones on the gun carriage wheel. Such sadism was commonplace. Things were a lot better during my years in the Navy (1954 to 1960) but sailors – especially in boot camp – could still be ordered run with a heavy .303 rifle held over their heads until they dropped with exhaustion if they’d upset the gunnery instructor.
Terror of discipline stifles initative, even common sense
All of this was supposed to make those who sign up better at doing their jobs. What it generally did was to put so much terror into them at an early age that they lost a lot of their ability to respond individually and use their own common sense. They felt they must have an order before they could act. Bit like the quarter-master who refused to break open the ammunition boxes to supply the Redcoats in South Africa with bullets until he got a signed order in his hand. This, as thousands of Zulus warriors advanced with the intention of killing them all. It seems a reprimand was worse than death itself. History shows, they were all killed.
General Douglas MacArthur. Brave in WW1, in WW2 he controlled from afar
Turn a man into a robot and he will act like a robot
When you turn a man into a robot he acts like a robot. There is no initiative, no creativity, and no innovation left, in a man who is so frightened to use his own mind to make decisions to get himself out of a scrape because of his conditioning. The soldier or sailor of old was certainly brow-beaten and cowed to the extent that he was not a real individual anymore, rather a number of be used and exploited. Or as they were commonly referred to in days gone by: They were ‘Cannon fodder.’
Today our young ones are far more independent
It is said that the youth of today have little self-discipline compared with fifty or a hundred years ago. This may be so. We know that the schooling of old, whereby the edicts of the teacher could not be challenged, brought about a certain compliance and belief that ‘authority always knows best.’ Keep quiet and listen! Same applied to doctors, clergymen and policemen. If they said it was right it was right. Today, many of our young ones are far more independent and do not necessarily take for granted what they are told by such authority figures.
General Horii, the man in charge of the Japanese at Kokoda
Is lack of compliance to authority good?
Is this a good thing? There are pros and cons. Fors and against. On the positive side, the young ones of today are far less likely to fall for the jingoism that led hundreds of thousands of young men, possibly millions of young men, to sign on the dotted line and go away overseas to fight and kill people they had absolutely nothing against personally. The young ones of today are much better informed. On the downside, they are likely to be more rebellious and troublesome and perhaps be much problematic to the ‘authorities.’ To me, though, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Money speaks - But it doesn't have as much influence as it did in the past
No, I’m of the belief that the power-seeker who wishes to rule over others is gradually on the wane. More and more individuals are learning to stand up for themselves. Leadership is no longer a quality which is attributed solely to the privileged, those with family power and money. There was a time when only a handful of people – those who were brilliant and won scholarships – could enter the hallowed halls of university, and thereby be assured of head start in life such as the young ones of the wealthy so often have handed to them. Now a huge percentage of our youth can attend university, and do so. Money still speaks, but it does so with nowhere near as much influence as it did in the past.
Australia troops slopping their way through mud on the Kokoda Track
Knowledge enables the power of wider choices
Knowledge is power. Well, it at least enables one to choose more widely. In days gone by it was a labourer’s job, an apprenticeship (if you were lucky) or the enlisted man’s military for the uneducated working class lad. The ‘Old Boy Network ensured the rich went in to Officers’ School, or the Stock Exchange, Banking or at the very least, a start in middle management. Nepotism prevailed. It still does, I expect. But it isn’t quite as effective as it used to be. International economic competition is making that sort of favoritism more and more redundant, thank God. Corporations are after talent as never before.
Australian 'diggers' in action in Papua-New Guinea
Every single one of us should be given the opportunity of education
George Orwell said in his book, Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This still applies. We know there are lots of ‘snouts in the trough’ as far as the world is concerned. But the more and more education the masses get –and I really would love to see this extended to all, especially the women who in some countries are so down-trodden – the longer and wider that trough will become. It will become so long that everyone will at least be given an opportunity to get their share of the goodness contained therein. And isn’t that fair?
When all Humankind really has equal opportunity, the days of ‘lording it over others’ will become increasingly rare. Absolute equality might never eventuate, but at least we will be closer to it than we are at the present time. It won’t be welcomed everywhere. But it will be welcomed by the majority.
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