“It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe
A troop of horse with felt…”
—Lear, Act IV
Hastings had never liked the new Captain.
The new Captain went through the mine field like a dancer, looking around from time to time to see if anyone behind was looking at his trembling rear end. If he found that anyone was, he immediately dropped to the end of the formation, began to scream threats, told the company that the mine field would go up on them. This was perfectly ridiculous because the company had been through the mine field hundreds of times and knew that all of the mines had been defused by the rain and the bugs. The mine field was the safest thing going. It was what lay around the mine field that was dangerous. Hastings could have told the new Captain all of this if he had asked.
The new Captain, however, was stubborn. He told everyone that, before he heard a thing, he wanted to become acclimated.
Background: Hastings’ company was quartered, with their enemy, on an enormous estate. Their grounds began in a disheveled forest and passed across the mine field to a series of rocks or dismally piled and multicolored stones which formed into the grim and blasted abutments two miles away. Or, it began in a set of rocks or abutments and, passing through a scarred mine field, ended in an exhausted forest two miles back. It all depended upon whether they were attacking or defending; it all depended upon the day of the week. On Thursdays, Saturdays and Tuesdays, the company moved east to capture the forest; on Fridays, Sundays and Wednesdays, they lost the battles to defend it. Mondays, everyone was too tired to fight. The Captain stayed in his tent and sent out messages to headquarters; asked what new course of action to take. Headquarters advised him to continue as previously.
The forest was the right place to be. In the first place, the trees gave privacy, and in the second, it was cool. It was possible to play a decent game of poker, get a night’s sleep. Perhaps because of the poker, the enemy fought madly for the forest and defended it like
lunatics. So did Hastings’ company. Being there, even if only on Thursdays, Saturdays and Tuesdays, made the war worthwhile. The enemy must have felt the same way, but they, of course, had the odd day of the week. Still, even Hastings was willing to stay
organized on that basis. Monday was a lousy day to get up, anyway.
But, it was the new Captain who wanted to screw things up. Two weeks after he came to the company, he announced that he had partially familiarized himself with the terrain and on this basis, he now wanted to remind the company not to cease fighting once they had captured the forest. He advised them that the purpose of the war went beyond the forest; it involved a limited victory on ideological issues, and he gave the company a month to straighten out and learn the new procedure. Also, he refused to believe his First Sergeant when the First Sergeant told him about the mine field but sent out men at night in dark clothing to check the area; he claimed that mines had a reputation for exploding twenty years later. The First Sergeant pointed out that it was not twenty years later, but the Captain said this made no difference; it could happen anytime at all. Not even the First Sergeant knew what to do with him. And, in addition to all of these things, it was rumored that the Captain talked in private to his officers of a total victory policy, was saying things to the effect that the war could only be successful if taken outside of the estate. When Hastings had grasped the full implication of all of this, he tried to imagine for a while that the Captain was merely stupid but, eventually, the simple truth of the situation came quite clear: the new Captain was crazy. The madness was not hateful: Hastings knew himself to be quite mad. The issue was how the Captain’s lunacy bore on Hastings’ problem: now, Hastings decided, the Captain would never approve his request for convalescent leave.
This request was already several months old. Hastings had handed it to the new Captain the day that the new Captain had come into the company. Since the Captain had many things on his mind at this time—he told Hastings that he would have to become acclimated to the new situation—Hastings could understand matters being delayed for a short while. But still, nothing had been done, and it was after the election; furthermore, Hastings was getting worse instead of better. Every time that Hastings looked up the Captain to discuss this with him, the Captain fled. He had told the First Sergeant that he wanted Hastings to know that he felt he was acting irresponsibly and out of the network of the problem. This news, when it was delivered, gave Hastings little comfort. I am not acting irresponsibly, he told the First Sergeant who listened without apparent interest, as a matter of fact, I’m acting in quite a mature fashion. I’m trying to get some leave for the good of the company. The First Sergeant had said that he guessed he didn’t understand it either and he had been through four wars, not counting eight limited actions. He said that it was something which Hastings would have to work out for his own satisfaction.
Very few things, however, gave Hastings that much satisfaction, anymore. He was good and fed up with the war for one thing and, for another, he had gotten bored with the estate even if the company hadn’t: once you had seen the forest, you had seen all of it that was worthwhile. Unquestionably, the cliffs, the abutments and the mine field were terrible. It might have been a manageable thing if they could have reached some kind of understanding with the enemy, a peaceful allotment of benefits, but it was obvious that
headquarters would have none of this and besides, the enemy probably had a headquarters, too. Some of the men in the company might have lived limited existences; this might be perfectly all right with them, but Hastings liked to think of himself as a man whose horizons were, perhaps, a little wider than those of the others. He knew the situation was ridiculous. Every week, to remind him, reinforcements would come from somewhere in the South and tell Hastings that they had never seen anything like it. Hastings told them that this was because there had never been anything like it: not ever. Since the reinforcements had heard that Hastings had been there longer than anyone, they shut up then and left him alone. Hastings did not find that this improved his mood, appreciably. If anything, it convinced him that his worst suspicions were, after all, completely justified.
* * * *
On election day, the company had a particularly bad experience. The president of their country was being threatened by an opposition which had no use for his preparedness policy; as a defensive measure, therefore, he had no choice on the day before election, other than to order every military installation in the vicinity of the company’s war to send out at least one bomber and more likely two to show determination. Hastings’ company knew nothing whatever of this; they woke on the morning of the election cheerful because it was their turn to take the forest. Furthermore, the tents of the enemy seen in the distance were already being struck, a good sign that the enemy would not contest things too vigorously. The men of the company put on their combat gear singing, goosing one another, challenging for poker games that night: it looked as if it were going to be a magnificent day. All indications were that the enemy would yield like gentlemen. Some of the company began to play tag, leaping through the abutments, comparing them to the forest that would soon be theirs.
Then, from all conceivable directions, airplanes came; they wandered, moaning, a few hundred feet above the surface of the cliffs and apparently waited. When all of them were quite sure that no others were coming (there would have been no room for them anyway), they began to methodically drop bombs on the company. Naturally, the pilots and crews of the airplanes were terribly excited and, as a result, they misplaced their fire quite badly, missing direct hits on the company more often than not. After a while, there was so much smoke around the vicinity of the cliffs that the pilots were unable to see at all, and they drifted over and peevishly sent excess bombs on the mine field. Hastings, lying on his back, guessed that the First Sergeant had been proved right because, just as everyone had been telling the Captain, the mine field did not go up. It took the bombs quite nicely, as a matter of fact, not heaving a bit. When every plane had released its bomb (some had to actually go over to the forest and drop one on the enemy; there was no other space left), they flew off in a dazzle of satisfaction, leaving the largest part of the company choking with laughter. Those that were not choking were unable to because they were dead. The point seemed to be that here it was the company’s day in the forest, and now their own or some other force had come in and had screwed everything up. In the distance, the enemy could be seen holding cautious formation and then, with no hesitation whatsoever, they put themselves into lines and marched briskly away from the forest, taking the long route back to the cliffs. The new Captain got up on an abutment and made a speech; he said that this had been the first step in a whole series leading to mass realignment. The company applauded thinly, wondering if there was any chance that he might have a stroke. Then everybody packed up and went over to the forest; all of them, of course, except those who were dead. Hastings stayed with a work detail and labeled all of them so that headquarters, if they ever sent anyone up, would know who in the company had failed to take the proper precautions and was therefore to be permanently removed from the master roster list and placed in the inactive files, never to
be bothered by formations again.
* * * *
It was the election day disaster that caused certain men in the company to begin behaving in a very bizarre fashion. News received through the First Sergeant that headquarters believed that the president had won re-election had no effect upon the decision of these men to take up indefinite residence in the forest; they told anyone who asked them that the whole thing was a futile proposition and the company was always going to come back there, anyway. They refused to make formations and had friends answer for them; they covered their tents with mud and pitched them in the shadow of trees; they washed their garments in the rain and, furthermore, they told everyone in the company that they were fools not to join them. One morning, lining up in the cliffs, the First Sergeant noticed for the first time that five men were gone. He became furious and said he would not stand for it; he told the company that he had been through four wars, not including eight limited actions, and there was simply no basis, ever, to performances of this sort. The First Sergeant said that he was going personally to lead the company back to the forest to shoot those five men. They were all prepared to go, looking forward to the objective really, when a misguided enemy pilot flew uncertainly over the forest and, perhaps in retaliation, dropped thirty-seven bombs on it, blowing every tree to the ground, leaving the earth quite green and shuddering and completely decimating his own troops. They were unable to fight for a week because the enemy had to ship reinforcements, and when they finally got back to the forest, they could find, of course, no trace of their five men at all; only a few belt buckles.
It was right then that Hastings decided that the matter of his convalescent leave had come to a head. He had had the idea and he knew that it was covered in regulations: he was entitled to it. Army manuals noted the existence of something called convalescent leave: if it wasn’t for situations such as these, well then, for what was it? They had to deal with it. One morning, he carefully re-drafted his original request with a borrowed pencil on the back of an old letter from his fiancee and brought it again into the First Sergeant. Hastings reminded the First Sergeant that he had originally put this request in months ago. The First Sergeant, groaning, said that the Captain could not possibly look at it because he was still getting acclimated to the situation. But, the First Sergeant added, he had been talking to the Captain on and off and he had some promising news: the Captain had been saying that he would probably be completely familiarized by Christmas. It was only a matter of taking time to get hold of a situation. Hastings said was that a fact and, mumbling promises to himself, left the headquarters tent; he told the Corporal with whom he slept that he hoped to be out of this, sooner or later. Most of the company were still gathering for hours around the belt buckles, looking solemnly, telling each other that it was a damned shame what the Army did to people. Hastings, looking it over again, decided that he had written a strong appeal: how could it be ignored?
* * * *
Gentlemen (Hastings had written), listen: I am applying for convalescent leave as I have already done because I have been in vigorous combat and, while adding little or nothing to the company effort, have driven myself to the ridges of neurasthenia. What fighting skills I do possess and what morale I have acquired through recommended reading materials have fallen to a very low point because of the discouragement involved in the present situation. We are capturing and capturing again one forest and some wasted hills. The forest is bearable; the hills are not, but in the exhaustion of this repeated effort, both have leveled to a kind of hideous sameness; now there is no difference. Indeed, everything has become the same, as is common now in cases of great tension occurring under stress situations to certain limited individuals. Recently, I have had cold sweats, nausea, some vomiting and various nervous reactions including migraine of relative severity that has cut my diminishing effectiveness even further. Most of the time, I can barely lift a rifle … and for all of these reasons, I am repeating my ignored request of three months duration that I be given convalescent leave for a period of several weeks to months for the purposes of renewed vision. Ideally, I would like to go back home, see my civilian friends, share my experiences with them, but if it is found that I cannot be sent there due to problems with transportation allotments and the like, I would settle for being sent alone to the nearest town where there are women and where it is possible to sleep. I would even be willing, if the nights were quiet, to go to a place without women; as a matter of fact, this might be the best action at this time. I am certainly in no condition for relationships, not even those of the fragmentary kind necessitated by copulation. Hoping that this request meets with your attention and approval; hoping that you will not see it as the frenzied expression of a collapsed man but only as the cool and reasoned action of the professional soldier under stress, I remain yours truly, Hastings, 114786210. P.S. I wish to note that my condition is serious; how serious only a qualified professional judgment could determine. If this request is not met with your prompt attention, therefore, or not, at least sent to a competent psychiatrist for an opinion, it is impossible for me to predict what the scope of my reactions will be: I can no longer control my behavior. I have been brought up all my life to believe that institutions are the final repository of all the good sense left in this indecent world; at this point in my life it would assume the proportion of a major disaster if I were to learn that the Army, one of our most respected and ancient institutions, were not to be trusted. P.P.S. Please note that the mines here are already defused; inform the Captain that they need not worry him.
* * * *
On the other hand, the first request had been good, too. The day that the old Captain’s reassignment to headquarters came through, all of the men in the company had come to his tent to stand around him, giving him notes and wishes of good will. Hastings had given him his request in a sealed envelope, and the Captain had taken it for another farewell message and placed it carefully in his knapsack; he told Hastings and the others that he was moved by their display of affection and he hoped that any of them who came into his territory later in the war would drop in and say hello; he would like to find out personally how everything was going. After all of this was over, the old Captain had crawled into his tent, saying, over his shoulder, that the company had given him an experience that he simply would never forget. The company smiled at the Captain’s closed tent and wandered off to play poker. (They had been in the forest that day.)
Hastings thought that he would join them and then decided that this would not do; he would have to force the issue, and so he crawled, quite respectfully, into the Captain’s tent and, finding him wrapped in an embryonic ball on his bunk, told him that he had a few things to explain. Hastings told the Captain that he had submitted a request for convalescent leave and not a good will message. At this, the Captain’s legs kicked from the ball he had made of himself, and he told Hastings that he felt that he had very little consideration. Hastings said that this might all well be true, but he was a sick man and he then outlined the substance of his request. The Captain wrapped himself up intently and thought about it, said that he could court-martial Hastings. He added cheerfully that, since he was not legally in command of the company now, Hastings could be placed in the stockade for divulging confidential material to an outsider. Hastings kneeled then and asked the Captain what the proper thing would be to do, and the Captain said that he hadn’t the faintest idea. He suggested that Hastings recall his request and, as a concession, court-martial proceedings would be dropped. He said that the appeal itself was unexceptionable; the new Captain, if one ever came, surely would approve it.
Hastings took his envelope and left the Captain, went back to his tent singing an Army song and fixed up his pegs neatly, but by the time he had all of them firmly in the ground, he found himself stricken with a terrible intimation. He went back to see the Captain, learned that he was in the officers’ latrine, and waited outside there until the Captain came out. Hastings asked the Captain if headquarters or the new Captain might think that his request was a joke. The Captain said that he could not speak professionally but from what he had gathered from summation, he saw nothing funny in it at all; it seemed quite serious, quite to the point. Hastings said that the Captain might feel that way but, after all, he had been heading up the war, maybe at headquarters, they did not glimpse the urgencies. The Captain said that headquarters was filled with understanding people: they were people who had approved his own request for transfer, and they could be counted upon to comprehend the necessary. Hastings said a few unfortunate words about possible
prejudice against enlisted men, and the Captain’s face became bright green: he said that he suddenly realized that he had not finished his own business in the latrine. Hastings could not follow him in there, of course, but he waited two hours until the Captain came out and tried to pursue the matter. But the Captain, walking away hurriedly, said that he did not know what Hastings was talking about: he did not even know what this request was, had never heard of it in fact; and then he said that, upon consideration, he realized that he did not know Hastings either; surely, he had never seen him before. The Captain ordered Hastings to return to his proper company, wherever that might be. Hastings explained that theirs was the only company within two hundred miles, and the Captain said that Hastings was obviously an AWOL with energy. Then, he ran briskly away.
Hastings gathered that there would be very little point in following and instead went back to his tent. His tent mate was sleeping inside, and Hastings methodically demolished the tent, wrapped it around the Corporal, picked all of this up, groaning, and threw it into a tree. The Corporal hit with a dull noise. When he came out rubbing himself, he said that he was shocked at this; he did not know that Hastings was the type. Hastings shrugged and said that some men changed personality under stress. He wandered away, not breathing very hard, and bought a pencil from someone, took some toilet paper from the latrine and began a very serious letter to his fiancee. He had just brought matters through the Captain’s second flight when the sun set violently, and he had to put everything away. He slept quite badly in the mine field that night (he did not feel like returning to his tent; not quite yet) and in the morning, found that his letter had been somehow stolen. Hastings had a good reputation as a letter writer, and men in the company were always stealing his correspondence, trying to get useful phrases. Hastings did not care about this particularly, except that lately he had begun to feel that he had only a limited number of things to say and they were diminishing rapidly. This theft, then, intensified his gloom, and he almost decided to seek another interview with the Captain but then he said: The hell with it. We’ll give the new man a chance. That is the least we can do. Looking sadly at the enemy tents, Hastings again decided that he was in a highly abnormal situation.
* * * *
Headquarters (wrote Hastings some time later on the back of a letter from an old acquaintance), I am forced to take this most serious and irregular action because of the prejudicial conduct of the recently installed Commanding Officer concerning my re-request for convalescent status. As you may or may not know, I originally placed this request several months ago and rewrote it last week because of the failure of the Commanding Officer to pay any heed, whatsoever. This Commanding Officer has subjected mc to an exposure of terrifying inadequacy without precedent in a Captain of this Army and has imperiled my entire image of your institution. He has never confronted me concerning either request but has relayed statements through the First Sergeant (who is a war veteran with great sympathy for my position) that I am behaving irresponsibly. Headquarters, I ask you, is it irresponsible of me to request a convalescent leave? I have been fighting this war for a considerable period of time now, exposing myself over and over again to the same dreary set of experiences while around me the company ebbs and flows and the reinforcements creep in darkly. The reinforcements tell me again and again that they do not think that there is any sense to this engagement, and I am compelled to agree with them. This entire action has acquired the aspect of nightmare, I am sorry to say, and although I am not an unstable man, I have found myself becoming, not neurasthenic as previously noted, but truly psychotic. This is terrible ritual, gentlemen, terrible sacrifice, really deadly convolution of the soul. Also, they are stealing my
correspondence. I have not been able actually to mail a letter for months, even to tell my fiancee that I have terminated our engagement. Gentlemen, I like my fiancee and what is more important, after two years of distance, I now wish to make an arrangement to spare her of me. What more significant proof can I provide of insanity? Hoping that you will give this request the most serious consideration and hoping that you will review the folder of the Commanding Officer here very thoroughly indeed, I am sending this letter out by and through devious and covert means. Yours truly, Hastings, serial number posted.
* * * *
When he was finished, Hastings took the letter to the officers’ section and gave it to the First Sergeant, who was cleaning some bits of litter from the top of his desk. He gazed dully at the First Sergeant and asked if it could be submitted through special channels, around the Captain. The First Sergeant gave him a look of wonderment and said that the letter could not possibly pass: it was not written in code as all direct communications to headquarters were compelled to be. Furthermore, the First Sergeant said, he had received exciting news from headquarters: there were plans to start a newspaper which would be distributed by airline to the company; this newspaper would tell them how they were progressing in their battle. The First Sergeant said that headquarters considered it a major breakthrough in morale policy. And, in addition to all of this the First Sergeant whispered, there was one other piece of news which had come through from headquarters which he was not authorized to disclose but which the Captain would make the subject of an address to the troops on this day. The First Sergeant said that this would probably be a revelation even to Hastings, a real surprise from headquarters. Hastings, still thinking about the newspaper, asked if it would contain anything except statistics, and the First Sergeant said there would probably be some editorials written by military experts. Hastings said that he wanted to awaken the Captain. The First Sergeant said that this was impossible because the Captain was already awake; he was drafting his speech, and he was too excited to deal with Hastings now. The First Sergeant added that he agreed that this was a shame. Hastings said that he was at the end of his rope. The Sergeant said that things were getting better: he recommended that Hastings learn headquarters code if he was serious about the message and then re-submit it, and he handed him a book. Hastings saw that the book was really a folder containing sheets of typewriter paper, and he asked the First Sergeant what this was. The First Sergeant explained that this was a copy of his short novel detailing his experiences as a veteran of four wars and eight limited actions. Hastings asked what the hell this had to do with learning code or with sending his message, and the First Sergeant said that he was astonished; he said that Hastings was the only man in the company so far to be offered his novel; and he added that everything in it contained the final answer, if it was only studied. The First Sergeant then said that the convalescent leave business was Hastings’ problem, anyway; he had never cracked the code completely himself, and he doubted if it were possible to solve it.
When he came back to his tent, still carrying the First Sergeant’s novel in one hand, Hastings decided that he had reached a moment of major crisis. There were obviously no points of reference to this in his life; he was definitely on his own. All of the company were getting up one by one, discussing the push to the cliffs which they were going to make later in the day. Some of the reinforcements insisted that to achieve the cliffs would be to attain a major objective, but older members of the company gently explained that the battle was probably endless. When they heard this, the reinforcements sat tearfully and had to be persuaded to strike their tents. The First Sergeant came out after a while and called a formation, saying that the Captain was going to address them. When they heard this, the company, even Hastings, became very excited because the Captain had never talked to any of them before; he had always been at the end of the marches, saying that he had to be acclimatized. Now, apparently, he had completed his assessment of the situation, and everybody was very anxious to find out what he had learned. Also they were curious, some of them, about his rear end and figured that at one time or another they would probably be able to get a glimpse of it now. Standing in the ranks, Hastings fondled the First Sergeant’s novel and his letter and made a decision: he would present both of them to the Captain just as soon as he had finished talking. He would wait until the end of the Captain’s speech that was, only if the speech was very interesting: if the Captain had nothing to say or only detailed how he intended to further familiarize himself, he would go up to him in the middle and simply hand him the letter. At least, he would have the man’s attention. This would be a new element in the situation, right away.
Preceded by the First Sergeant, the Captain came from his tent and, walking carefully, came in front of the company. No one could see his buttocks because all of them were facing in the same direction. The Captain stood there, nodding, for several minutes, making some notes in pen on fresh paper, beaming at the motion. Hastings found this frightening. He had never before noticed how small the Captain’s face was; at this distance it was seen to be covered with a hideous stubble superimposed over the features of a very young boy. In spite of all this evidence, he had not been convinced, apparently, because he wore a wedding ring. The Captain backed carefully against a tree and leaned against it, smiling at the company. “Some of you,” he said, “have brought it to the attention of my First Sergeant that you are unhappy. “More than unhappiness. I know that you are vitally concerned. You’re concerned because you see no point in what you’re doing. You’re concerned because you can’t see how what you are doing affects anything or anybody else. You’re worried about this. This is serious. It is a real problem.
“It’s a legitimate matter of concern, all right. When a group of men such as yourselves cannot feel dignity in the work they do, cannot feel that what they do is important to a much larger number of people, they break down. They become nervous. They begin to function in a cold sweat, and sometimes they do not function at all. I have noticed this about one or two of you. But even those I do not condemn. In fact, I have all kinds of sympathy for men in this predicament; it is not pleasant. I know what it can be like. But now and for all of you, this part of your life is over.”
The company cheered thinly. Hastings folded his letter and put it away.
“The situation, in fact,” said the Captain, “is now entirely changed; more than you would have ever thought possible. General war has been declared. The enemy, who have become increasingly provocative in recent weeks, bombed one of our ports of installation last week, reducing it to a pulp. How about that? As a result of this action, the president of the country has declared that a general and total state of war now exists between the countries of the enemy and ourselves. At this moment, troops all over the globe are actively pouring in and out of our military installations; their weapons at the ready!
“Now, what does this mean? I’ll tell you what it means. Gentlemen, you are the first. But, you are only the beginning. What you have gone through will be absorbed, will be a spearhead. And when we go out today, we go into these fields with the entire Army, with the country behind us. You are some lucky bunch of fellows. I congratulate all of you, and I congratulate you individually.”
After the Captain had finished, he stood against the tree, apparently waiting for the company to disperse, so that he could return to his tent without anyone having seen his rear end. Hastings, weeping, drifted behind him, stood in a clearing, destroyed his letter. The trunk covered the Captain’s behind from that angle, too. I do feel better, already, Hastings told himself, I feel better already. But when the Captain finally gave a cautious look in all directions and started backing slowly from the tree, Hastings took his bayonet and threw it at him, cleaving the left buttock of the Captain, bringing forth a bright scream.
“I still feel lousy,” Hastings said.