Directing the forces

Thursday, February 13, 2020

5:50 a.m. So strange to awaken so late. It means that by the time I type up the conversation it will be seven a.m. or so, getting light outside. Very well, gentlemen, you have the floor.

No, you might as well talk about Dickie Mountbatten and Abraham Lincoln this morning. The lessons to be drawn are not different.

Because I spent much of yesterday and the day before reading this big biography by Philip Ziegler? I’ve gone through more than 360 pages, and have only gotten as far as 1946. Big book. Big life.

Draw a couple of obvious comparisons and contrasts with Lincoln, and we’ll show you something.

Okay. Mountbatten was the ultimate insider. Direct descendant of Queen Victoria; cousin to the Prince of Wales who abdicated (who served as his best man) and to King George VI; son of Prince Louis Battenberg who served as First Sea Lord and was hounded out of office in the first months of World War I because he was German. Cousin, of course, to the families of the Czar and the Kaiser, who were also grandchildren of Victoria.

Not quite like Lincoln.

Not quite. Well educated, trilingual, in a family with an established tradition of service as naval officers. That was his background. His character was interestingly different from Lincoln’s, too. Unceasingly industrious, habitually working 12- or even 16-hour days, obsessively determined to excel, able to master any amount of technical detail, nakedly ambitious but with the ability to earn advance. No interest whatever in metaphysics. Greatly devoted to his daughters and his wife, though he could not get the intellectual – shall we call it spiritual? – bond with his wife that he desired and needed. A charismatic personality, a natural leader of men, a reconciler, a natural democrat, liberal in ways surprising in one out of his background. Enough? The comparisons with Lincoln ought to be evident without my needing to spell them out.

Now look at him not describing him (with him in the center, so to speak) but describing the world around him as he affected it by what he was.

Interesting distinction. Well, I’ll try. That will be more difficult.

That’s why it is worth doing, not merely here but as a new approach.

Most evident is his impact on the CBI theater. Yes, I hear you, I’ll unpack things a little. Hard to remember that this is ancient history for people.

The China-Burma-India theater of war (as opposed to the European theater headed by Eisenhower or the Pacific theater headed by MacArthur) had been on the defensive throughout the war. China since the Japanese invasion of 1937, the rest since the post-Pearl Harbor attacks that overran Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Malaya, and Burma, that ran out of logistics (rather than being defeated) at the edge of India. It seems to have been Mountbatten’s personal characteristics that restored the army’s morale and turned the Japanese attacks in late 1944 into what became a rout, completely turning them out of Burma by the time the atomic bomb brought a sudden end to the war.

And he did this how?

Well, he was a younger man, for one thing. Born in 1900, he was always the youngest man at the command table. He brought vigor to the command. He visited troops everywhere. He concentrated on overcoming the three factors that he had identified as the chief weaknesses of British forces in the theater: the monsoon, malaria, and morale. It wasn’t a parlor trick. He really did find the men in a defeatist attitude and leave them thinking of themselves as the ultimate winners and the Japanese as being in an untenable position. The men sized him up in his personal appearances and had confidence that he knew what he was doing, that he was telling the truth, and that he knew how to bring victory. In short, he identified the problems, he worked to overcome them, and he prevailed.

Again you see the difficulty in shifting viewpoint to keep the effect rather than the man’s viewpoint in the center of the picture.

I don’t know, I thought I just did that.

You did and you didn’t. You ably illustrated the effect of his actions. You indicated the source of those actions in his personal characteristics.

Well what else do you want?

Nothing tangible, perhaps. It is a subtle shift of emphasis. If you were to describe Lincoln’s effect on the Civil War, you could draw a somewhat similar line of cause and effect from Lincoln’s personal character to his habits to his effect on the men whose efforts he was attempting to hold together. In his case, still the industriousness, the deep understanding that comes from long careful study. Only in Lincoln’s case it was an understanding of man and power rather than –

Not so different, really.

Perhaps not. But you can see how if Lincoln had been different, if Mountbatten had been different, the same physical and personal considerations would have existed but might have manifested very differently.

By “personal considerations” you mean the personalities having to be dealt with. Yes.

These are case studies in the interaction of 3D personalities with the vast impersonal forces as they manifest in the shared subjectivity that you experience as “the outside world.”

That’s very interesting, a lightning flash illuminating the scene.

Thank you. It does work pretty well, doesn’t it?

It really does. A lot of explanation in abstract terms would not have illustrated the concept nearly so well.

It isn’t a clarifying image, exactly. It isn’t an image like a ship at sea. It’s more abstract than that, yet the sense of Lincoln or Mountbatten gathering the strings in their hands and directing the forces that meet events is not a bad image of the interaction of the lives you all lead and the effect you all have.

And for those of us who live on the sidelines of great events?

It was important first to produce a memorable image. Now we can fine-tune it. Take any of those British or Indian or Chinese or Japanese or Burmese or Malayan soldiers. The world was of course vastly bigger than any of them. Their ability to influence even their own lives was minimal. They were pawns on the chessboard. The vast impersonal forces might be said to be flowing through the times, and they had to live their lives not as they might have done if the world were at peace, but as it was. They could not escape from their times any more than you can escape from yours. Living your lives, then, is how you are conduits for the vast impersonal forces. It is how those forces become in effect vast personal forces. It is in living your life that you:

  • Transform your own being, “working out your salvation,” as the Buddhists say.
  • Participate in the translation of vast impersonal forces into definite results, “fixing” the image of your times.

Perhaps this is not clear.

I think it is an advance of clarity, clearer than before.

Your lives face two directions that are actually two sides of the same coin. You live your life experienced from the inside, affecting the outside. Subjective and objective. Personal and part of the whole. Invisible and manifest. Both, not only one or the other.

So today’s theme was –

Directing the forces.

Nice play on words. And next time?

Again, we may look at events in Lincoln’s life to show new facets of the situation. Or, maybe not. We shall see.

Our continued thanks for all this. Nice to see all that reading about Mountbatten put to use. Next time.


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