Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Staff Officer

Back in December, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the US Navy Chief of Information, shared his favorite 15 books on journalist and author Tom Ricks' blog.

Field Marshall Archiblad Wavel
I've read some of the books he recommends.  One that I had not heard of was Field Marshall Lord Wavell's Other Men's Flowers.  A collection of his favorite poems, it contains some of the better known names in poetry: Browning, Yeats, Kipling, Burns, and Poe.  But I confess, if forced to say, I read less poetry than any other genre.  It takes time, focus, and patience, frankly.  With good poetry you inevitably have to go back and read lines over and over again until you understand it -- well, at least I do.  And sometimes, even then, I stare at some verse like it is a sudoku puzzle.  

In it I came across this excellent excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry IV, titled Staff Officer (Hotspur, a regimental soldier is speaking): 

When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk'd,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call'd them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question'd me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pester'd with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answer'd neglectingly I know not what,
He should or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds,-God save the mark!-
And telling me the sovereign'st thing on earth
Was parmaceti for an inward bruise;
And that it was great pity, so it was,
This bayoneting salt-petre should be digg'd
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroy'd
So cowardly; and but for these vile guns,
He would himself have been a soldier.

Amusing.  Reportedly written no later than 1597, I don't think these impressions have changed much in over 400 years.  Still today, staff officers and soliders look at one another and each believe that there is no possible way the other can understand the troubles and challenges they face.  Both believe they are vital to any war effort -- and rightly so.  Empathy helps, but it's difficult to master; having done their job, having been in their position helps, but not always.  Frustration -- "when I was dry with rage and extreme toil" -- has a way of pushing anything else -- empathy, patience, sympathy --  down, down into our gut.

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