Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter IV part II - Captain Malcolm's Complete Victory

So after some undoubtedly exciting off-screen adventures, we arrive at the BEF's GHQ, a fifteen-year-old fortress that is the only thing in the ruined country that survived the last bomb swap.  On the surface it looks like one of several pockmarked hills covered in the sunken wrecks of planes and tanks, perpetually in autumn due to the effects of chemical weapons on the local flora.  But eighty feet underground lies a complex of hardened barracks and storerooms and command posts "proof against atom bombs and radioactive dust," sustained by armored air filters and six artesian wells.

In short, the place was an ideal G.H.Q.  The generals, in perfect safety, could send the army out to die.

Yeah, and it's the pencil-pushing civilian government that declares war but it's the men in uniform who actually have to fight it and yaaaawn.  Whoa, sorry, stayed up too late last night.

Fourth Brigade is able to march through the rain and mud almost onto the fortress hill itself before being challenged by guards - the minefields and "photoelectric sentries" have long since gone the way of the base's landlines.  This leads to about a page of Weasel the Scout and Bulger the Cook arguing over what exactly is wrong with these so-called soldiers.  Bulger thinks it's the feeling of safety that comes from having a nice base to sleep in that makes people sloppy, while Weasel posits that boredom and regular meals drive a man to think, and "pretty soon he's figured out that he's a Communist or a Socialist or an Individualist, and the next thing you know he shoots the officers and changes the government."

"There ain't nothin' wrong with eatin'," said Bulger, defensively.

"Not when there's fightin'.  All eat and no fight makes Tommy a politician."

In short, the best way to ensure the loyalty of your troops is to either keep them in constant danger on the battlefield, or constantly hungry as they waste away behind fortified walls.  Evidently someone at the field headquarters came to the same realization, because the sentries are all so gaunt and sunken-cheeked and hopeless that they barely lift their rifles in salute as the lieutenant leads his men into the buried base.  They probably aren't in any shape to repel an attack, but at least they won't mutiny, eh?

The brigade is met by a Major Sterling, who immediately annoys Lefty by referring to the unit as Malcolm's men, taking it for granted that our hero will be removed from his command.

The lieutenant looked at Sterling.  He did not like the fellow.  General Victor had brought rabble with him instead of a staff.  

Oh god, riffraff?!  Is there no escape?

Every bootlicker that had skulked throughout the war in the shelters of London had been ousted by the last reversal of government.  Sending a man to France since the quarantine was placed was tantamount to exiling him for life.  None of these fellows had seen real war.  They had dodged bombs and fawned upon superiors.  In the latter they had become very adept.

And what is a military hierarchy is not another kind of politics?  We should just get all the politicians and the bureaucrats and yaaawwwn.  Excuse me, guess my blood sugar's dropping.

For his part, Sterling has no idea why Lefty has decided to report in.  Eighty-seven other field officers have gone AWOL, and the twenty-one others who actually returned to HQ only did so because they were starving.  Yet here is Lefty, well-equipped and bulging with supplies, inexplicably following the orders of superiors who wish him ill and who he has no reason to respect or obey.  But I guess it wouldn't do for Lefty to just declare himself the Duke of Neo France at the start of the book, we have to meet his corrupt and ineffectual "superiors" so it'll feel justified when he goes against them.

Fourth Brigade is quartered in the north wing with the sixteen hundred soldiers garrisoning the fort, while Lefty gets to go deeper into the complex, down unlit and mossy corridors, past empty apartments that just a few years ago were filled with the bustle of officers and their minions.

It was all quiet now.  Not even a rat scuttled in the dead gloom.  These voices which should have called out a welcome were forever stilled, these faces were decomposed in some common grave out in the endless leagues of mud.  Only the ghosts were here, crying a little, naked and cold and forgotten - or was it just the wind?

And then the big twist at the end is that Lefty has dysentery and Malcolm was a hallucination the entire time.

I think the- a problem with our hero is that Hubbard is constantly contrasting him with those shiny, pompous generals higher up on the totem pole than this brilliant lieutenant, but he's still being elitist.  Lefty is affected by the loss of all those junior officers he once knew, and earlier was morose at the thought that "There are so few of us left" now.  Civilians, though?  All those millions of grunts felled on the battlefields, the nations destroyed by a senseless war?  Meh.  Oh, Lefty likes his men alright, but only because a heroic officer is supposed to.  He doesn't have much sympathy for his fellow man if they're not in his "brigade" or equal to him in rank.

Eventually Lefty reaches his quarters, full of moldy luggage and scattered mementos from its previous residents - a trampled picture of a girl in the middle of the floor, rat-eaten boots, letters to "My dearest Tim" crumpled on the desk.  The most recently-used storage box still has the name of "Forsythe, A. J., Col. Cmmdg. 4th Brigade, 2nd Div." stenciled on it, provoking a flashback of the mortally-wounded colonel telling Lefty "They're gone, son.  They're gone and I'm gone.  It is up to you now, son."  Of course it's up to Lefty.  He's the only competent officer on the whole continent, the only person whose leadership skills and vision can turn this endless war around and put his country back on the right track.

The memory of his fallen predecessor fills our hero with "a great restlessness," and he paces a bit before declaring that he's not changing out of his travel-stained clothes when Mawkey the lackey offers to get some fresher laundry out.  Then Lefty writes a concise report of Fourth Brigade's activities (it patrolled, it defeated the enemy, it "provisioned itself on the country," which is a pretty good euphemism for attacking a town) and sends it off with a runner.

Mawkey chooses this moment to, while repeatedly begging his superior's pardon, express his distaste for this whole situation, his hunch that this whole garrison is about to get up and take over some place with food, while Malcolm is probably going to take command of the brigade.  Absolutely nothing that Lefty hadn't concluded on his own, or been expressly told by Malcolm, in other words.

Ugh, this is really dragging.  If it makes you feel any better, next chapter is another fighty one.

A few hours later and Lefty gets summoned for his meeting with the generals, and so is led "down, down, down into the earth until it seemed that the staff of G.H.Q. wanted to be as close as possible to the devil."  We can thus add subtlety to the long list of amenities that this army has run out of.  These lowest offices are plated in lead and staffed by well-fed people in well-maintained uniforms.

There was something unhealthy about these fellows which the lieutenant could not immediately recognize.  He was used to men tanned by wind and sun and darkened with dirt, men who had hard faces and wasted few words or actions.  These faces were like women's, and not very reputable women at that.  They seemed to be somewhat amused by the lieutenant's appearance and, as soon as he had passed, went back to their ceaseless chattering.

Ah, it's not enough that the author is questioning the military elite's courage, loyalty, and wisdom, he's also challenging their masculinity.

An adjutant colonel named Graves eventually shows Lefty into the generals' office, and oddly enough Graves gets a good paragraph describing him.  Due to the power of names he "certainly resembled nothing more than an undertaker," a dark and morose and greasy guy whose "eyes were not honestly evil like Mawkey's; they were masked and hypocritical."  Not a bad bit of description, but as far as I can tell this Graves fellow is only in the last few pages of this chapter.  If he shows up in the next I've missed it in skimming ahead, and he certainly doesn't appear anywhere else in the book.  So I must question the logic behind spending a paragraph on this military secretary when I still don't have a good idea of what anyone looks like except our Aryan hero and the crooked but lovable Mawkey.

But we finally get our meeting.  General Victor is "a very small and dehydrated man" with an oversized head, there's also a General Smythe who I suppose looks normal, and of course Captain Malcolm.  Naturally, these pampered and pompous high-ranking (and therefore bad) officers are disdainful of this travel-stained field (and therefore good) officer, even if they can't meet the "shocking power" of his stare for long.

They ask about Lefty's some abbreviated report and why he didn't go into much detail about casualties or desertions, and our hero replies "I knew you wouldn't be interested."  Even though they obviously are interested, hence the question.  After being pressed, Lefty mentions the White Russians and their quest to find arable land in Italy.  Then he asks why some other men are standing around the conference room and is told that they represent the Soldier's Council, whatever that is.

I guess they could be an ideological institution parallel to the regular military, making sure it follows the Party or the Islamic Revolution or whatever.  Except these guys are all exiles, more or less, kicked out of Britain after the commies took London, and now they've been cut off from food and communications as well.  So why would they have a political unit breathing down their necks?  And if Victor and the other bigwigs are thinking about cutting ties and finding their own little slice of wasteland to take over, why haven't they whacked the Council representatives?

Maybe Hubbard knows, but if so he ain't telling.  The bigwigs remind Lefty that he's refused to organize a council among his own men, and that they sent a Private Farquarson to help set one up, but he seems to have disappeared.

"He was killed," said the lieutenant.

"What's this?"

"If you'd sent a soldier he might have lived a while.  But as it was, the first time we were under fire he was shot."

"You infer that-"

"I infer nothing, gentlemen.  It was not necessary to shoot the troublemaker myself.  It takes a man to live these days."  And he looked around the board, plainly not finding any. 

In other words, the meeting doesn't go well.  After a paragraph break, the officers confer, and soon announce that Lefty will be relieved of command due to his incompetence, and Fourth Brigade will be merged with the army's First Brigade and led by Captain Malcolm.  The ever-helpful Lefty offers to give what intelligence he can about the surrounding countryside since he knows the base will be relocating, but they decline, since they already have a fertile place way to the south in mind.  And just to twist the knife a bit, the brass bars Lefty from meeting or communicating with his former unit.

"This, then," said the lieutenant, "is arrest!"

Smythe shrugged.  "That is a hard name.  You do not seem to share our political views

Whatever those are.

and as such your opinions must, of course, be isolated.  Your room probably should be changed as well."

"Does it come to you that you gentlemen may regret this?"

"Come, come," said Smythe, amused.  "No threats, now.  You are excused, lieutenant."

Captain Malcolm could not help smiling over his complete victory.

And that's Final Blackout, ladies and gentlemen.  Our hero succeeds on the battlefield and has the best-fed brigade in post-apocalyptic Europe, but is ultimately undone by petty politicking, and dies a forgotten prisoner in his own headquarters, an honorable soul swallowed up by-

Oh, wait.  It would appear that this isn't the last chapter.  I was confused, I mean it said right there that the bad guy won.  I guess the 94 pages left in the story should have tipped me off.

Back to Chapter IV, part I

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