A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

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In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

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The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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