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

(Not Quite) All Quiet on the Western Front . . .

As someone who has pursued his flights of fancy in written form since childhood, there are times when I’m asked why I write the things I do.  What motivates me to write a certain short story or a novel featuring four seventh-graders who cross through the void to a parallel world?  It’s a fair question, of course.  After all, what inspires any of us to do the things we do, to create the things we create?

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There are multiple answers, layered answers.  Interests, passions, points of view . . . each of us pursues those things that matter to us, those things we feel a need to share with others.

But there is also a simpler answer, something that delves deeper, moves beyond the subjects and themes, similes and metaphors.

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There is something more . . .

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Consider an event that took place one hundred years ago–on the battlefields of western Europe, enemy lines entrenched mere yards apart from each other, five months in to the “War That Would End All Wars.”

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Already the combatants were shell-shocked.  Each side had entered the fray believing one knockout blow, one decisive thrust, would assure a quick and easy victory.  The initial German push had caused great alarm in the Allied capitals, and, for a brief moment, Paris itself felt threatened.  But the offensive sputtered at the Marne before bogging down in the cold mud of Flanders.  By the time the 1914 holiday season rolled around, soldiers on both sides of the line had taken to earth, digging trenches and establishing firm boundaries that squared the forces directly across from one another.  It was beginning to be apparent that this would not be the short conflict both sides had hoped for.  Like a thick, toxic fog seeping in through unseen holes, a harsher reality was setting in.

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Thousands upon thousands of soldiers had already died in the fighting.  Ancient rivalries and hatreds burned deep.  Neither side considered defeat, thought about surrender.  These attitudes and beliefs, so firmly ingrained, make the events of December 1914 that much more remarkable.

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In the days leading up to Christmas, official requests for at least a temporary cease-fire had emerged from various factions, including a call from the pope himself that “the guns may fall silent.”  But leaders on all sides shrugged these pleas off.  This was war.  It was no time for cease-fires.

But some of the soldiers living and fighting in the trenches took matters in their own hands.  As the month of December pushed on, signs were evident that something different, something unusual, was in the air.

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Many soldiers would later write home about the events that followed.  One of the most well-known such letters was penned by British soldier Frederick W. Heath, a Private.  In his epistle, Heath writes of the “ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches,” the “grave-like rise of ground that marked the German trenches two hundred yards away.”  “The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last,” he states, but “it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.”

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Homesick, “with overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost,” he writes: “Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve.”

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But then, in the middle of this reverie, Private Heath sees “a light in the enemy’s trenches”–something “so rare at this hour that I passed a message down the line.”  He “had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front.”

It is at this point where the young Private hears a voice rising from the German trenches.  “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”  The voice urged the British to rise out of their trenches and “come out here to us.”  Heath and his comrades feared a trap, and remained where they were, though a running conversation with the Germans ensued all through the night.

Finally, “came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink,” and the Germans were moving “recklessly about” on top of their trenches, “no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty.”  But they did not shoot.

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The German soldiers continued to ask them to rise from their trenches, to meet halfway, and began walking toward the British line.  Initially Heath and his comrades were cautious, staying where they were, but “not for long could such an appeal be resisted.”  They met the Germans in No-Man’s Land, between the trenches, and “out went the hands [which] tightened in the grip of friendship.  Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.”

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“Here was no desire to kill,” Heath continues, “but just the wish of a few simple soldiers . . . that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease.”  The men gave each other cigarettes and exchanged “all manner of things,” along with names and addresses on field service postcards.

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They “stayed together for a while and talked,” and after they had chatted, they “turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

“All through the day no shot was fired.”

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But then, after Christmas had come and gone, Private Heath writes, “As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely.  Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery.  So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.”

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Undoubtedly, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has been mythologized and romanticized in the years since, especially this holiday season, which marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the event.  Tall tales, legends concocted from pure imagination, fictional narratives have thrived.  But something very real and very remarkable did occur a century ago on the mud- and frost-strewn battlefields of France and Belgium.  “It was absolutely astounding,” one British soldier wrote, “and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

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And why not?  In the midst of a terrible war that would drag on for four interminable years, across the still, cold lines, the silence was broken by the sounds of soldiers singing the Christmas carols of their youth, the songs they missed and loved and remembered.

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And perhaps this, more than anything, is what lies behind the need we feel to write, to share, to create.  We are all human, in our frailty, our faults, our conflicts, but also in our love, our joy, and our triumphs.  The duality of life never ceases to amaze.  From the Christmas Truce of 1914 to the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres a mere two years later, the highs and lows of the human condition mystify and astound.

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Maybe, when it’s all said and done, we write because we have no other choice; we need an outlet, a way of communicating ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves.

Have a wonderful holiday, full of the spirit of the season, and thanks so much for reading!

merrychristmas

–Mike

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