Gen. Slim Gets it Together
I’m reading a book I love but that I would not recommend to anyone unless they’re as crazy as I am. The book is dense. Reading it is like hacking a trail through elephant grass. But every page has some powerful insight for us writers and artists if we’ve got the patience to stick with it.
The book is Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshal Viscount William Slim. Ever heard of him? Nobody else has either. But he was one of the great fighting commanders of WWII. He was the British general who defeated the Japanese in Burma and India, after the fall of Manila and Rangoon, the Bataan Death March, and the defeat of virtually every Allied force in Southeast Asia.
A few [of the retreating British] managed to cross [the Sittang River] with their arms on rough rafts or petrol tins. Numbers were drowned; some were shot while crossing. By the afternoon of the 24th, all that had reached the west bank out of eight battalions … was under two thousand officers and men, with 550 rifles, 10 Bren guns, and twelve Tommy guns between them. Almost all were without boots, and most were reduced to their underwear.
Our Writing Wednesdays post last week was about self-reflection. General Slim’s book is that principle put into action.
This was not the first, nor was it to be the last, time that I had taken over a situation that was not going too well. I knew the feeling of unease that comes first at such times, a sinking of the heart as the gloomy facts crowd in; then the glow of exhilaration as the brain grapples with problem after problem; lastly the tingling of the nerves and the lightening of the spirit, as the urge to get out and tackle the job takes hold. Experience had taught me, however, that before rushing into action it is advisable to get quite clearly fixed in mind what the object of it all is. I sat down to think out what our object should be.
You and I in our artistic endeavors have known defeat. Some of us live with it year after year. We know the way forward is inside us. But how do we access it?
I had now an opportunity to sit down and think about what had happened. We had taken a thorough beating. We, the Allies, had been outmanoeuvred, outfought, outgeneraled … To our men, the jungle was a strange, fearsome place; moving and fighting in it was a nightmare. To the Japanese, it was a welcome means of concealment and surprise. Tactically we had been completely outclassed. The Japanese could—and did—do many things that we could not.
In a Hollywood movie, the images we’d see would be bombs exploding and soldiers charging with fixed bayonets. But the true image (for you and me as well as for General Slim) was of a solitary individual—and in fact the only one in all the Allied forces—sitting down alone and thinking.
The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted. Time and again I had tried to pass to the offensive and every time I had seen my house of cards fall down… we had been worsted, and we had paid the penalty—defeat. Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general … He will remember the soldiers he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. He will recall the look in the eyes of the men who trusted him. “I have failed them,” he will say to himself, “and failed my country!” He will see himself for what he is—a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn in upon himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood.
And then he must stop! He must shake off those regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off those attacks he delivers upon himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat—they are more than from victory.
I love books like Defeat Into Victory because they open a window into the mind—and mindset—of a solitary individual, no different from you and me, who faced incredible adversity and somehow overcame it.
More next week about exactly what General Slim did to turn the tide.