22 October 2007

If you can keep your head...

I realise that self-praise is no praise, but I'm very proud of how I entitled yesterday's post; triple puns, however agonising, are surely as worthy of respect as they are of groans.

Precision in language is something that matters, after all.

Indeed, it was with reference to that that Neil commended me the other evening: in talking to a friend, a fellow grammar nazi, he had remarked that I had recently, in the course of one of our lengthier phone conversations, managed to realise and assert that a certain statement demanded the use of the pluperfect, and that I done this while drunk.

Delighted by this, I exclaimed that that was nothing: had he ever heard of how the Duke of Wellington issued orders during the heat of battle?

And casting aside my headset I spun round and clambered up my shelves to stretch for The Mask of Command, John Keegan's enthralling - if uneven - analysis of the nature of leadership, to read aloud a description of how Wellington had dashed off the following instruction:
'I see that the fire has communicated from the haystack to the roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof, or floors. After they will have fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the House.'

Wellington's clarity of mind and conciseness of expression were famed. To have written such purposeful and accurate prose (the note contains both a future subjunctive and future perfect constructions), on horseback, under enemy fire, in the midst of a raging military crisis is evidence of quite exceptional powers of mind and self-control.
I'm really not sure which is more impressive here, the fact that Wellington was capable of writing with such precision in such a situation, or the fact that he was capable of it at all. Probably the former, on balance, but then the ability to stay calm when the all breaks loose is surely one of the defining attributes of the true commander. What was it Napoleon said?
The first quality of a General-in-Chief is to have a cool head which receives exact impressions of things, which never gets heated, which never allows itself to be dazzled, or intoxicated, by good or bad news.
Clausewitz says it too, of course, and does so at some length, but having already quoted from the two military masters of his age, I'll forego the pontifications of their most astute student. Still, it's interesting, I think, that the quality which Napoleon saw as the hallmark of the general was to Kipling simply the hallmark of a man.

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