While bureaucracy plays an obviously important role in Some Do Not, where Christopher Tietjens is employed as a government statistician in regular conflict with his pencil-pushing superiors, in No More Parades the problems of bureaucracy become both more critical, because of the life-and-death situation of the war, and also more immediate, because now Tietjens is truly distanced from the upper echelons in London. Rather than being able to predict potential problems with bureaucrats’ policies, he is a direct witness and often a victim of those policies.
The specific problems are familiar. Tietjens must apply to several quartermasters for his battalion’s supplies, each pointing a finger at someone else. Communication is difficult even at the base, and orders are continually sent down, countermanded, reinstated, revised, and countermanded again. There is a surprising amount of paperwork considering a few miles down the road millions are dying, but Tietjens recognizes its propriety, at least to some degree:
Every man had nine sets of papers and tags that had to be signed by an officer. It was quite proper that the poor devils should be properly documented. But how was it to be done? He had two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four men to send off that night and nine times two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four is twenty-six thousand nine hundred and forty-six. They would not or could not let him have a disc-punching machine of his own, but how was the Depot armourer to be expected to punch five thousand nine hundred and eighty-eight extra identity discs in addition to his regular job?
Of course, Tietjens can do anything in addition to his regular job. He can barely hold his head up at times but he gets his men out on time, personally makes sure they are outfitted, and even manages to keep track of their financial situations and help them write their wills before they are sent up the line. But his achievements are continually crushed by the faceless mass:
The whole organization of his confounded battalion fell to pieces. …It was just the way of the army, all the time. You got a platoon, or a battalion, or, for the matter of that, a dug-out or a tent, by herculean labours into good fettle. It ran all right for a day or two, then it all fell to pieces, the personnel scattered to the four winds by what appeared merely wanton orders, coming from the most unexpected headquarters, or the premises were smashed up by a chance shell that might just as well have fallen somewhere else….The finger of Fate!
Orders from headquarters are “wanton,” but Tietjens’s orders make perfect sense. He is intimately familiar with his men and their needs and can make snap decisions to head off problems before they have time to develop. It’s that kind of brain that can keep things in order—and according to General Campion there must just be one brain, one command, for it to work:
What won combats, campaigns, and, in the end, wars, was the brain which timed the arrival of forces at given points—and that must be one brain which could command their presence at these points, not a half-dozen authorities requesting each other to perform operations which might or might not fall in with the ideas or the prejudices of any one or other of the half-dozen….
While the frustrations of separate French and English commands can’t be denied, Campion’s single brain can’t do the job either. The knowledge problem cannot be overcome, and the incentives of that bureaucratic brain are all off. Right then, for example, London bureaucrats are purposely causing greater loss of life for their own political ends. You have to get down to the orderly-rooms before the incentives are aligned closely enough to make possible a truly impressive amount of decentralized planning and execution. All the soldiers are “really dependent on the acting orderly-room lance-corporals for their temporal and spiritual salvation,” that is, to match up all the supplies with their corresponding demands:
Yet, in the end, all this tangle was satisfactorily unravelled; the drafts moved off, unknotting themselves like snakes, coiling out of inextricable bunches, sliding vertebrately over the mud to dip into their bowls—the rabbis found Jews dying to whom to administer; the vets, spavined mules; the V.A.D.s, men without jaws and shoulders in C.C.S.s; the camp-cookers, frozen beef; the chiropodists, ingrowing toenails; the dentists, decayed molars; the naval howitzers, camouflaged emplacements in picturesquely wooded dingles….Somehow they got there—even to the pots of strawberry jam by the ten dozen!
For if the acting lance-corporal, whose life hung by a hair, made a slip of the pen over a dozen pots of jam, back he went, Returned to duty…back to the frozen rifle, the ground-sheet on the liquid mud….
Massive troop movements worth, quite literally, millions of lives, are determined less carefully than the distribution of condiments, because screwing up only one of those will get you killed. The folks back in London are hopelessly unaccountable, and as a man in the field who has seen death in one of history’s most gruesome wars, Tietjens is more disgusted with them than ever.
But he still believes in the enterprise. His speech to Levin is a golden Tietjens moment:
‘It’s an encouraging spectacle, really. The beastliness of human nature is always pretty normal. We lie and betray and are wanting in imagination and deceive ourselves, always, at about the same rate. In peace and in war! But, somewhere in that view there are enormous bodies of men….If you got a still more extended range of view over this whole front you’d have still more enormous bodies of men. Seven to ten million….All moving towards places towards which they desperately don’t want to go. Desperately! Every one of them is desperately afraid. But they go on. An immense blind will forces them in the effort to consummate the one decent action that humanity has to its credit in the whole of recorded history; the one we are engaged in. That effort is the one certain creditable fact in all their lives….But the other lives of all those men are dirty, potty and discreditable little affairs….Like yours…Like mine….’
Levin is horrified by what he sees as unimaginable pessimism, but Tietjens insists this is optimism. And it is—after all, Tietjens thinks civilization is good, that what you might call free British civilization is humanity’s great positive achievement, win or lose. And the fact that they are doing this, pushing on, is a sign that that civilization is real and these men are committing themselves to something greater than their own small lives.
I don’t think it’s terribly clear whether Tietjens, or Ford, believes “the right men” at the top could have done something better. Tietjens’s stance in favor of a unified allied command suggests that he does; the fact that he left London at all and ignores Sylvia’s accusation that the whole thing is his responsibility suggests he doesn’t. Tomorrow I’ll explore how I think this is all related to their relationship and individual personalities. And in any case, Tietjens is a welcome antidote to Dostoevsky:
And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy—as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives—was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.