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On Black Sheep Post by :gideon2000 Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :1136

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On Black Sheep

When I was in France a few weeks ago I heard much about the relative qualities of different classes of men as soldiers. And one of the most frequent themes was the excellence of the "black sheep." It was not merely that he was brave. That one might expect. It was not even that he was unselfish. That also did not arouse surprise. The pride in him, I found, was chiefly due to the fact that he was so good a soldier in the sense of discipline, enthusiasm, keenness, even intelligence. It is, I believe, a well-ascertained fact that an unusually high proportion of reformatory boys and other socially doubtful men have won rewards for exceptional deeds, and every one knows the case of the man with twenty-seven convictions against him who won the V.C. for one of the bravest acts of the war.

It must not be assumed from this that to be a successful soldier you must be a social failure. On the contrary, nothing has been so conclusively proved by this war as the widespread prevalence of the soldierly instinct. Heroes have sprung up from all ranks and all callings--from drapers' shops and furniture vans, from stools in the city and looms in Lancashire, from Durham pits and bishops' palaces. Whatever else the war has done, it has knocked on the head the idea that the cult of militarism is necessary to preserve the soul of courage and chivalry in a people. We, with a wholly civic tradition, have shown that in the hour of need we can draw upon an infinite reservoir of heroism, as splendid as anything in the annals of the human race.

But the case of the black sheep has a special significance for us. The war has discovered the good that is in him, and has released it for useful service. After all, the black sheep is often only black by the accident of circumstance, upbringing, or association. He is a misfit. In him, as in all of us, there is an infinite complexity--good and ill together. No one who has faithfully examined his own life can doubt how trifling a weight turns the scales for or against us. An accidental meeting, a casual friendship, a phrase in a book--and the current of life takes a definite direction this way or that. There are no doubt people in whom the elements are so perfectly adjusted that the balance is never in doubt. Their character is superior to circumstance. But they are rare. They are the stars that dwell apart from our human struggles. Most of us know what it is to be on the brink of the precipice--know, if we are quite honest with ourselves, how narrow a shave we have had from joining the black sheep. Perhaps, if we are still honest with ourselves, we shall admit that the thing that turned the balance for us was not a very creditable thing--that we were protected from ourselves not by any high virtue, but by something mean, a touch of cowardice, a paltry ambition, a consideration that we should be ashamed to confess.

We are so strangely compact that we do not ourselves know what the ordeal will discover in us. You have no doubt read that incident of the sergeant who, in a moment of panic, fled, was placed under arrest and sentenced to be shot. Before the sentence was ratified by the Commander-in-Chief, there came a moment of extreme peril to the line, when irretrievable disaster was imminent and every man who could fill a gap was needed. The condemned man was called out to face the enemy, and, even in the midst of brave men, fought with a bravery that singled him out for the Victoria Cross. Tell me--which was the true man? I saw the other day a letter from a famous doctor dealing with the question of the psychology of war. He was against shooting a man for cowardice, because cowardice was not necessarily a quality of character. It was often a temporary collapse due to physical fatigue, or a passing condition of mind. "Five times," he said, "I have been at work in circumstances in which my life was in imminent peril. On four occasions I worked with a curious sense of exaltation. On the fifth occasion I was seized with a sudden and unreasoning panic that paralysed me. Perhaps it was a failure of digestion, perhaps a want of sleep. Anyhow, at that moment I was a coward."

The truth is that, except for the aforesaid stars who dwell apart, we all have the potential saint and the potential sinner, the hero and the coward, the honest man and the dishonest man within us.

There is a fine poem in A Shropshire Lad that puts the case of the black sheep as pregnantly as it can be put:--


There sleeps in Shrewsbury gaol to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad if things went right
Than most that sleep outside.


If things went right.... Do not, I pray you, think that in saying this I am holding the candle to that deadly doctrine of determinism, or that, like the tragic novelist, I see man only as a pitiful animal caught in the trap of blind circumstance. If I believed that I should say "Better dead." But what I do say is that we are so variously composed that circumstance does play a powerful part in giving rein to this or that element in us and making the scale go down for good or bad, and that often the best of us only miss the wrong turning by a hair's breadth. Dirt, it is said, is only matter in the wrong place. Put it in the right place, and it ceases to be dirt. Give that man with twenty-seven convictions against him a chance of revealing the better metal that is in him, and, lo! he is hailed as a hero and decorated with the V.C.


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Black Sheep

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