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Meditation on The Great Escape October 26, 2010

Posted by sharon in Uncategorized.
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When I wrote the essay for my application to law school nearly 20 years ago, I said that the story that most influenced my life was that of the British and American prisoners of war at Stalag Luft III. Their story was told in a book by Paul Brickhill titled “The Great Escape,” which was made into a movie of the same name. Because it was a movie, many of the characters were fictionalized, or amalgams of two or more real-life personalities, and timelines were greatly compressed, but all in all the movie was true to the book. Hundreds of men worked together for over a year: digging tunnels; forging papers; making civilian clothing, maps, and compasses; designing a ventilation system for the tunnels and a dispersal system for the sand; finding, making, or stealing the equipment they needed, including a camera, film, and developing and printing equipment; bribing guards; escaping and allowing themselves to be recaptured, just so they could report on the roads, terrain, and towns just beyond the prison camp; having one tunnel discovered by the Germans just days before it was ready to break out; recovering from the loss and carrying on.

Many of the men had been P.O.W.s for years; they had every excuse to sit back and wait quietly for the end of the war that had to come. But they didn’t. Big X made sure they didn’t. He knew or found out what each man’s special talents were, and then made sure that everyone who wanted to participate in the X organization (their code name for the escape committee) had an opportunity to do so. No one was allowed to be idle if he had a skill that could make the difference between success and failure. Every hand and every mind was needed.

In the end, 76 men escaped on the night of March 24-25, 1944. Fifty men were shot and killed by their Gestapo or SS captors, by order of Hitler himself. Thousands of troops all across the Reich had been diverted from their assignments to go chasing those 76 men, and for that alone the prisoners of Stalag Luft III had done their duty as officers.

The film came out in 1963, and after I saw it I read the book. And then I read it again. And I’ve reread it probably a dozen times since, and listened to the audiobook read by Robert Whitfield. I’ve never gotten tired of the story. It thrills me on subsequent readings the same way it did the first time. What an extraordinary accomplishment! Even if they hadn’t been starving, lonely, scared, and weary, it still would have been extraordinary. Hundreds of men, from all walks of life, cooperated to achieve the impossible.

Several years ago I went to New York City to see Gabriel Byrne, Cherry Jones, and Roy Dotrice in “A Moon For the Misbegotten.” I loved the show and was excited about getting Gabriel Byrne’s autograph, until I found out that Roy Dotrice had been in Stalag Luft III, captured after a brief career as a young R.A.F. air gunner and wireless operator. The other actors were all but forgotten. If I had met the Queen Herself, I would not have been more excited.

I often think about the story of the Great Escape when I read the news these days. The original motto of the United States was “E pluribus unum”–“Out of many, one.” Now it seems to have been replaced by “Every man for himself.” We’re all about rugged individualism. Competition, not cooperation. Every man (and woman) is an island. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Pay your own way. Stand or fall on your own. Don’t expect a handout. Or a hand up.

What if the men of Stalag Luft III had felt that way?

Could we ever pull together that way again? Could we ever repeat anything on the scale of the Apollo program of the 1960s? Maybe we still have the skills–although I’m not too sure about that–but we certainly don’t seem to have the will to tackle such a project. We’re really good at destruction, but not so good at planning, building, or cooperating.

Maybe we don’t have a cause that’s big enough. The so-called war on terror seems like a big cause at first, but if it’s so important, why are so few of us being asked to sacrifice for it? Why are we allowing all our energy to be sapped by the endless wars over ever diminishing natural resources? Isn’t the survival of the human race a big enough cause? Because it feels to me like that is what is at stake, whether we’re talking about climate change, or endless wars among the children of Abraham, or solving our energy problem, or feeding and clothing and educating all our children, or employing all of our human resources to the fullest extent of each man’s and each woman’s abilities.

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