»  National Review Online

January 15th, 2002

  Take Me to Your Leader


God bless little Morgan Kay Beamer, born to Lisa Beamer of Cranbury, NJ last Wednesday afternoon, weighing in at 7 lbs and by all accounts a fine healthy baby. Morgan Kay will never know her father, Todd Morgan Beamer, who died a hero among heroes taking on the hijackers of flight 93 last September, after uttering the words: "Let's roll!"

I wonder if you, like me, have spent idle time trying to reconstruct what might have happened after those words: "Let's roll!" The thing about an airliner is, its interior layout makes a general melee impossible. With those narrow aisles hemmed in by high, metal-framed seats, you basically only have one dimension of movement.

You are pretty much in the situation of the creatures in Alex Dewdney's "planiverse." Back in the early 1980s, Dewdney wrote a book with that title, pretending to be a record of contact with an intelligent race living in a universe with only two dimensions, one vertical and one horizontal. The Planiverse is one of the great classics of imaginative literature, with everything worked out in detail, from celestial mechanics to the design of door locks.

Well, when the creatures who inhabit Dewdney's planet (the planet is, of course, just a circle, and the creatures live on its circumference) want to have a battle, the only way they can do it is as a succession of single combats. "The best warriors were placed at the head of the army and the weakest at the tail. By the time the battle had been in progress for the better part of a day, there would be a heap of dead bodies upon which the current pair of warriors fought …"

Whatever took place on flight 93, it must have involved some element of leadership among the passengers. Somebody — we shall probably never know who — must have taken the initiative. Thinking about this got me pondering the whole business of leadership: where it comes from, how it works, who's likely to have it.

On the last point, my impression from my own life experiences is that there are no guidelines at all. Back in my wanderjahre I once worked as porter-cum-dishwasher in the catering trade, in a large establishment with a side business providing TV dinners to hospitals and the like. There were three or four of us minimum-wage skivvies on the premises at any time, drawn mainly, like your correspondent, from the dregs of society. One young guy, whom I worked with for several weeks, was a born leader, one of the best I have ever seen. If you can believe it, he used to conduct quiz periods in our rest breaks, to keep us on our toes, with questions like: "Name the location of all the waste bins in this building …" We used to have floor-mopping contests! I've never seen anything like it.

This guy took the lowest, crappiest, least dignified, most pointless kind of employment and infused it with meaning and purpose. The really strange thing was that he was a moral cripple: had done prison time for forging checks, and when I lost track of him had just been fired from a job as night manager of a diner, for helping himself to a portion of the receipts. This guy couldn't be trusted to mail a letter — literally, I discovered one time. Which all goes to show that you never know where leadership will pop up. (Paul Newman gives a similar illustration in that excellent movie Cool Hand Luke.)

Anyone who has served in the military has seen, or at least heard of, a sloppy, cynical, ill-motivated unit turned around by new leadership. The same thing happens in the civilian world, too. I have a friend whose business is financing software companies. From time to time, he tells me, he is faced with a failing company for which the only solution is, as he puts it (not literally, I hope) "to shoot the CEO and senior execs and put in a completely new team." Generally, he reports, this does the trick. With the same workforce, the same product and the same markets, good leadership turns the company round. Perhaps someone should try this with the Palestinians — though in that case, I think live ammo would be appropriate.

Leadership, of course, has a negative side. The German word for "leader" is, after all, Führer. Americans in general are skeptical of leaders and leadership, to a degree not found anywhere else on earth, I think. The colonial census-taker, back in 18th-century Appalachia, comes across a man grooming a horse in a field. "Who's your master?" he inquires. Says the colonist: "He hasn't been born yet." I think every honest American's heart returns a cheer to that sentiment. Having already declared on this site that my favorite movie is Lonely Are the Brave, the ultimate cinematic tribute to don't-tread-on-me American individualism, I don't think I need offer any further evidence that I'm basically with America on this one.

Basically, but not entirely. Reviewing Theodore Dalrymple's recent book, which is about the moral collapse of the British underclass, I concluded by noting that:

A better remedy [better than unrestrained welfarism, that is] would be for the middle classes to behave themselves, and to give a good example to those beneath them, and to stop feeling so all-fired guilty about everything under the sun. That, of course, would be "elitist": but if there is a lesson to be drawn from Life at the Bottom, it is that a society's choice is never between having an elite and not having one, it is always between having an elite with a sense of responsibility and a will to provide leadership, and having an elite with neither.

A couple of people have taken me to task over that, arguing that the middle class has no such duty; that their only social duties are to provide for themselves and their families, pay their taxes, and obey the law. Well, I disagree. What's the point of having an elite if they don't give an example to the lower orders? If the elite admits to having smoked pot, why should the underclass think it's wrong to smoke crack? Noblesse oblige: if you are living a fortunate, prosperous life, you ought to offer some guidance to the dimwitted, the feckless and the less fortunate down at the bottom of society. Whether they want it or not …

In times of war, of course, some decent leadership is essential. Whatever you may think of FDR's character and domestic policies, I don't think it can be fairly denied that he was a terrific war leader. Down in the trenches, leadership is even more essential. George Orwell, fighting in a unit of the POUM anarchist militias for the Spanish Republic in that country's civil war, recorded that every order passed down to his unit ignited a debate, pending the resolution of which, the unit would take no action. The Republic lost the war. On the other side, Julius Caesar, who knew a thing or two about leadership, records a stirring example of it from the invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. Caesar ran his warships ashore to indimidate the British. The ships were big, deep-hulled vessels, though, and when run aground, were still some way from the beach.

As the Romans hesitated, chiefly on account of the depth of the water, the man who carried the Eagle of the 10th brigade, after praying to the gods that his action might bring good luck to the brigade, cried out in a loud voice: "Jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our Eagle to the enemy. I, at any rate, mean to do my duty to my country and my general." With these words he leapt out of the ship and advanced towards the enemy with the Eagle in his hands. At this the soldiers, exhorting each other not to submit to such a disgrace, jumped with one accord from the ship, and the men from the next ships, when they saw them, followed them and advanced against the enemy.

I'd like to think that Caesar prettied up the language there somewhat, and that what the Eagle-bearer actually said was the legionary-Latin equivalent of: "Let's roll!"

We don't know that Eagle-bearer's name, or what happened to him, any better than we know who led the passengers of Flight 93 against America's present enemy. That need not stop us honoring them and commemorating them, though. (The Eagle-bearer has been sufficiently commemorated, I think, by having had his story taught to officer cadets in staff colleges for 2,000 years.) Certainly it should not stop us learning a lesson from them: that while individualism, contrariness and cussedness are admirable things, and are indispensable components of the very fiber of America — part of what gives this country its unique character, and makes it such an attractive place — it is none the less still true that in some critical situations, a touch of leadership makes all the difference.