The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell – Time Marches On

The ninth book of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume A Dance To a the Music Of Time series, The Military Philosophers sees Nick Jenkins, former writer and critic, settled in his World War Two army career. After serving as a junior infantry officer, he transfers to military liaison, helping smooth relations between Britain and its various allies.

A Dance To The Music Of Time has generally been about the peculiar patterns that emerge as time makes its apparently aimless, sometimes chaotic, progress. In this wartime period, life is both more rigid – dominated by uniforms, military regulation, limitation of movements and freedom – and yet more uncertain. From this basic irony arises all the complexity of this remarkable novel. With an apparently humble role in Whitehall, Nick’s quiet observations now reach through to the heart of government – a good place to look at the relationship of order and disorder. There are civil servants who spend their lives fettling tiny details, while other more flamboyant figures take reckless risks. Nick follows a middle path as usual, his military rank a middling one, his approach to risk and caution, discipline and rebelliousness, a lesson in compromise. Sometimes this half-way house seems a place where personal power is at its most limited. The previous volume had described Nick’s efforts to look after those below him in rank. In The Military Philosophers, it’s the generals who require attention to their every whim. Nick reminded me of someone at that time of life when you are still looking after children, while also finding it increasingly necessary to care for ageing parents.

However, towards the end of the book, Nick has a moment of unexpected power. With the war almost over, volatile young men in the Belgian resistance, until this point fighting their common German enemy, show signs of falling out amongst themselves. It is thought vital to evacuate these men to Britain where they can receive army training. Getting this to happen quickly seems a hopeless task. But Nick’s intermediate position means he knows lots of people. Not isolated by exalted or humble rank, he links everything up – a liaison officer in more ways than one. It’s just a matter of talking to a few friends who can make a difference; and within days, against all the laws of bureaucratic inertia, those twitchy young Belgians are shipped off for their training. Now the middle, buffeted by demands from all sides, becomes the most powerful place to be. Nick single-handedly prevents civil war in Belgium. But it’s best not to bring any attention to these actions, which certainly failed to follow the usual stodgy chains of command. Rather than making a big thing of his success, Nick just quietly gets on with arrangements for looking after representatives of allied nations at a thanksgiving service to mark the war’s end.

This service, in St Paul’s Cathedral, brings together people from many nations and stations of life. It’s an event that really gives focus to the sense that whether you are a great leader, humble follower, or someone in-between, there is always a chance to play your part in events that often seem to have a life of their own. This coincides with a feeling in The Military Philosophers that a person’s eminence, or lack of it, is as much down to luck as anything else. Some people win awards for bravery, some are given awards for political reasons, while the bravery of others happens unacknowledged and out of sight. Everyone, in one way or another, has a place at the service of thanksgiving, celebrating the achievement of getting through the war. This scene serves as a fitting end to a fascinating and humane book.

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