Lost soldiers and collaboration…

Piers Young posted this wonderful poem by Miroslav Holub “immortalising a bizarre incident that happened to a group of soldiers on military manoeuvres”

“The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps

sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland.

It began to snow


snowed for two days and the unit

did not return.

The lieutenant suffered:

he had dispatched

his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.

Where had they been? How had they made their way?

Yes they said we considered ourselves

lost and waited for the end. And then one of us

found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.

We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map

we discovered our bearings.

And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map

and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps

but of the Pyrenees”

Miroslav Holub, Brief Thoughts on Maps. TLS, Feb 4, ’77

Piers says, “Perhaps good information gets too good a press?”

Tragedy or comedy?

Chris Corrigan interprets it as a tragic allegory of how people become dependent on external authority and lose a sense of their own resources.

I see Chris’ point and I find it very thought provoking – although I was a bit startled by it at first. My own response is to focus more on the men’s intuitive success rather than the falseness of the pretext. And I do find his argument thought provoking.

I think as humans we often tell the tale of our lives as if they are logical and explicit. Occasionally, an incident like this jars that illusion. I find those incidents sometimes funny, sometimes awe-inspiring. I believe that the way human beings collaborate together and make stuff happen is a wonderful mystery that can never be fully captured in the complicated rationalisations of experts. Indeed, so great is that will to “go on together” that it has enabled many organisations to do quite well, even though their leaders and their gurus weigh them down with complicated rules and models. There will always be experts taking the credit for things that I believe happen despite, not because of, their efforts.

Truth or fiction?

Ton Zijlstra, in a comment at Piers’ site, wonders if the story is a “urban legend”. Not very urban I suppose, but let’s say it is a legend. Then I ask: whether or not it’s true, what is it about this story that makes us want it to be true and want to repeat it? I think because it speaks to the part of us that knows intuitively there is a lot more to life than the dull, logical tale we are sometimes told…

3 thoughts on “Lost soldiers and collaboration…

  1. Tim

    Perhaps we’re reading too much into this and what happened with those guy was shear luck.

    The Bible says that time and chances happens to everyone.

  2. Chris Corrigan

    Nah Tim…Holub is too clever a poet by half. I still see it as an allegory of imprisonment. Johnnie, I agree with you about the mysteries of collaboration and that to me is why the poem is tragic. These guys did make it home alive, and drew hope and inspiration from each other and themselves and all that. And still in the end, they point to the map as their salvation, completly discounting their own creativity.

    The story could be told as a great victory for brotherhood and the poer of people in groups to think on ther feet and get out alive, but it’s not. The ironic edge comes from the fact that all of this is lost on them.

    In that way, I think this is a very profound statement.

  3. Piers Young

    Tim, yes luck probably played a part, but it doesn’t seem quite right to me to ignore the ingenuity of the men. But Chris, nor does it seem quite right to demonize the map for taking credit away from the men’s ingenuity.

    For me, the map’s crucial. It’s the map which gets them looking at calmly their environment again, it’s the map which gets their thoughts flowing, and it’s the map which spurs them to action. It’s slightly like one of those tools for overcoming writer’s block – nobody ever credits them rather than the author for the final masterpiece, but those tools are integral to the process. And like Johnnie says, a rationalisation of what goes on in the little grey cells never quite works.


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