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The uniform, the disruptive, & from Colditz to Mt Kenya

[ by Charles Cameron — out of the box thinking, the blues, prison escape literature and more ]

As you’ll see by the time we get to the Colditz segment of this post, I’m not arguing that anyone should change out of uniform.

But oh yes, I do fish for eddies in the currents of words — or to put that the other way around, eddies in the currents of words tend to catch my eye, and when I read this paragraph in Kohlmann‘s Response to the Critics of Disruptive Thinking:

Jon Favreau, the head speechwriter for President Obama, was 27 when appointed. Aaron Schock, a Congressman from Illinois, is 30. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook when he was still an undergrad at Harvard. Tom Brady won multiple Super Bowls in his twenties. This is a remarkable list, with some household names. Yet, I must ask, where are our young strategic military geniuses in uniform?

it was that last word that grabbed my attention — because somewhere in the back of my mind I have this idea that there’s nothing uniform about genius: it’s supremely individual.

Besides, I’m 67.


All of which brings me circuitously to Blind Lemon Jefferson and his Lock Step Blues:

Mean old jailor : taking away my dancing shoes
I can’t strut my stuff : when I got those lock-step blues

Again, I’m not claiming that “military” equates to “prison”, or that marching involves leg-irons… just hop, skipping and dancing from one thought to another, to see whether there’s a creative leap available…


And indeed it seems there is.

Thinking about disruptive thinking and uniforms and, well, prison, finally put me in mind of the place where the uniformed are required by their own code to be disruptive — that is, when they’re in POW camps.

There’s a great deal of noise these days about outside the box thinking — as a synonym for creativity — but it has only now occurred to me as I’m writing this post that one of my very first boyhood obsessions was in fact a kind of training ground for thinking outside the box.

And the box in question was Colditz Castle, the POW camp where the Germans sent those who had already escaped from at least one such camp and been recaptured.

I don’t know Emily Short, but in a post at her Interactive Storytelling blog, she describes the German “idea of putting all the most clever and resourceful prisoners together in an old building riddled with hiding places and odd physical quirks” as “not the brightest”, and notes that “those imprisoned found an astounding number of escape possibilities”.

That’s the essence of The Colditz Story, as described by PR Reid in his 1953 book of that name and its sequel, Men of Colditz [link is to double volume]. And I was fixated on Colditz and other World War II escape narratives for a boyish year or two thereafter.


Decades after that obsessive interest of mine in military escape literature had faded from view, I ran across another tale that fits the genre: Felice Benuzzi‘e extraordinary 1953 No Picnic on Mount Kenya.

Benuzzi was an Italian POW in a British camp in Kenya, with little to no prospect that even if he could escape the camp he’d be able to avoid recapture:

The idea of escaping is a vital factor in the mind of every prisoner. On our arrival in East Africa I had as a matter of course carefully considered the chances of reaching the nearest neutral territory, Portuguese East Africa; but I had concluded that, for me at least, this would be impossible. The distances one had to cover were enormous, one needed a frightful lot of money, the opportunity of getting a car, knowledge of the country and of the main languages, and faked documents…

But imprisonment is appalling boredom, and boredom didn’t suit Benuzzi’s temperament. One night he saw Mt Kenya from the camp for the first time:

an ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds framed between two dark barracks — a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock inlaid with azure glaciers, austere yet floating fairy-like on the near horizon. It was the first 17,000-foot peak I had ever seen.

I stood gazing until the vision disappeared among the shifting cloud banks.

For hours afterwards I remained spell-bound.


Escape from boredom was imperative, climbing Mt Kenya would be Benuzzi’s return to life.

Fortunately, Bennuzi had a map:

Admittedly it was just the label from a can of “meat and vegetable rations” — but beggars and prisoners can’t be choosers, necessity is the mother of invention, and a meat rations can was what they had.

The dangers they faced were real enough. From the introduction:

“In order to break the monotony of life (in prison) one had only to start taking risks again,” Benuzzi writes as he and his comrades design their escape. The risks are real. Sneaking out of camp, they may be shot. For the first two days they must travel at night, across fields and past settlements. Once in the forest, away from what Benuzzi calls “the human danger-zone,” they will enter the “beast danger-zone.” Finally they will escape into the relative safety of the alpine tundra. Every mountaineer and outdoor person reading this tale will feel kinship to Benuzzi here, when he writes that “all the landscape around us reflected our happiness … green-golden sunrays filtered through the foliage … bellflowers seemed to wait for the fairy of the tale who would ring them. We were now into a world untainted by man’s misery, and bright with promise. Other dangers undoubtedly in store for us, but not from mankind, only from nature.”

Benuzzi avoided the worst that humans and beasts could throw at him, scaled Mt Kenya’s Point Lenana (16,300 ft), with equipment scrounged from around the camp, returned, surrendered himself to the British and to solitary confinement — knowing himself a free man — and lived, as they say, to tell the tale.


So what do we learn?

It’s not that uniforms frustrate creativity, it’s that necessity procures it.

As the great Islamic poet Jalaluddin Rumi [quoted in Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes, p. 197.] says:

New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity.
Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.

That’s where this whole “disruptive thinking” discourse is eventually headed.

7 Responses to “The uniform, the disruptive, & from Colditz to Mt Kenya”

  1. Madhu Says:

    I think Lex once reviewed “No Picnic on Mount Kenya” but I’m not sure.

  2. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Love it, Charles! You’ve put your finger on a point that Zen and I disagree on:
    New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity.
    Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.
    That’s my point about getting the nukes to zero! It’s not going to happen any time soon, but it increases the necessity and may yet force some disruption in the thinking.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    Charles, good post.  
    My obsessive World War II escape narrative was The Great Escape — the movie and Paul Brickhill’s excellent book (he was in the camp).
    Lex on Benuzzi:

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Madhu, and thanks Lex for the link to your piece on Benuzzi.


    I hadn’t really thought about it until yesterday, but today it strikes me that heroism in war (my father was a naval officer who fought with distinction in WWII) was probably the carrot that lured me into these books — and there was a whole series of them — but ingenuity seems to have been remarkably intertwined with courage, and thjaty seems to be something I picked up from them.
    I’m reminded here of Scott’s most recent post “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu, in which he wrote:   

    Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect.

     That overlap between courage and wisdom would make a fine Venn diagram — and a fine topic for research, if we could ever get a decent measure for either courage or wisdom!
    My own personal “anthropology” — in the sense of “view of what constitutes humanity” — includes three elements, which I term radiance, duende and finesse: duende is the one that deals with courage, wisdom would be what radiance produces, especially when applied with finesse.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl — and thanks!

    That’s my point about getting the nukes to zero! It’s not going to happen any time soon, but…

    I’m not fond of the idea of incinerating entire cities either… leaving nuclear shadows on walls or tracking momentary wind patterns by the radiation sicknesses they bestow… but this is a genie out of the bottle question, isn’t it? — and thus strikes me as having a family resemblance to both klein bottles and koans.
    I suspect the “answer” we need is orthogonal to, and somehow transcendent of, the “nukes / no nukes” question itself, and — I’m still pondering my response to Madhu and Lex above — has a great deal to do with humankind needing to grow up in terms of both courage and wisdom… 
    Maddeningly vague, I know. 

  6. YT Says:

    RE: The Colditz Story

    Oh, I’ve left a copy collecting dust for a whole 2 years. Awful.
    Must remember to read said book. Thanks for this post, Mr. Cameron.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Heh, I haven’t read it in more than half a century.  
    You’re welcome (and I’m Charles).

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