Six ranking officials of the military move into the top floor of Mayor Orden’s palace. Captain Bentick is a kind man obsessed with acting like a British gentleman. Major Hunter is an arithmetician who spends most of his time drawing and engineering plans for a railroad that will run from the town’s coal mine to the waterfront. Captain Loft is stern, young, and vigorously committed to following military protocol, especially in terms of appearances. Lieutenant Prackle is naïve and idealistic, a man who hates “degenerate art” and prides himself in his commitment to his country’s leader. Finally, Lieutenant Tonder is a “dark romantic” who imagines falling in love with one of the village women and fantasizes about dying a heroic death on the battlefield. Because there isn’t much room in the palace, these men are thrown into close quarters as they trade patrol shifts and pass time in the common area.
Steinbeck’s cast of soldiers all represent some form of naiveté, since none of them seem to understand the grim reality of war. Captain Loft is so overly committed to maintaining the proper appearance of a soldier that he seems incapable of acting like an actual human being. As for the others, each one either underestimates the brutality of war (as is the case for Prackle and Tonder) or isolates himself from the reality of the circumstances altogether (as is the case for Major Hunter). In this way, Steinbeck portrays the officers as being emotionally ill-equipped for the difficulties of conquest.
Colonel Lanser is the most experienced of all the soldiers, having been involved in World War I twenty years before, when his country invaded Belgium and France. As such, he knows that war is nothing but “treachery and hatred,” and he understands that most military occupations are futile and violent. Still, he tells himself that he must carry out his orders no matter what he thinks. As a way of keeping his pessimism at bay, he tells himself, “This one will be different,” sometimes uttering the phrase fifty times in a given day.
The fact that Lanser harbors skepticism about the war effort supports the idea that he’s capable of feeling empathy for the townspeople, for he knows that he and his soldiers bring nothing but “treachery and hatred.” Unfortunately, though, this empathy is undermined by his stubborn commitment to the fascist regime he serves, and he negates his capacity for true human emotion by immersing himself in the task of carrying out orders no matter what they are or who they hurt.
One day, Captain Loft enters the palace after a patrol shift. While taking off many pieces of equipment, he tells Major Hunter and Lieutenant Prackle that he has just seen Bentick, who is overseeing the townspeople as they labor in the coal mine. Loft says Bentick is crazy because he’s wearing a cap instead of a helmet. “Why shouldn’t he wear a cap?” Major Hunter asks, looking up from his design plans. “There hasn’t been any trouble.” Loft disregards this last statement, informing the major that it’s “bad practice” not to wear a helmet. “It’s bad for the people here,” he says. “We must maintain a military standard, an alertness, and never vary from it. We’ll just invite trouble if we don’t.” When Hunter asks why Loft thinks this, Loft explains that he doesn’t think it—he was paraphrasing a military manual on how to behave in occupied countries.
In this scene, Steinbeck pokes fun at Loft’s willingness to let a manual overshadow his own ability to think for himself. Loft reveals that he places very little value in his own opinions. Rather, he throws his faith into rules and regulations, blindly following them and never stopping to consider his own opinions. It’s significant, too, that the manual frames any divergence from “military procedure” as “bad for the people.” In this way, the fascist regime espouses a belief that the invaders’ authoritarian presence actually benefits the townspeople if executed correctly—an idea that Loft seems to have internalized.
Lieutenant Tonder enters the room and looks over Hunter’s shoulder, asking why he’s designing a bridge. Embarrassed, Hunter tells him the drawing is for a model train set he has in his backyard at home. When Colonel Lanser arrives, he asks Captain Loft to go relieve Captain Bentick from his shift in the mines. “May I suggest, sir, that I only recently came off duty?” Loft says, explaining that he’s only mentioning this “for the record.” Colonel Lanser picks up on what he means, asking the captain, “You like to be mentioned in the reports, don’t you?” Captain Loft admits that he does, since a certain amount of mentions will win him recognitions that he says are “milestones in a military career.” This comment seems to fatigue Lanser, who says, “Yes, I guess they are. But they won’t be the ones you’ll remember, Captain.”
Lanser’s exasperated statement that Loft won’t remember his awards but will remember other things once again brings to the foreground the colonel’s pessimism regarding the nature of war. Indeed, by saying this he implies that the rewards the military puts in place only reinforce a useless kind of hierarchy that, in the long run, has very little importance. As such, Loft’s obsession with looking good on “the record” proves rather pointless, a fact that highlights the young man’s failure to grasp the true gravity of war.
After Loft leaves, Lieutenant Prackle asks Lanser when he thinks they will win the war, admitting that he’s eager to go home, even if only for a furlough at Christmastime. Lieutenant Tonder, on the other hand, chimes in and makes it clear that he wants to stay in the town for as long as possible, expressing that he might even remain after the war because “it’s a nice country, nice people.” He points out that there are some beautiful farms and that, “if four or five of them were thrown together, it would be a nice place to settle.”
Tonder’s statement that “four or five” farms could be “thrown together” to make one “nice place to settle” is an absurd representation of the soldiers’ greediness. Indeed, men like Tonder fail to see the war as anything but an opportunity to gain power. In addition, Tonder exhibits an unrealistic outlook about the outcome of the war, seeming to believe that the townspeople would accept him settling down amongst them after the war. This mindset shows an utter lack of perspective and empathy, since Tonder is seemingly unable to understand that he would be mercilessly depriving the villagers of their own land if he were to turn “four or five” of their farms into just one of his own.
Mr. Corell pays the palace a visit to speak to Colonel Lanser, who introduces Corell to the other officers. Lanser tells Corell he did a good job in helping take over the town, though he wishes Corell had organized it so it wasn’t necessary to kill six people. “Six men is a small loss for a town of this size, with a coal mine, too,” Corell says. Lanser agrees that sometimes violence is necessary, though he implies that in this situation it probably could have been avoided. Corell then asks to speak with the colonel alone, and Lanser dismisses Tonder and Prackle, leaving Major Hunter in peace because the man hears nothing while working on his engineering projects.
It is unclear whether Lanser regrets having killed six townspeople on the day he and his soldiers arrived because it was a strategic misstep, or because he genuinely would prefer to reduce the number of lives lost. Corell, on the other hand, demonstrates complete apathy regarding human life, and his statement that “six men is a small loss for a town of this size” is a perfect example of how a fascist commitment to conquest is often used to justify immoral acts.
Lanser notices Corell has a bandage on his head and asks him if the villagers have already tried to kill him. Corell claims his injury is from a stone that fell on his head, but Lanser is skeptical. This leads to a conversation about Corell’s general safety in the town. Despite Lanser’s insistence that conquered townspeople never take kindly to a person who betrayed them, Corell insists that “these aren’t fierce people” and that they respect him. He then requests that he be made mayor, but Lanser tells him this would be unwise, explaining that it will be best if Orden remains in this position. Because he’s certain the townspeople will eventually revolt, Lanser explains, he needs to work with a mayor who knows what’s going on in the village. “I think you will never again know what is going on here,” he explains to Corell.
Lanser and Corell approach conquest in two different ways. While Lanser wants to work with the mayor to exploit the town’s democratic process, Corell wants to usurp Orden’s leadership and rule the town himself. Although Lanser’s approach is primarily tactical—rather than empathetic—his willingness to work with Orden shows that he understands (on some level) that pure authoritarian rule is less effective than democratic governance. Otherwise, he wouldn’t try so hard to collaborate with Orden.
Corell becomes frustrated, saying he deserves a position of power. Lanser goes on, saying, “Mayor Orden is more than mayor. He is his people.” Seeing that arguing will lead him nowhere, Corell accepts Lanser’s position, but asks that he be allowed to remain in the town until he receives further orders from the official government. Lanser agrees, but tells Corell to be cautious and to wear a helmet at all times. When Corell says this isn’t necessary because of how kindhearted the villagers are, Lanser says, “There are no peaceful people.” Corell, in turn, points out that they have already defeated the town and thus have little to worry about, but Lanser remarks, “Defeat is a momentary thing.” He then tells a gruesome story about his experience in WWI, and Corell asserts that a colonel shouldn’t speak this way in front of his soldiers.
The origins of Lanser’s war-related pessimism become obvious in this moment, when he reveals his wretched memories about the First World War. With these traumatizing experiences driving his decisions, it makes sense that he’s eager to approach the situation in the town with diplomacy, even if this diplomacy or civility is purely tactical. After all, he has seen the kind of violence and horror that comes from authoritarian rule and conquest, and so wants to try asserting his regime’s power in the most benign way possible.
At that moment, Captain Loft comes swiftly into the room and informs Colonel Lanser that Captain Bentick has been killed. Apparently, as Loft was relieving Bentick in the mines, an enraged miner complained, claiming the military had no right to make him work. As Loft tried to calm him down, he rushed aggressively forward, at which point Bentick jumped in the way, and the miner buried his pickaxe in the captain’s helmetless head. Loft tells Lanser that the miner has been taken prisoner. “So it starts again,” mutters Lanser. “We will shoot this man and make twenty new enemies. It’s the only thing we know, the only thing we know.” He then asks Loft to send Mayor Orden to see him as soon as possible.
It’s significant that violence erupts right after Lanser has spent time trying to convince Corell they must rule the town with as much civility as possible. This suggests that, though Lanser’s attempt at civility reveal his understanding of the horrors of war, it’s also wrong to think that conquest can be achieved without violence. In this way, Steinbeck illustrates that a wrong action cannot actually be done rightly, and that fascism and conquest naturally invite violence whether or not the invaders act under the guise of civility.