In his 1919 novel The Undying Fire, a modern retelling of the story of Job, H.G. Wells develops at some length the conceit of the submarine as a metaphor for how humans live their lives. -- "Is there any one of us," his protagonist, Job Huss, asks, "who is not in some fashion aboard a submarine, doing evil and driving towards an evil end?" ...
THE UNDYING FIRE (1919)
By H.G. Wells
CHAPTER THE FIFTH: ELIHU REPROVES JOB
. . .
"Why do they do such things?
"They do not do it out of a complete and organized impulse to evil. If you took the series of researches and inventions that led at last to this use of poison gas, you would find they were the work of a multitude of mainly amiable, fairly virtuous, and kindly-meaning men. *Each one was doing his bit*, as Mr. Dad would say ; each one, to use your phrase, doctor, was being himself and utilizing the gift that was in him in accordance with the drift of the world about him; each one. Sir Eliphaz, was modestly taking the world as he found it. They were living in an uninformed world with no common understanding and no collective plan, a world ignorant of its true history and with no conception of its future. Into these horrors they drifted for the want of a world education. Out of these horrors no lesson will be learnt, no will can arise, for the same reason. Every man lives ignorantly in his own circumstances, from hand to mouth, from day to day, swayed first of all by this catchword and then by that.
"Let me take another instance of the way in which human ability and energy if they are left to themselves, without co-ordination, without a common basis of purpose, without a God, will run into cul-de-sacs of mere horribleness; let me remind you a little of what the submarine is and what it signifies. In this country we think of the submarine as an instrument of murder; but we think of it as something ingeniously contrived and at any rate not tormenting and destroying the hands that guide it. I will not recall to you the stories that fill our newspapers of men drowning in the night, of crowded boatloads of sailors and passengers shelled and sunken, of men forced to clamber out of the sea upon the destroying U-boat and robbed of their lifebelts in order that when it submerged they should be more surely drowned. I want you to think of the submarine in itself. There is a kind of crazy belief that killing, however cruel, has a kind of justification in the survival of the killer; we make that our excuse for instance for the destruction of the native Tasmanians who were shot whenever they were seen, and killed by poisoned meat left in their paths. But the marvel of these submarines is that they also torture and kill their own crews. They are miracles of short-sighted ingenuity for the common unprofitable reasonless destruction of Germans and their enemies. They are almost quintessential examples of the elaborate futility and horror into which partial ideas about life, combative and competitive ideas of life, thrust mankind.
"Take some poor German boy with an ordinary sort of intelligence, an ordinary human disposition to kindliness, and some gallantry, who becomes finally a sailor in one of these craft. Consider his case and what we do to him. You will find in him a sample of what we are doing for mankind. As a child he is ingenuous, teachable, plastic. He is also egotistical, greedy, and suspicious. He is easily led and easily frightened. He likes making things if he knows how to make them; he is capable of affection and capable of resentment. He is a sheet of white paper upon which anything may be written. His parents teach him, his companions, his school. Do they teach him anything of the great history of mankind? Do they teach him of his blood brotherhood with all men! Do they tell him anything of discovery, of exploration, of human effort and achievement? No. They teach him that he belongs to a blonde and wonderful race, the only race that matters on this planet. (No such distinct race ever existed; it is a lie for the damning of men.) And these teachers incite him to suspicion and hatred and contempt of all other races. They fill his mind with fears and hostilities. Everything German they tell him is good and splendid. Everything not German is dangerous and wicked. They take that poor actor of an emperor at Potsdam and glorify him until he shines upon this lad's mind
like a star. . . .
"The boy grows up a mental cripple; his capacity for devotion and self-sacrifice is run into a mould of fanatical loyalty for the Kaiser and hatred for foreign things. Comes this war, and the youngster is only too eager to give himself where he is most needed. He is told that the submarine war is the sure way of striking the enemies of his country a conclusive blow. To be in a submarine is to be at the spear point. He dare scarcely hope that he will be accepted for this vital service; to which princes might aspire. But he is fortunate; he is. He trains for a submarine. . . .
"I do not know how far you gentlemen remember your youth. A schoolmaster perhaps remembers more of his early adolescence than other men because he is being continually reminded of it. But it is a time of very fine emotions, boundless ambitions, a newly awakened and eager sense of beauty. This youngster sees himself as a hero, fighting for his half-divine Kaiser, for dear Germany, against the cold and evil barbarians who resist and would destroy her. He passes through his drill and training. He goes down into a submarine for the first time, clambers down the narrow hatchway. It is a little cold, but wonderful; a marvellous machine. How can such a nest of inventions, ingenuities, beautiful metal-work, wonderful craftsmanship, be anything but right? His mind is full of dreams of proud enemy battleships smitten and heeling over into the waters, while he watches his handiwork with a stern pride, a restrained exultation, a sense of Germany vindicated. . . .
"That is how his mind has been made for him. That is the sort of mind that has been made and is being made in boys all over the world. . . . Because there is no common plan in the world, because each person in the making of this boy, just as each person in the making of the submarine, had 'been himself' and 'done his bit,' followed his own impulses and interests without regard to the whole, regardless of any plan or purpose in human affairs, ignorant of the spirit of God who would unify us and lead us to a common use for all our gifts and energies.
"Let me go on with the story of this youngster. . . .
"Comes a day when he realizes the reality of the work he is doing for his kind. He stands by one of the guns of the submarine in an attack upon some wretched ocean tramp. He realizes that the war he wages is no heroic attack on pride or predominance, but a mere murdering of traffic. He sees the little ship shelled, the wretched men killed and wounded, no tyrants of the seas but sailor-men like himself; he sees their boats smashed to pieces. Mostly such sinkings are done at dawn or sundown, under a level light which displays a world of black lines and black silhouettes asway with the slow heaving and falling of coldly shining water. These little black things, he realizes incredulously, that struggle and disappear amidst the wreckage are the heads of men, brothers to himself. . . .
"For hundreds of thousands of men who have come into this war expecting bright and romantic and tremendous experiences their first killing must have been a hideous disillusionment. For none so much as for the men of the submarines. All that sense of being right and fine that carries men into battle, that carries most of us through the world, must have vanished completely at this first vision of reality. Our man must have asked himself, 'What am I doing?' . . .
"In the night he must have lain awake and stared at that question in horrible doubt. . . .
"We scold too much at the German submarine crews in this country. Most of us in their places would be impelled to go on as they go on. The work they do has been reached step by step, logically, inevitably, because our world has been content to drift along on false premises and haphazard assumptions about nationality and race, and the order of things. These things have happened because the technical education of men has been better than their historical and social education. Once men have lost touch with, or failed to apprehend that idea of a single human community, that idea which is the substance of all true history and the essential teaching of God, it is towards such organized abominations as these that they drift -- necessarily. People in this country who are just as incoherent in their minds, just as likely to drift into some kindred cul-de-sac of conduct, would have these U-boat men tortured -- to show the superiority of their own moral standards.
"But indeed these men are tortured. . . .
"Bear yet a little longer with this boy of mine in the U-boat. I've tried to suggest him to you with his conscience scared -- at a moment when his submarine had made a kill. But those moments are rare. For most of its time the U-boat is under water and a hunted thing. The surface swarms with hostile craft; sea-planes and observation balloons are seeking it. Every time a U-boat comes even near to the surface it may be spotted by a sea-plane and destruction may fall upon it. Even when it is submerged below the limits of visibility in the turbid North Sea waters, the noise of its engines will betray it to a listening apparatus and a happy guess with a depth charge may end its career. I want you to think of the daily life of this youngster under these conditions. I want you to see exactly where wrong ideas, not his, but wrong ideas ruling in the world about him, are driving him.
"The method of detection by listening apparatus improves steadily, and nowadays our destroyers will follow up a U-boat sometimes for sixty or seventy hours, following her sounds as a hound follows the scent of its quarry. At last, if the U-boat cannot shake off her pursuers she must come to the surface and fight or surrender. That is the strangest game of Blind-Man that ever human beings played. The U-boat doubles and turns, listening also for the sounds of the pursuers at the surface. Are they coming nearer? Are they getting fainter? Unless a helpful mud-bank is available for it to lie up in silence for a time, the U-boat must keep moving and using up electrical force, so that ultimately it must come to the surface to recharge its batteries. As far as possible the crew of the U-boat are kept in ignorance of the chase in progress. They get hints from the anxiety or irritation of the commander, or from the haste and variety of his orders. Something is going on -- they do not know quite what -- something that may end disagreeably. If the pursuer tries a depth charge, then they know for certain from the concussion that the hand of death is feeling for them in the darkness. . . .
"Always the dread of a depth charge must haunt the imagination of the U-boat sailor. Without notice, at any hour, may come thud and concussion to warn him that the destroying powers are on his track. The fragile ship jumps and quivers from end to end; the men are thrown about. That happens to our youngster. He curses the damned English. And if you think it over, what else can you expect him to curse? A little nearer and the rivets will start and actual leakage begin, letting in a pressure of several atmospheres. Yet a little nearer and the water will come pressing in through cracks and breaches at a score of points, the air will be compressed in his lungs, the long death struggle of the U-boat will begin, and after some hours of hopeless suffering he will suffocate and drown like a rat in a flooded tunnel. . . .
"Think of the life of endless apprehension in that confined space below the waters. The air is almost always stuffy and sometimes it is poisonous. All sorts of evil chances may occur in this crowded tinful of machinery to release oppressive gases and evil odours. A whiff of chlorine for instance may warn the crew of flooded accumulators. At the first sting of chlorine the U-boat must come up at any risk. . . . And nothing can be kept dry. The surfaces of the apparatus and the furniture sweat continually; except where the machinery radiates a certain heat a clammy chill pervades the whole contrivance. Have you ever seen the thick blubber of a whale? Only by means of that enormous layer of non-conductor can a whale keep its body warm in spite of the waters about it. A U-boat cannot afford any layer of blubber. It is at the temperature of the dark under-waters. And this life of cold, fear, suffocation, headache and nausea is not sustained by hot and nourishing food. There is no blazing galley fire for the cook of the U-boat.
"The U-boat rolls very easily; she is, of course, no heavier nor lighter than the water in which she floats, and if by chance she touches bottom in shallow water, she bounds about like a rubber ball on a pavement. Inside the sailors are thrown about and dashed against the machinery.
"That is the quality of everyday life in a U-boat retained below the surface. Now think what an emergence involves. Up she comes until the periscope can scrutinize the sky and the nearer sea. Nothing in sight? Thank God! She rises out of the water and some of the sailors get a breath of fresh air. Not all, for there is no room nor time for all of them to come out. But the fortunate ones who get to the hatches may even have the luck of sunshine. To come to the surface on a calm open sea away from any traffic at all is the secret hope of every U-boat sailor. But suppose now there is something in sight. Then the U-boat must come up with infinite discretion and examine the quarry. It looks an innocent craft, a liner, a trawler, a cargo-boat. But is that innocence certain? How does the U-boat man know that she hasn't a gun? What new contrivance of the hunter may not hide behind that harmless-looking mask? Until they have put a ship down, the U-boat sailors never know what ugly surprise she may not have in store for them. When they approach a vessel they must needs be ignorant of what counter-attack creeps upon them from her unseen other side. As a consequence these men are in terror of every ship they hail.
"Is it any wonder then if their behaviour is hasty and hysterical, if they curse and insult the wretched people they are proposing to drown, if they fire upon them unexpectedly and do strange and abominable things? The U-boat man is no fine captain on his quarter deck. He is a man who lives a life of intense physical hardship and extreme fear, who faces overwhelming risks, in order to commit as inglorious a crime as any man can commit. He is a man already in hell.
"The Germans do what they can to keep up the spirit of these crews. An English captain who spent a fortnight upon one as a prisoner and who was recently released by way of Switzerland, says that when they had sunk a merchant ship 'they played victory music on the gramophone.' Imagine that bleak festival !
"The inevitable end of the U-boat sailor, unless he is lucky enough to get captured, is death, and a very horrible and slow death indeed. Sooner or later it is bound to come. Some never return from their first voyage. There is a brief spree ashore if they do; then out they go again. Perhaps they return a second time, perhaps not. Some may even have made a score of voyages, but sooner or later they are caught. The average life of a U-boat is less than five voyages -- out and home. Of the crews of the original U-boats which began the U-boat campaign very few men survive to-day. When our young hopeful left his home in Germany to join the U-boat service, he left it for a certain death. He learns that slowly from the conversation of his mates. Men are so scarce now for this vile work that once Germany has got a man she will use him to the end.
"And that end -- ?
"I was given some particulars of the fate of one U-boat that were told by two prisoners who died at Harwich the other day. This particular boat was got by a mine whicli tore a hole in her aft. She was too disabled to come to the surface, and she began to sink tail down. Now the immediate effect of a hole in a U-boat is of course to bring the air pressure within her to the same level as the pressure of the water outside. For every ten yards of depth this means an addition of fourteen pounds to the square inch. The ears and blood vessels are suddenly subjected to this enormous pressure. There is at once a violent pain in the ears and a weight on the chest. Cotton wool has to be stuffed into ears and nostrils to save the ear drum. Then the boat is no longer on an even keel. The men stand and slip about on the sides of things. They clamber up the floor out of the way of the slowly rising water. For the water does not come rushing in to drown them speedily. It cannot do that because there is no escape for the air; the water creeps in steadily and stealthily as the U-boat goes deeper and deeper. It is a process of slow and crushing submergence that has the cruel deliberation of some story by Edgar Allan Poe; it may last for hours. A time comes when the lights go out and the rising waters stop the apparatus for keeping up the supply of oxygen and absorbing the carbonic acid. Suffocation begins. Think of what must happen in the minds of the doomed men crowded together amidst the machinery. In the particular case these prisoners described, several of the men drowned themselves deliberately in the rising waters inside the boat. And in another case where the boat was recovered full of dead men, they had all put their heads under the water inside the boat. People say the U-boat men carry poison against such mischances as this. They don't It would be too tempting.
"When it becomes evident that the U-boat can never recover the surface, there is usually an attempt to escape by the hatches. The hatches can be opened when at last the pressure inside is equal to that of the water without. The water of course rushes in and sinks the U-boat to the bottom like a stone, but the men who are nearest to the hatch have a chance of escaping mth the rush of air to the surface. There is of course a violent struggle to get nearest to the hatch. This is what happened in the case of the particular U-boat from which these prisoners came. The forward hatch was opened. Our patrol boat cruising above saw the waters thrown up by the air-burst and then the heads of the men struggling on the surface. Most of these men were screaming with pain. All of them went under before they could be picked up except two. And these two died in a day or so. They died because coming suddenly up to the ordinary atmosphere out of the compressed air of the sinking submarine had burst the tissues of their lungs. They were choked with blood.
"Think of those poor creatures dying in the hospital. They were worn out by fits of coughing and haemorrhage, but there must have been moments of exhausted quiet before the end, when our youngster lay and stared at the bleak walls of the ward and thought; when he asked himself, 'What have I been doing! What have I done? What has this world done for me? It has made me a murderer. It has tortured me and wasted me. . . . And I meant well by it. . . .'
"Whether he thought at all about the making of the submarine, the numberless ingenuities and devices, the patience and devotion, that had gone to make that grim trap in which he had been caught at last, I cannot guess. . . . Probably he took it as a matter of course. . . .
"So it was that our German youngster who dreamt dreams, who had ambitions, who wished to serve and do brave and honourable things, died. . . . So five thousand men at least have died, English some of them as well as German, in lost submarines beneath the waters of the narrow seas. . . .
"There is a story and a true story. It is more striking than the fate of most men and women in the world, but is it, in its essence, different? Is not the whole life of our time in the vein of this story? Is not this story of youth and hope and possibility misled, marched step by step into a world misconceived, thrust into evil, and driven down to ugliness and death, only a more vivid rendering of what is now the common fate of great multitudes? Is there any one of us who is not in some fashion aboard a submarine, doing evil and driving towards an evil end? . . .
"What are the businesses in which men engage? How many of them have any likeness to freighted ships that serve the good of mankind? Think of the lying and cornering, the crowding and outbidding, the professional etiquette that robs the common man, the unfair advantage smugly accepted! What man among us can say, 'All that I do is service'? Our holding and our effort: is it much better than the long interludes below the surface, and when we come up to struggle for our own hands, torpedoing competitors, wrecking antagonists, how is it with us? The submarine sailors stare in the twilight at drowning men. Every day I stare at a world drowning in poverty and ignorance, a world awash in the seas of hunger, disease, and misery. We have been given leisure, freedom, and intelligence; what have we done to prevent these things?
"I tell you all the world is a submarine, and every one of us is something of a U-boat man. These fools who squeal in the papers for cruelties to the U-boat men do not realize their own part in the world. . . . We might live in sunshine and freedom and security, and we live cramped and cold, in bitter danger, because we are at war with our fellow men. . . .
"But there, doctor, you have the answer to the first part of your question. You asked what the Spirit of God in Man was against. It is against these mental confusions, these ignorances, that thrust life into a frightful cul-de-sac, that the God in our Hearts urges us to fight. . . . He is crying out in our hearts to save us from these blind alleys of selfishness, darkness, cruelty, and pain in which our race must die; he is crying for the high road which is salvation, he is commanding the organized unity of mankind.''