The Magazine

Death of a Hero

Robert Falcon Scott reappraised.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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There is a kind of stern, unbending techno-military puritanism about such criticisms--as if the norm were perfection and any deviation from it, therefore, a moral reproach to the commander--which is also becoming routine in the ever-more strident critiques in the media and Congress of the Iraq war. This seems particularly unfair as an approach to those, like Scott, who a century-and-a-half ago were bred up in an honor culture most of whose tenets were designed as stratagems to cope with failure.

It's also a failure not to recognize this, as when Crane comments: "As astonishing as any of the miseries of this journey is the spirit with which they were borne." His astonishment must be due to his assumption that this is just a curious fact picked up along the way and not the essence of the honor culture that he is writing about without (quite) knowing it. The result is a schizophrenic quality to this book, since most of what it finds to criticize about Scott is also what it finds to admire.

Most admirable of all is, surely, the Herculean self-restraint--or, in critical mode, emotional repression--that was required of Scott to do what he did and to become the man he was. Here, for instance, is what Scott of the Antarctic has to say about Scott's own book about his first Antarctic expedition in 1901-04, The Voyage of the Discovery:

There are problems with the book--excisions, launderings and "quotations" from the original diaries that are not the literal transcriptions that they might seem--but these are no more or less than might be expected. Behind these silences and evasions lay the long and discreet tradition of Victorian biography, and if Lytton Strachey was already waiting in the wings, it would no more have occurred to Scott to air old grievances and dislikes than it would his modern successor to leave them out. One could read the near-thousand pages of The Voyage of the Discovery and never know that there had been any tensions in the wardroom, that Scott had made Ferrar cry, that Barne had nearly lost them half a dozen men, or Armitage had spent the last year sulking in his tent. It plainly suited Scott's purposes to project an image of contented unity to the Admiralty and to the public, and yet the real point is that there would not have been a single man in the ship--not even Armitage at this stage--who would have wanted it told differently or not closed ranks around the "myth" perpetrated in his expedition history.

Do I detect in those quotation marks festooning the word "myth" the dawning of a highly subversive recognition that myth is not just the creeping moss that it is the biographer's job to clear out of his garden, but something with a truth-value of its own? One of the most striking things about Captain Scott to emerge from this biography is his quickness with praise for the honorable, noble, unselfish, eager, uncomplaining, hard-working, generous behavior of others, down to the lowliest members of his team. We are no more to imagine that these others were actually (if we could know them in every intimate detail) without fault any more than he, himself, was. But he sets us an example of how to look at men in order to bring out the best in them, and it seems only fair and equitable that we, like so many of his contemporaries who reciprocated in the warmest terms, should do as much--and rather more than David Crane does--for him.

As for Scott as the precursor of World War I in the discrediting of the British honor culture, we may again have reason to think that the last word was said by Scott's great companion, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the author of what is still the finest account of the last expedition, The Worst Journey in the World: "A war is like the Antarctic in one respect. There is no getting out of it with honour as long as you can put one foot before the other."

James Bowman, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Honor: A History.