by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison
Several years ago, serving on a volunteer fire department, I was the scene commander for a disaster scenario. The simulated emergency was that a small passenger aircraft with about a dozen passengers had crashed on landing, leaving the fuselage mostly intact but sitting in a pool of fuel. Injuries ranged from dead to spinal trauma to bleeding to broken bones to concussions and unconsciousness.
After I divvied up my personnelsome laying down foam on the gas, others securing the area and searching for survivors who might have wandered offI began to realize that I wasnt seeing people being taken out of the bus that served as our crashed aircraft. Curious, I wandered over and looked inside. The crew Id sent in had completed triage and were carefully taking care of the worst wounded, securing a neck brace on the guy with the supposed spinal injury, and were obviously planning to carry the people out in the order of injury severity. I immediately stopped what they were doing and ordered them to start getting people out. Anyone who could move on their own, regardless if they had broken arms that hadnt been treated or some other kind of serious but not immediately life-threatening injury went first. Those who were unconscious but with no signs of spinal injury were manhandled out. Broken leg? Throw her on a stretcher without using a splint. Someone not breathing? Leave them. And then, work on the spinal injury.
It was, in short, pretty much the exact opposite of what youre supposed to do.
Following the exercise, some people, including some of the nurses who participated, asked some rather aggressive questions about why I did what I did. Why did I tell them to stop giving artificial respiration to victim who wasnt breathing? Didnt I realize that, had this been real, I would have been condemning that person to death? It took them a bit to understand my reasoning when I explained. I had all those injured people, and their rescuers, sitting in the middle of a pool of flammable liquid. The situation was such that my priority wasnt ensuring that people were treated according to need, but that I was saving as many people as possible and reducing the risk to my people. Therefore they had to be removed from the aircraft as quickly as possiblewhich meant that yes, I probably was ordering the death of people who might have had a chance of survival.
Added into that was the fact I live in a remote community; the only way in or out is via aircraft, the nearest facilities really capable of handling a mass casualty incident an hour and a half away by jet assuming there were jets available. The best hope in a real life situation would have been an emergency response by the Canadian Forces, but odds are that would have been several hours to get a Herc in the air with equipment and personnel and back on the ground where we were. So included in my calculations was the limited amount of medical support I had backing me up, and making the kind of decisions many people many times have had to make: can you spare the people and equipment needed to possibly keep one person alive, with no guarantee theyll live, if it means youre putting three others, who you know you can save, at greater risk?
The head of the local health clinic, who had been a former combat medic with the British Army, immediately understood what I was doing: Combat triage. I was making a cold-blooded calculation on who would likely live and who would likely die, and allocating my resources accordingly. As fortune would have it, Ive never had to face that sort of mass casualty incident in real life, but I know that if Im ever faced with the real thing, I would make the same decisions.
(Needless to say, I, and those of us who have had to make or have been prepared to make those sort of decisions, tend to look at the reports of what may or may not have happened in some of the hospitals in New Orleans in September, 2005 , with slightly more understanding of what decisions were faced and what actions they may have been prepared to do by those doctors and nurses.)
So why did I bring this story up? Well, consider the following scenario: During Clovers rampage in New York, as partly seen in the documentary Cloverfield, imagine that said monster was in the area of a hospital just before Hammerdownthe heavy mass bombing of the areawas implemented. Its a standard civic hospital, with a patient population ranging from preemie babies to older folks on life support, as well as having to deal with the mass casualties from the ongoing incident. Youve got thirty minutes before the entire area is blown straight to hell, and have limited ground and air transport. Consider the following: A person on life support will require a stretcher and equipment which takes up the space occupied by three or four people, as well as a medical professional to monitor. A preemie incubator, if youve never seen one, takes up the seating space of two people. Someone requiring treatment, like someone being intubated and bagged, will require at least one person to focus on that patient alone, and that will probably occupy the space that you could jam two or three people in.
What do you do?
Now, think back to all those movies youve seen where the authority figure gives the orders to leave someone behind. Quite often, when its not the person being left behind who makes the heroic decision to stay and sacrifice themselves, the person giving the order is seen as a callous martinet whose only concern is orders and not the lives being lost. And, thanks to having the writers on their side, the Heroes do something utterly heroic and save the lot, proving that had the authority figure only had the balls of steel possessed by the heroes, he could have done the same thing, the coward.
Thing is, of course, if the Heroes didnt live in a world where the writers are on their side, guess who would usually have been in the right?
If Im the one locally in charge during the Cloverfield example, Im stuffing the vehicles with as many people as I can. Someone wants to be heroic and give up their seat for their sickly old granddad who is on life-support? Fine, but its wasted heroism, because unless were down to the last few vehicles and everyone else is gone, Granddad is going to be staying behind with him. And if people want to think me a cold-blooded villain, Ill live with thatand so will a larger number of other people than if a hero was giving the orders.
Another example, this one from Star Trek and relevant to what this column is about: Captain Edward Jellico, from a two-parter of The Next Generation where he temporarily assumes command of the Enterprise, was seen by many fans (and some of the writers and producers, Peter David being an example given his portrayal of the character early in the New Frontier novel series) as an antagonist, the modern incarnation of the ambassadors or Federation bureaucrats or Starfleet desk-jockeys Kirk was saddled with who inevitably screwed things up. He was a rules-bound bad person who was mean to Riker, changed the way the ship worked, made Troi wear a uniform okay, so that last one wasnt all bad.
However, some of us who watched the show saw something very different. We saw an effective officer who made changes that were actually kept when Picard resumed command because they worked, and who was far more tolerant of a childish Riker than he deserved. Jellico had no hesitation in asking for Rikers help when required, even when the human response would have been to toss his whiny ass out an airlock. Thanks to a cunning plan, he stopped a war dead in its tracks before it could start, and on top of that, arranged to have Picard returned even after hed been caught dead to rights engaged in covert activities. In short, Jellico wasnt the antagonist of the story: Riker was. Whether deliberate or not, it was a nice bit of writing that turned the normal expectations on their head. Our nominal hero was being a complete jerkass, and it was the outsider who was in the right.
Remember a few columns back when I was going on about how just because someone is serving with the Forces of Evil, they arent necessarily evil themselves, and someone in the Army of Light isnt necessarily a nice person? Well, this is something of the same sort of thing. A person who does what must be done given the circumstances, even when it goes against what the heroes want, isnt necessarily the villain of the piece. Oh sure, Doing Whats Necessary can be an excuse to do unpleasant things, not for actual need, but because the person actually is a puppy-kicking villain but it doesnt have to be that way automatically. And if youre writing, one way to make the story interesting is to have that person actually be right, and let the hero be wrong.
Consider a few of the following archetypes.
The police sergeant/lieutenant/whatever. You knowthe man or woman who spends their time at the desk and harangues the local Cowboy Cop for doing whatever it takes to bring down the bad guys. Usually theyre all about the politics or concern about bad publicity, and they care more about the rules than stopping the bad guys, right? Well, how about trying one where the Cowboy Cop, because of their disregard for rules and procedures, utterly screws things up and the sergeant was right?
Related to that, we have the Obstructive Bureaucrat, the Interfering Politician, the REMF (Rear Echelon Parental Intercourse Performer). So the members of the Senate Oversight Committee come strolling into the heroes command center and make a nuisance of themselves, asking questions and demanding justifications and making Our Noble Heroes explain themselves about why they started their own private war with Planet X. Nothing good comes of that, right? The politicians arent down wit da street, dont know what the score is, dont know how the real world works, havent gotten their hands dirty you know, all the standard lines.
Because in the Real World, that sort of renegade action has never led to questionable or counterproductive outcomes, has it?
So the next time youre writing about the official putz whos making life harder for the heroes, or the authority figure who makes the decision to leave someone behind, or stops the rescue, or halts the mission, stop to consider: Sometimes, the putz is right.