“Ideals Are Peaceful.
History Is Violent.”

The Benefit of Quiet
Leadership in a Noisy Fury When The Ideal of Fighting Cancer Becomes Making It
History

(For Raph Pollock)

By

Leonard Zwelling

         Leadership in war movies is usually about physical courage.
A high-ranking military officer may make a controversial decision that leads to
victory or even defeat. John Wayne leads the cavalry over the ridge to save the
fort from the Indians. Davy Crockett (John Wayne, Fess Parker, you choose) goes
down to glorious defeat at the Alamo. Kevin Costner rides that horse into the
Confederate lines in Dancing With Wolves. George C. Scott as Patton will even
shoot a pistol at attacking German warplanes in Africa in anger at the audacity
of the enemy coming to challenge his authority. These are common movie examples
of leadership within fury.

Spielberg’s
Lincoln was a singular example of the quiet leadership of a wartime figure
fighting for what he believes in an arena without blood, Congress, but where
far greater, less visible wounds have been inflicted than have been on some
real battlefields. I saw that close up.

         Fury is a rather conventional war film starring Brad Pitt in
another of a series of amazing performances that prove not only his versatility
and good looks, but his acting chops. He may be a movie star, but he sure is
one who can act. He plays a tank commander in the waning days of WWII as the
American Army marches into Germany to finish the war when Hitler’s troops
simply will not surrender despite their defeat having been sealed. As Pitt’s
character says, “it will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have
to die.” And a lot of those people die on the screen in a series of ever more
horrific battles between the Germans and the five men of Pitt’s tank crew.

All
of the characters in that tank display physical courage, but they are all
pinning their survival on the quiet expertise and experience of the Pitt
character. He is the leader. He will get them home.

But
revealing the film’s heart is a much different scene. One of quiet fury, but
peace.

         After successfully capturing a German town, Pitt and his
newest crewmember break into an apartment and find two women there alone, one
much younger than the other. The details don’t matter, but the two soldiers
find eggs there and the women make breakfast. The rest of the tank crew finds
the two comrades and rudely insinuates itself on the women and the food. With
cool precision, measured words and the threat, but only the threat, of violence
without its use, Pitt manages to both control the situation to prevent any harm
to the women, feed his troops and make it clear to one and all that a little
fun is permitted but there will be no raping and pillaging on his watch. In a
film loaded with explosions of the chemical kind, the small explosion of
emotion by an otherwise cool character displaying true leadership stands out as
a metaphor for what used to be the character of America in the world.

         Every once in a while, a small scene can define an entire
film. This one was an oasis of quiet character development in a film of raw
physicality, yet it conveyed the essence of leadership far more than all the
guns and tanks did for the rest of the two hours.

         Major kudos to David Ayer for daring to make a film about
war that conveys all that is right and wrong with recent American foreign
policy in both its noisy and quiet moments. Double kudos to Pitt who embodies
all that we have come to expect from our action heroes without any of the
anti-hero distractions and only as much cruelty and violence as is necessary to
promote American ideals. He was an American doing an awful job against truly
crazy people out to kill the world and to do it while trying to hold onto his
humanity. And he succeeded.

         Remember when our leaders didn’t have to make excuses for
their actions because they did the right thing and by doing the right thing they
won AND we won? Me, too, but boy it has been a while. Probably WWII or at least
the Cuban Missile Crisis, 52 years ago.  

         Does any of this have anything to do with MD Anderson and
academic medicine in general? I think it does.

         Cancer is a unique disease. We still understand very little
about its essence for unlike diseases of a single organ, cancer is clearly a
systemic failure of body homeostasis. Like heart failure, chronic pulmonary
disease and chronic renal failure, cancer must be some kind of end-organ
malfunction. We just don’t really know the end organ that failed.

         This leaves us with two choices. We can pursue the identity
of the homeostatic failure doing research while trying our best to extend the
lives of those afflicted with malignant disease or we can wage a war to make it
history. The former is an ideal, the latter is history, by definition.

         The academic pursuit of understanding the ideal of cancer
such that it can be conquered with knowledge and insight makes a lot of sense
to me. It’s why I came here because I thought that was what MD Anderson did. Once
we decided to make cancer history, we embarked on a more violent path. It is
one that leaves careers in its wake. Personally, I preferred when we were
fighting cancer as an ideal for living in the present moment than when we
started to try to make it history tomorrow. It was more peaceful, less violent
and had fewer casualties, particularly among the faculty.  

Leonard Zwelling