Tunes of Glory: A Tale of Two Colonels

Tunes of Glory

          The 1960 film Tunes of Glory has long been a favorite. The movie depicts a post-World War II Scottish infantry battalion that has its headquarters in a highland castle. The castle, scenery, and soldiers in their kilts and trews all make up for great visuals.  The acting by Alec Guiness, John Mills and a troop of British character actors is very good. The screenplay was written by James Kennaway, based on his novel of the same name.  Kennaway had served as an officer in a highland regiment after World War II. A promising career as a writer was cut short by his death from a heart attack at age 40. I’ve seen the movie as a teenager, junior officer, and since my retirement from the Marine Corps, always experiencing it a little differently, but always being drawn back to it because of its quality and also because I’ve felt that I was missing something.  It took me awhile to see past the particulars of time and setting to appreciate the points about military life that Tunes of Glory makes which are universal and eternal.

        The movie and the novel play off each other. Experiencing them both opens up interpretations that might not be available if you only know one or the other. Reading the novel (and an introduction by Allan Massie) helped me to understand the movie, and vice versa. Kennaway does a fine job as screenwriter adapting his own novel to film. He makes some of the scenes more visual, putting events that are only referred to in the novel in front of the camera. The acting of the two leads in particular gives the two main characters added depth and complexity.  Together, film and book peel back some realities about military life that often get swept under the carpet but that bear more consideration.


            The plot revolves around two officers commanding a Scottish battalion in the years after World War II. Jock Sinclair is an ex-piper raised to officer rank who took command of the battalion in North Africa. He is relieved by Barrow, a well-connected Sandhurst graduate who spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp.  Sinclair is resentful of Barrow for having ousted him from command. Barrow is intimidated by Sinclair the war hero.  In a sense, each has what the other lacks. Sinclair is a warrior and leader of men, but he’s hopeless as an organizer and disciplinarian. He leads his officers in heavy drinking and often buffoonish behavior. Barrow unwisely orders all officers to take instruction in highland dancing every morning, arousing their resentment, and he makes an unbecoming scene at a cocktail party for the local gentry when the officers engage in the kind of rowdy dancing that the instruction had been intended to correct.


        They are similar in the sense that both men are essentially lonely and unfulfilled. Both have been married but are now on their own.  Sinclair has a grown daughter with whom he has a loving but somewhat distant relationship. Both are burdened by their memories of the war. Barrow spent years in harsh and unproductive captivity. Sinclair suspects that his best days are over, and even that his wartime success was a fluke. They also share a keen sense of the burden and isolation of command. There is the hint of Othello in Tunes of Glory, with Barrow as the Moor and Sinclair as his Iago. The sexual element of Othello is echoed when Sinclair strikes a corporal who he learns has been dating his daughter Moag, and perhaps in a rivalry between Sinclair and another officer for the same woman, actress Mary Titterington (played in the movie by Kay Walsh). None of these men or women are mad or wicked, but the soldiers are caught in a claustrophobic, competitive environment of male one-upmanship. There is humor and comradeship in the story too (more in the movie than in the novel) but always there is the bark of authority and the threat of punishment and shaming.   The castle setting and kilts reinforce a sense of isolation and antique barbarity.

Tunes of Glory 2

         Even if you’ve never read or seen Tunes of Glory, you have probably guessed by now that this story ends badly, with the death of one colonel and the personal breakdown of the other. Tunes of Glory is probably one of the best literary or filmic warnings of some of the pitfalls of army life, of lives spent preparing for death. The romance and tragedy of soldiering are here in concentrated form. It could be rewritten for the modern American military, maybe with an academy graduate being put in above a popular up-from-the-ranks XO in a battalion back from deployment, with piney, southern, Civil War-haunted woods taking the place of snowy highlands, PT in place of dancing, beer instead of scotch whisky, PTS and post-deployment remorse and suicide in the air.

JMH Review of Soldiers and Civilization

SMHThe October issue of The  Journal of Military History includes a very favorable review by Paul D. Lockhart of my book Soldiers and Civilization. Prof. Lockhart calls me on some shortcomings, but overall the review is very positive. It’s always very gratifying to have such an obviously perceptive, discerning reviewer praise one’s work, an experience I’ve been fortunate to have several times with this book.

There might be copyright issues involved in posting the review entire, so instead I’ll quote here a few lines.

“Colonel Bonadonna visits an almost bewildering variety of topics: the art and practice of war, military technology and operations, the training of officers, the political role of armies, even the contributions of soldiers to literary culture. Fortunately, in Bonadonna’s capable hands. this daunting array of topical threads comes together in a cogent package.”

“Its topical breath makes it equally suitable as a general history of Western warfare, similar to–though grander in scope than–Michael Howard’s venerable War In European History.”

His last words-

“In a field where most books traditionally zoom in on narrow topics, constrained time periods, and individual events, such a broad approach is to be admired and encouraged.”

As I work on getting my next book, “How to Think Like an Armed Forces Officer” ready for publication, I’m going to keep in mind some of Prof. Lockhart’s critical comments, especially those on my writing. The suggestion that I use too many “signposts” is one I plan to take to heart.



Publishing “How to Think”


I learned yesterday that the Naval Institute Press has accepted for publication “How to Think Like an Officer: A Guide for Officers and Others”!  My thanks to the editors and friends who have helped with this project.   I have a month or so to get the manuscript into shape, so I’m still looking for input if anybody has any bright ideas on the subject. You can read earlier posts on this blog as well as articles on The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks to get an idea of how my thoughts have been tending.

Briefly, the book breaks down into two main parts on getting  ready to think and thought in action. I spend a lot of time talking about reading in the first part. The second part is in three chapters on the organizer, warfighter, and visionary.  The last chapter deals mostly with life after the uniform: dreams and aspirations, continuing to serve. I think that bit might be my best and favorite, maybe because I’m retired myself, but also since I think the role of officers after we leave the service has been neglected.

Semper Fi, Reed


Strategic Thought and the Military Officer in”Fail-Safe” (1964)


Historically, military organizations have had to find occasions for ethical renewal. This arguably happened in the 17th century during what had become known as the “Military Revolution.” in the nineteenth century with written international rules on armed conflict, and following World War II and Nuremberg, with the advent of UN Forces and peacekeeping operations. (See my Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (Annapolis: USNI Press, 2017.) In a recent New York Times article (“Rebooting the Ethical Soldier,” NYT 16 July), retired Air Force Major General Robert H. Latiff argues that the rise of new warfare technologies calls for such a renewal, lest killing become too easy and automatic.

The other night, while my wife was at book club, I ran a recording of the movie Fail-Safe that was shown on TCM a few nights ago. The film has worn well. The acting by the likes of Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and a very young Larry Hagman is excellent, as are the direction by Sidney Lumet and a script that follows the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler closely.   Its themes of brinksmanship and over-reliance on technology have renewed relevance in the era of AI and other technologies.

For me, the character of Brigadier General “Blackie” Black, played by distinguished actor Dan O’Herlihy, is one of the most unforgettable parts of the film. His may not be the star role (that likely goes to Fonda) but the film begins and ends with him, and it is his sensibility and thoughts that give the film its main gravitas. Fail-Safe begins with his dream of a bull being flayed in an arena while he watches helpless and horrified from the stands. He wakes in his New York apartment and wakes his sleeping wife, telling her that he is worried about the work he is doing, and even considering resigning from the service, in part to make his recurring dream go away.

At a meeting later that day with the new Defense Secretary and a roomful of other generals and officials, Black is a dissenting voice. He’s obviously worried about the normalizing of nuclear war, arguing against the glib abstractions of the defense intellectual played by Matthau and the rather unimaginative pragmatism of some of the senior generals.  Suddenly, the electronic board on the wall of the room depicts an American bomber squadron that has erroneously proceeded beyond its Fail-Safe point and is now on its way to bomb Moscow.   This has been caused by a failure of the technology that was not caught in time by the human chain of command. Many efforts to prevent this attack, some finally undertaken in uneasy cooperation with the Russians, are tried without success, and the president, played by Fonda, is forced to make a tragic decision. (I’ll try not to give the ending away, in case anyone, maybe younger readers, is unfamiliar with the plot.) Black, an old schoolmate of the president’s, is the man selected to carry out his order, after which Black commits suicide.

Black embodies some of the traits of the ideal (or idealized) officer-as-strategist I’ve outlined in recent writings.  It is interesting that he is a one-star general among the four-stars and their equivalents in the Washington War Room. This suggests that he is closer  to the realities of armed conflict of which some of the higher-ups have lost sight. He still flies, and in fact it is his ability as a flier that earns him his final, tragic mission. A picture of a WWII flight crew in his bedroom indicates that he is a combat veteran. Black’s understanding of the the nature of war, and his imaginative ability to grasp the awfulness of nuclear war are terrible burdens. Matthau’s Professor Groteschele says the he is a “political scientist, not a poet.” He appears to have insulated himself from the consequences of nuclear war, and reduced it to a game of numbers and political abstractions, but he has also fallen for the dark fascination of mass destruction. Another character says, “No one is responsible,” but Black has assumed the responsibility  for war on himself. He bears responsibility even for a conflict he has done his professional, personal best to avoid.

In this, Black is embracing an old-fashioned code of honor and personal responsibility that distinguishes him from the “organization men” the technocrats and bureaucrats. He is also showing the way for an updated professional code, one as concerned with the preservation of peace as with the successful application of armed force.

Fail-Safe  is a great old movie. The 1962 novel and the 2000 film version with Harvey Keitel as General Black aren’t bad either. It may be time to press them into service for the training of cadets and officers.  They could make fine texts for discussion, of which I have likely only scratched the surface.  A soul as well as a brain is required for strategic thought, and advanced technology isn’t the only contemporary challenge. The strategic challenges of out time are surely exacerbated by a chief executive of uncertain judgment, limited understanding,and doubtful soul.