Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
Whenever I hear people use favorite expressions or figures of speech, I always wonder about their origin. One such expression involves a person referred to as a “loose cannon.”
The term generally refers to someone who is totally out of control and likely to do great damage if left unchecked.
It seems there are more and more loose cannons in the world, and a discussion of that term’s origins may give the reader a deeper appreciation of the meaning the next time it is used.
Defining The Term
The term originates with a literary account that uses a metaphor, a figure of speech using terms that are generally not directly associated. For example, “The road was a ribbon of moonlight” provides a picture in the reader’s mind of a luminously bright ribbon curling in an otherwise dark landscape.
The effective use of metaphors is one of the most challenging of writing skills. Metaphors are the Himalayas, so you won’t see me using them much, and if I do they will be stones washed over by the stream.
Righting The Ship
The “loose cannon” metaphor derives from an episode that is in itself a metaphor, found in a book titled Ninety-Three, by the French writer, Victor Hugo.
The term refers to the gigantic cannons aboard 17th- to 19th-century war ships; these weapons, weighing thousands of pounds, had recoil so powerful they had to be tied down with ropes to keep them from injuring the gunners.
In the episode, one of the 10,000-pound cannons is accidentally left untied by a gun captain while the ship is at sea in a tempestuous storm that, by itself, threatens to tear the ship apart.
Hugo describes the cannon as “Matter set free–an eternal slave avenging itself–with the clumsiness of an elephant, obstinacy of an ox, uncertainty of the billows, the zigzag of lightning.”
The subplot of the scene is how to stop the cannon, this “brute of bronze.” It is moved by the ship, which is moved by the sea, which is moved by the wind. “The destroyer is a toy. The ship, the waves, the winds, all play with it,” Hugo writes.
In the end, after the cannon has nearly destroyed the ship, the gun captain who had caused the catastrophe by not battening down the cannon, bravely jumps onto the deck and does battle with it, “The gladiator of flesh attacking the beast of brass.”
Eventually, he is able to rope and secure it with the help of a mysterious old man, who turns out to be the commanding general in disguise. The general first awards the gun captain a medal for saving the ship then orders him to be shot for putting the ship in danger in the first place.
The phrase “loose cannon” might have been lost in obscurity, but U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt revived the phrase, saying, “I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.”
Firing Without Aim
There seems to be an overabundance of loose cannons these days.
The relatively recent advent of real-time, world-wide communication has provided ammunition to arm more loose cannons. People can sling high-caliber, rapid-fire, fully automatic word-bullets with little or no control, thought, or proper training.
Thus, we have national security items being “WikiLeaked,” possibly to the detriment of our troops; anonymous “bloggers” and “tweeters” and “Facebookers” calling for revolutions in places that are already tumultuous and need stability rather than revolt, which leaves the door open to even more radical leaders; opposing sides of local, regional, national, and international issues being able to generate acrimonious statements at the speed of typing or texting, with little or no demand to take responsibility for the consequences.
The current political candidates–who are supposed to be focused on the best interests of the electorate–are focused instead on responding to misinformation spread at lightning speed.
This has occurred at a local, personal level. I’ve seen normally rational people react irrationally to something they heard or read via email or other mass-communication devices without first checking its veracity. Misinformation spreads like a tsunami; corrections are like drips in a bucket.
And like the gun captain’s actions, even though the cool-down period may lead to some level of normalcy, the damage has already been done; the ship is already in peril.
However, in the case of the original loose cannon, there was an authority that ensured responsibility was followed by accountability. With today’s loose cannons, there is no single, central authority to hold court; even if one attempts to do so, lawyers will find loopholes.
The similarity between the loose cannon of hundreds of years ago and the loose cannons of today is they both are driven by forces larger than themselves. In the 17th century, the inanimate cannon was driven by wind and waves. In the 21st century, the living cannons are driven by winds of change and waves of unrest–both powerful forces.
The major difference, of course, is that 21st-century cannons are breathing, reasoning, supposedly intelligent humans who do have options other than blind thrashing. They can research the issues, can determine right from wrong, can listen to other perspectives, and can choose to act as human beings and not like an inanimate cannon-monster.
Now, how does one make the loose cannons understand this? Any ideas?
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.