The Long Watch: Johnny’s On the Spot!
by David M. Silver©1997
“The Long Watch” is a short story first published in American Legion Magazine (December 1949), in a “heavily edited” form, later republished in original form in the collections The Green Hills of Earth (1951) and The Past Through Tomorrow (1967). This précis is written from identical versions appearing in both the later collections.
It’s sixty years in the future. Lieutenant John Ezra “Johnny” Dahlquist isn’t a professional soldier. He’s just doing a short term in the service before starting a real career, a young nuclear physicist with a newly-minted doctorate, commissioned and assigned by the United Nations Patrol as junior bomb officer at Moon Base, where the Patrol maintains atomic bombs designed to coerce peace by being able to strike any nation on Earth which threatens to engage in war. Johnny’s got a young wife back home down there in Iowa. They have a brand-new baby daughter. It’s the job of the professionals to maintain peace.
But a coup has taken place among the professionals at Moon Base. The plotters are in control. It’ll take days before any relief force can reach Moon Base. Johnny’s on the spot. Colonel Tower, in charge of the coup, has asked Johnny, because he thinks he’s probably politically “reliable,” whatever that means, to help ready a few bombs for a demonstration on an “unimportant town or two.” Tower thinks the nations of the world will readily fall in line for whatever these so-called professionals have in mind after they do that. The problem is Johnny’s not so sure a demonstration on an unimportant town or two is what he wants his wife and daughter back on Earth to see or live through, so he tricked a guard, and now he’s alone in the locked warhead vault and has destroyed all the electronic firing circuits, while he thinks things through. He’s really playing the little Dutch boy with his thumb in the dike.
He’s not sure he can hold on much longer and, if he falls asleep, chances are the Colonel will break in, seize the bombs and jury-rig something that will restore them to use. If that happens Johnny will be dead from the vacuum, but that’s beside the point. What’s a little Dutch boy to do? More pointed: what will Lieutenant John Ezra Dahlquist, husband and father, young scientist masquerading as a soldier, do?
These are the major character and theme of Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Long Watch,” written in 1949 when arguments for and against providing the United Nations with military forces to preserve the peace were ringing in the halls of Congress, and debated in the press, while the U.S.S.R. frustrated peace-keeping efforts with its veto in the Security Council and, unknown to us, North Korea’s Army stood poised and ready to move south depending on its masters’ assessment of how strongly, if at all, the new international body of nations would act to preserve South Korea’s independence.
Does the story have any relevance today? We have young soldiers—women and men—standing in place as trip wires in the Balkans where John Ezra Dahlquist stood. Others say they’ve seen secret UN ‘Black’ Helicopters in our skies. Do the stories of the boy David facing the giant warrior Goliath, Samson and his jawbone, Horatius barring the Bridge over the Tiber with his life and sword to save Rome, Leonidas and 300 Spartans at Thermopylae delaying the advance of the Persians against the whole of Greece, 181 Texans at Alamo allowing Houston to marshal and train his army, Pvt. Roger Young in the Solomons crawling wounded toward a machine gun nest to cover the retreat of his exposed platoon, Lt. Audie Murphy on the burning tank destroyer covering the retreat of his vastly outnumbered company, or today’s mother cat dying to save her kittens have any relevance to today? It’s an old story, and as profound as the crucifixion on the hill of skulls.
Read Robert Heinlein’s treatment of Johnny on the spot, and maybe you’ll be able to answer those questions. I’ll tell you one thing about what Johnny’s decision does to me. For forty years this thirteen page story has never failed to bring tears to my eyes when I read it.
“… Roman matrons used to say to their sons: ‘Come back with your shield, or on it.’ Later on, this custom declined. So did Rome.” —Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long.