Loose Cannon on Deck

The term, loose cannon, has been around a long time. Cannons used on sailing vessels were large, typically weighing several tons. To avoid damage from the recoil when they were fired, they were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. The cannon jumped backwards when fired. If you have ever fired a weapon, you are familiar with recoil. The cannons get hot when they are used in battle, and each time a cannon is fired, it jumps higher and rolls farther. If the ropes holding the cannon secure were to break, a loose cannon would roll backwards and crush anything—or anyone—behind it. A loose cannon was a serious situation, especially for the unlucky sailors caught in its path.

A long time ago I was fortunate enough to be able to tour the U.S.S. Constitution The guide told us that the gun decks on old warships were painted red so that blood and gore would be less visible. I was standing next to one of the large cannons at the time, so it was easy for me to imagine the jump of the cannon when it was fired and what it would be like to be caught between it and another hard object. War has, of course, never been a risk-free proposition. Many of the metaphors we use today have their origins in war and battle. From the days of muzzleloaders. we get flash in the pan, shooting one’s wad, and half-cocked. Many metaphors based on war are firmly entrenched in our everyday language. You may have crossed swords with someone, or perhaps you know someone who has a “short fuse.”

Most metaphors have their origins in something that was once literal and tangible. A bomb with a short fuse, for example, goes off before the one who lights it has a chance to get away. Some of us have had that experience with Fourth of July fireworks. Over the years, the loose cannon metaphor has come to represent anyone or anything that is out of control and capable of damaging those in its wake. Another very old metaphor is ship of state, which equates countries (or, in Plato’s time, City-States) to sailing vessels, which require a steady hand at the helm to avoid seafaring disasters. And, of course, we know from history, that even those ships that set sail with competent commanders often encounter difficulties that sink the ship.

My sense is that the ship of state that is the United States currently has a loose cannon on deck. To make matters worse, the USA is not the only country with a loose cannon on deck. In fact, world-wide we probably have more countries with loose cannons than we have those with a steady hand at the helm. In The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot says that the world will end “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” Robert Frost would have us think about the world ending with either fire or ice:

                Some say the world will end in fire,
                Some say in ice.
                From what I’ve tasted of desire
                I hold with those who favor fire.
                But if it had to perish twice,
                I think I know enough of hate
                To say that for destruction ice
                Is also great
                And would suffice.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready for either fire or ice. I have some idea about how we have reached this point in history. I was, after all, born during World War II, and I am old enough to remember the assassination of JFK and Richard Nixon’s impeachment. I am well-familiar with the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, and I’m a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Although I know that it is probably just a matter of perspective, the current state of the world seems much more precarious to me than it has in previous times. Will we somehow muddle through in spite of the loose cannon on deck? It’s not as though the loose cannon we have on deck in the States is the only loose cannon out there. I would have thought that we’d learned at least some of the lessons from World War II and Vietnam that we would not be so willing (and, in some cases, eager) to repeat them. When the Allies were victorious over the Nazis that should have been the end of military adventuring in the name of “blood and soil” and war profiteering. At the end of that war, we instituted the the Marshall Plan. What did we (the U.S.) want when we went into Korea and Vietnam? Korea, at least. was a partial victory, although now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, the “game” has certainly changed. It hasn’t been that long ago since “we” were going to pay for the war in Iraq with Iraqi oil, and, following that “adventure,” look at what’s happened in the Mid-East.

One of the problems with a loose cannon on deck is that the cannon rolls with the rise and fall of the sea. Whether we can stop the cannon from rolling before the world situation gets worse remains to be seen.