Growing All the Way Up

I recently watched the Gregory Peck film Twelve O’Clock High, and I’ve been meditating on it ever since.

Peck’s character takes command of a struggling bomber squadron in the fraught early days of World War II. The previous commander burned himself out, and the unit has lost cohesion. Peck has to bring it back.

In one of the scenes that has stuck with me most, Peck — who’s walking a very fine line between forging his men into a fighting team and pushing them over the edge — says that they have to grow all the way up. In other words, these kids have to commit themselves fully to the job, even unto death.

The haunting part of the scene is that Peck clearly understands what he’s asking. As a commander, he knows that kind of growing up is necessary. And, as a human being, he knows it’s a tragedy.

We have no shortage of cultural tropes about growing all the way up in extremis. But it makes you wonder: what does it mean to grow all the way up in a time of peace and plenty? What’s the impulse? It’s surely still necessary … but can it be less of a tragedy?