Colonel Lancer's character is meant to show how military leadership is a complex reality. The Colonel is a multi-dimensional figure. Being a veteran of World War I, he has seen the horrors of battle. Colonel Lancer recognizes the difficulty in navigating the obstacles in front of him. He follows orders and recognizes his duty. Yet, he also grasps how the townspeople are resisting his army. Their resentment and eventual resistance become critical elements that cause the Colonel to confront a challenging condition. In believing that he can stem the crisis, he places the Mayor under arrest. The hope in doing so is to quell the resistance that is emerging, to stem the "slow, silent, waiting revenge." Steinbeck's purpose is to show how war challenges those on the front and those who must do daily, even hourly, battle with the elements of military conflict. In contrast to "the leader," who is shown to be one- dimensional and almost laughably removed from this reality, the Colonel is placed in an unenviable position where he is trying to stop a condition in which "the flies have conquered the flypaper." The Colonel's intricate characterization reflects the reality of war that Steinbeck seeks to communicate.
In his final exchange with the Mayor, the Colonel's characterization is shown to be complex. On one hand, the Colonel understands and insists upon the orders he must follow. The "stiff" and "erect" way he communicates this reflects the level of belief his characterization holds towards them: "My orders are clear. Eleven o'clock was the deadline. I have taken hostages. If there is violence, the hostages will be executed." However, Lanser also understands that he is looking for a way out of this predicament. He has been around long enough to know that this narrative will not end well. Despite the affirmations of "the leader" that ring hollow to those who know the reality that envelops them, Lanser is shown as wanting to find a way out of such a challenging predicament: "I will carry out my orders no matter what they are, but I do think, sir, a proclamation from you might save many lives." Before this, the Colonel showed a similar flexibility in his approach with the mayor, and the conflict, in general: "If you say yes, we can tell them you said no. We can tell them you begged for your life." These examples of characterization illuminate the struggle that the Colonel undergoes. He is placed in an impossible reality, one in which he seeks to navigate the forces that are set out against them. While his orders come from a point that has to be condemned, his own position evokes a level of understanding from the reader. In this characterization, Steinbeck brings out the intricacies of war in terms of those who are chained to the front lines of fighting. Colonel Lanser's characterization is meant to demonstrate how complex war is on the individual's identity. Their being in the world is a multi- faceted one. At the same time, Colonel Lanser is also used to show how one individual truly is dwarfed by the stem of shared consciousness where resistance is understood and embraced. The ending in which "the debt is paid" represents Lanser's fundamental failure, and an inescapable fate of defeat in the name of what which is larger.