Friday, December 14, 2012

An Officer and a Gentleman.

This week I manged to find two posts which intersected with each other quite nicely. The first, was this one over at the Daily Mail.  Now not many nice things get said about the behaviour of the Germans during WW2, and I've certainly got nothing nice to say about the Nazi's, but this story does show that honorable action was possible even in that bestial war. The Luftwaffe, at least in the early stages of the war, acted honourably. In many instances during the Battle of Britain, German pilots would circle around British airmen downed in the Channel where German rescue planes would pick them up. In other instances the British would circle. But as the war wore on, and every advantage was sought, the chivalry wore thin.

But what is interesting is looking at Stigler's motivations for not shooting down the aircraft. When joining his unit he was briefed by his commanding officer Lt Gustav Roedel,
Honour is everything here,' he had told a young Stigler before his first mission. The senior airman added: 'If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. 'You follow the rules of war for you - not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity. [Ed] ' His moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. 

 'For me it would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn't do it,' Stigler later said.
What is clear here is that his conception of honour is different to the mainstream conceptions of it. Honour, it appears to Roedel, was not a mark of social merit or standing but rather a practical code of action designed to avoid self corruption. This seems particularly relevant in light of one of Fred Reeds latest essays.
These are degenerate days. Once I breached the walls of Ilium or Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and killed and looted and raped girls of seven in front of their parents—how they howled! Now perforce I say I do it for democracy, about which I don’t give a damn, or to end evil, though our allies are the worst tyrants we can find. Before, I could torture my captives between two slow fires, or by running a red-hot poker up their neither ends, and this in the public square for the amusement of a bored populace.
Now I water-board them, bringing them to the edge of drowning, screaming, begging, puking, yes, that does nicely, now a little more water as their minds break, and maybe I will masturbate over it later. For I am a soldier. I am dirt. I am the worst of a sorry species. ...........
For this we hold reunions. We get together in Wyoming and Tuscaloosa and Portland and remember when we were young and the war held off the boredom of life and the star shells flickered in the night sky over Happy Valley and life meant nothing but was at least intense. I hated the H&I fire over the dark forests of a puzzled Cambodia and I hate you cocksuckers living soft at home for sending us and I hate what I did and I hate what my friends did who were there, who are really my only friends. Aind I hope you one day pay, what we paid, what our victims paid and you pay it as we did. And this will bring me the only joy in my life.
Unlike most people, I regard soldiering as profession akin to the priesthood, for greater love than this no man hath. But just like the priesthood, when it goes bad, it goes bad horribly. And the problem for the soldier, particularly, is that his opprotunities to go bad mulitply in combat. Particularly, in drawn out, low grade guerrilla type of war. Which raises a particular question. How do you fight such a war and maintain your humanity? Personally, I think this is another one of the weak points in Western Culture. Our doctrine on the morality of war seems not to have moved much since the 19th Century and has created a situation where we are trying to fight guerrilla wars with battlefield assumptions that are rooted in traditional European history. This hamstrings our soldiers, who are always judged under the same conditions. On the other hand, this failure to develop a doctrine within the Christian tradition has left the door open to utilitarian modes of thinking which justify all actions in the pursuit of victory.


Anonymous said...
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Jason said...

I’m not sure I agree with the thrust of your post, doctor, that the West has neglected creative thinking as far as war in the 21st century is concerned. Certainly that is not true of the Israeli Defense Force, whose members think about these matters incessantly (See this excellent article, for example, in which the author discusses the problem of warfare in Gaza,0 ) American intellectuals have been thinking about it as well – see this recent George Will column on drones ). Of course, it might be that this information is not filtering down to the troops in the field as much as one would like, although I do think considering the stressful circumstances they have to fight in members of the Western coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli soldiers in the Mideast have acted – for the most part – very admirably, especially in light of past wars like Vietnam or World War II (or the 1982 Lebanon War). And also one can argue that the rules the West abides by are insufficient (some would argue, for example, that Israel inflicts disproportionate retaliation against the Gazans and Lebanese), although again, I think that the current rules are a lot more demanding than those in the past. There has been an evolution in thinking, in other words, that I think is important not to depreciate.

Rum said...

The German Airforce in WW2 showed quite a bit more regard for the Old Notions of Honor than other components of the Nazi machine. They even ran their own POW camps for captured Allied Air Crews where they treated them as well as they were able.
There is a clue. The German Air Crews were hyper-aware of the high possiblility of having to bail out of a plane eventually and with any luck over Allied Forces. At which point, a little reciprocity would be a good thing to find. I will not deny the essential decency of many or most Germans but there was an element of self interest involved.
FWIW, the Mongol Hordes under Gengkis Khan very rarely tortured anyone. They killed or enslaved or let go the folks they overcame. Apparently they were so coldly calculating about the job at hand that they disciplined themselves against wasted effort and morally toxic diversions. They also, introduced freedom of religion and free public education, safe roads, and a workable postal net.
But aside from that, what have they ever done for us.
Seque to "The Life of Brian".
Sometimes there is a lot of decency where you least expect it.

Ouroboros said...

As much as I like to see a story like this...there is a reason why the chivalry died out when the war got much more serious. You're there to kill your enemy. KILL THEM. Chivalry in war is mostly done out of lulls and convenience.

I'll say it: If my enemy was carpet bombing my country, I'd shoot every one of them in their parachutes.

Student in Blue said...

The interesting point to me that was brought up in this post was on honor, and its general function thereof.

Lots of pop culture has honor as being outdated and meaningless - shackles that keep the smart, educated "modern" person from happiness and their heart's desire. So often the 'moral of the story' is that the end results are what really matters; don't let anything stop you from your goal!

However, when we look at the concept of honor as a way to "avoid self-corruption", the entire language changes. It's not about others putting their views on you and how dare you not conform, but instead it becomes a state of conscious self-control, being cognizant that the road to hell is oft paved with good intentions. The 'honorless' then become hedonists, only caring about their own pleasure and their own ends, and damn all the consequences.

How far this actually ends up working out in real life merits further discussion. It'd be rather easy to whitewash either side as being the best, but I have a niggling feeling that the actual truth is more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

"and I hope one day you pay, what we paid"

Pardon me? No one forced this guy to go to war. No one forced him and his men to commit atrocities. What a punk, shovelling the blame unto those who never had an active role. He chose, and he acted. No sympathy for this bastard.

Höllenhund said...

There was pretty much zero honour and chivalry on the Eastern Front, which was the only frontline that really mattered back then.

The Social Pathologist said...


Thanks for the link. There's been lots of thinking but very little agreeing, especially in the West and amongst the Churches. As a culture, the West does not seem to have the capacity to deal with guerrilla warfare effectively.

I don't self interest was nearly as important and German standards of honour. Some of the stories that come from WWI talk of a society which really tried to limit the barbarism of war. The Germans buried Kermit Roosevelt with full military honours and the Kaiser was disgusted by the press which published photographs of the event for propaganda purposes. I do think that we've slid down a barbaric slope.


When a man violates the rules of war he looses any protection. Still, the Germans frequently had to protect Allied bomber crews from mob justice when they were captured.

One of the most interesting books concerning WW2 was a book called The Interrogator. The Story of Hans Joachim Scharff. The pictures in the book are truly unbelievable. I'll leave it for you to read the book.

@Anon at 6:13

You really don't understand the dynamics of group pressure. Firstly, a lot of the guys that ended up in Vietnam were drafted against their will. Secondly, they were forced by their superiors under the threat of punishment to comply with immoral orders. The guys who exposed Mai Lai got into a whole bunch of shit for doing the right thing.


On this I agree with you 100%.

The Social Pathologist said...
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David Foster said...

Concepts of honor differ, of course, from society to society and group to group. Often, honorable behavior is only required/expected to be extended to members of the same social class or profession.

German fighter general Adolph Galland recounted a conversation with Hermann Goering, in which Goering asked him how he would feel about an order to shoot down British pilots in parachutes. Galland replied that he would disobey such an which Goering clapped him on the shoulder and said that was the right answer.

But Goering's concept of honorable behavior toward an enemy clearly didn't extend toward Jews, German opponents of the regime, Russian soldiers or civilians, or probably even Russian fighter pilots.

I believe that medieval chivalry, in practice, was generally limited to members of the same class: the knight who would treat his captured enemy with courtesy might also cut a peasant's throat without remorse, rape his wife, and then kill her too.

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous @ 6:13 a.m.

Ever heard of this little thing called the "DRAFT"?

Of the 2.5 million American servicemen who had the "pleasure" of spending time in Vietnam, over 90% were pressed into the state slavery of the U.S. military.

Sure. No one forced him to go. He had a choice between "serving" after his draft lottery number came up or spending time in prison.

Some "choice", sucker. Been there, done that, and you are flat-out wrong.

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