The Overflow, Backwash, Backlog, Logorrhea, Ad Hoc, Anyone-Can-Use, No-Word-Limit SPEAKEASY

May 15, 2007

‘Killing No Murder?’

Filed under: Radio Open Source Conversations — Nick @ 7:26 pm

(quote)
But the soldier’s view (of a battle) will also be much more complicated than the commander’s. The latter fights his battle in a comparatively stable environment – that of his headquarters, peopled by staff officers who will, because for efficiency’s sake they must, retain a rational calm; and he visualizes the events of and parties to the battle, again because for efficiency’s sake he must, in fairly abstract terms: of ‘attack’ and counter-attack’, of the ‘Heavy Brigade’, of the ‘Guard Corps’ – large, intellectually manageable block of human beings going here or there and doing, or failing to do, as he directs. The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear-cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment; he may spend much of his time in combat as a mildly apprehensive spectator, granted, by some freak of events, a comparatively danger-free grandstand view of others fighting; then he may suddenly be able to see nothing but the clods on which he has flung himself for safety, there to crouch – he cannot anticipate – for minutes or for hours; he may feel in turn boredom, exultation, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, even that sublime emotion we call courage. And his perception of community with his fellow-soldiers will fluctuate in equal measure.

In circumstances of extreme personal danger, in short, the wishes of the commander, which the individual soldier apprehends in the most abbreviated sense – ‘Forward!’ or ‘Form up!’ or ‘Fire at will!’…will influence his behavior to only a marginal extent; and the commander’s ‘win/lose’ conceptions will have no relevance to his personal predicament. ‘Battle’, for the ordinary soldier, is a very small-scale situation which will throw up its own leaders and will be fought by its own rules – alas, often by its own ethics.

The fighting (described below, from an account of the Third Battle of Ypres) had resolved itself into a struggle for possession of a belt of German pillboxes, which commanded the surrounding desolation almost completely. The witness is an Australian officer… On September 20th, 1917, he came upon,
(inset quotation)
a wide circle of troops of his brigade surrounding a two-storied pillbox, and firing at a loophole in the upper story from which shots were coming. One man, coolly standing close below and firing up at it, fell back killed but the Germans in the lower chamber soon surrendered. The circle of Australians at once assumed easy attitudes, and the prisoners were coming out when shots were fired, killing an Australian. The shot came from the upper story, whose inmates knew nothing of the surrender of the men below; but the surrounding troops were much too heated to realize this. To them, the deed appeared to be the vilest of treachery, and they forthwith bayoneted the prisoners. One (Australian), about to bayonet a German, found that his own bayonet was not on his rifle. While the wretched man implored him for mercy, he grimly fixed it and then bayoneted the man.
(inset quotation end)

‘The Germans in this case’, the official historian platitudinously continues, ‘were entirely innocent, but such incidents are inevitable in the heat of battle, and any blame for them lies with those who make wars, not with those who fight them.’

The second incident is narrated by…a young officer in a Kitchener battalion which had just taken part in one of the attacks which formed part of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

(inset quotation)
Blake’s face was slack and haggard, but not from weariness. He greeted me moodily, and then sat silent, abstracted in some distant perplexity. ‘What’s the matter, Terrence?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Nothing – at least. Look here, we took a lot of prisoners in those trenches yesterday morning. Just as we got into their line, an officer came out of a dugout. He’d got one hand above his head, and a pair of field glasses in the other. He held his glasses out to Smith, you know, the ex-sailor with the Messina earthquake medal – and said, “Here you are, Sergeant, I surrender.” Smith said, “Thank you, sir,” and took the glasses with his left hand. At the same moment, he tucked the butt of his rifle under his arm, and shot the officer straight through the head. What the hell ought I to do?’ …
‘I don’t see that you can do anything,’ I answered slowly. ‘What can you do? Besides, I don’t see that Smith is really to blame. He must have been half mad with excitement when he got to that trench. I don’t suppose he even thought what he was doing. If you start a man killing, you can’t turn him off again like an engine. After all, he is a good man. He was probably half off his head.’
‘It wasn’t only him: another did exactly the same thing.’
‘Anyhow, it’s too late to do anything now. I suppose you ought to have shot both on the spot. The best thing is to forget it.’
(inset quotation end)

The third extract (recounts a British battalion) fighting in a mountainous region of Italy in 1943…

(inset quotation)
We ran straight into a large body of Germans, and after a few burst of Bren and Tommy gun fire, about forty ran out with their hands up. Elated by this, we proceeded to winkle (machine-gun) them out at a great pace. Wheeling round the next corner, Lance-Sergeant Weir led his section in a charge against another group of Germans. These Germans were ready and met them with long bursts of fire… Weir was shot through the shoulder, but the bullet only stopped him for a moment, while he recovered his balance. He led his men full tilt into the Germans and they killed those who delayed their surrender with the traditional comment, ‘Too late, chum.’ (Italics supplied.)
(unquote, John Keegan, The Face of Battle, pp.47-50)

Killing machines. Militaries convert humans into disciplined killing machines, who cannot be ‘switched off’ as easily as the insulated commanders might always like. I’m particularly haunted by the following lines:

While the wretched man implored him for mercy, he grimly fixed it and then bayoneted the man.

‘The Germans in this case’, the official historian platitudinously continues, ‘were entirely innocent, but such incidents are inevitable in the heat of battle, and any blame for them lies with those who make wars, not with those who fight them.’

I don’t suppose he even thought what he was doing. If you start a man killing, you can’t turn him off again like an engine.
I suppose you ought to have shot both on the spot.

And the whole of the third inset quotation.

Advertisements

Blog at WordPress.com.