Surprisingly humane moments in combat -- and why they matter.
Armed conflict is unquestionably one of mankind's worst innovations; but even the most terrible wars occasionally produce moments of grace. On this night 98 years ago, for example, nearly five months into the cataclysm of World War I, many soldiers on both sides put down their weapons. They serenaded each other with carols, met in no man's land to exchange simple gifts, and then on Christmas Day played soccer together. This amity persisted over the following days and weeks, with a kind of live-and-let-live philosophy emerging from the trenches. It took quite a while for generals on both sides to tamp down such sentiments and get back to the brutal business of mounting costly, fruitless frontal assaults that massacred millions for little or no ground gained.
There were other signs of decency amid the slaughter. It was not at all uncommon for a fighter pilot to invite a vanquished foe -- who survived the crash of his biplane on the victor's side of the lines -- to join him for dinner at his aerodrome. At sea, German surface raider captains generally acted with considerable care for the crews of the vessels they took; and, the sinking of the Lusitania and other dark incidents aside, U-boat skippers often took the risk of surfacing to stop their prey and allow the merchant seamen to get into their lifeboats before sinking their vessels. The Royal Navy took advantage of this by creating "Q-ships," gunboats disguised as tramp steamers -- and lured more than a few subs to their doom.
The Great War in Africa saw some chivalry as well. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander in East Africa -- Tanzania today -- conducted a brilliant, frustrating guerrilla campaign that massive Allied forces were never able to quell. With only a few violent exceptions, both sides retained their essential humanity in this most difficult theater of war. When Lettow, in the bush and almost completely out of touch with his homeland, was promoted to general for his exploits, Allied intelligence, in the know, made a point of getting word to him. And at the end of the war, once convinced that an armistice had been reached, Lettow graciously opened his stores to the starving British soldiers who had been chasing him. But then again, he was only flush for having raided their supply depot.
None of the foregoing diminishes the horror of war; but these flashes of basic decency suggest the possibility of fighting, when one must, without hate. It was a lesson all too often forgotten during World War II -- although that terrible conflict did produce another German general, Erwin Rommel, who conducted his amazing campaigns with great care for the safety of civilians and prisoners. He also openly defied Hitler's directive to execute captured commandos and Jews. Winston Churchill even went so far as to praise him in the House of Commons: "We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."
One doesn't hear this sort of comment today. But it is interesting to note that, over the past decade of problematic field operations, the U.S. military has performed best when it has found its inner Rommel. In Iraq some five years ago, this meant discarding "shock and awe," or a too-heavy reliance on the added numbers of the surge, in favor of more conciliatory measures. It meant reaching out to the very insurgents who were planting IEDs and sniping at our troops. To our amazement, tens of thousands of enemy fighters turned against al Qaeda in the aptly named "Awakening" movement. And an Iraq that was suffering a hundred civilian deaths a day soon saw this violence drop by 90 percent -- and stay down.
My favorite vignette from this conflict comes from a student of mine who was assigned the mission of disrupting an al Qaeda cell operating out of a small city in Anbar province. One night, "Major Todd" and his men captured a young Anbari, bringing him in just as dawn was breaking. The prisoner clearly expected to receive rough treatment. Instead, he was invited to sit down and have breakfast with Major Todd and his interpreter. Over dates and yogurt, they spoke of their common hope for a free Iraq, and that the Americans would go home one day. By the end of the meal, the prisoner had struck a deal to help identify and capture the foreign fighters in the area. As for his men, they would now fight on our side.
Sadly, the Awakening movement has been all but dismantled in the wake of our all-too-abrupt withdrawal from Iraq. And the amity that was beginning to weld the Iraqis together in a kind of shared national purpose has faded away. Substantial American forces will not be returning; so now the last, best hope for Iraq is that leaders of all ethnic groups figure out how to rekindle the spirit that can bring them together in pursuit of their common goals. Stay tuned to see whether they do.
In Afghanistan, there are also signs, on both sides, of an ability to see past hating the enemy. There have been on-and-off negotiations with the Taliban and other tribal leaders for years. American and Allied forces are increasingly operating from small outposts -- in military speak, "village stability platforms" -- rather than from just a relatively few large firebases. This shift has been strengthened by the local code of hospitality and protection, one of the tenets of pashtunwali, and there have been almost no so-called green-on-blue attacks by Afghans on Allied forces in these settings. These sneak attacks seem mostly an artifact of the larger, more anonymous settings where the masses intended to form a future Afghan National Army are being trained. In any event, there is hope to be found in the Afghan villages, and in negotiations with the Taliban. It is a hope based on each combatant's recognition of the other's essential humanity, and the willingness to talk across the firing lines that this prompts.
Senior military leaders on both sides of the Western Front a century ago were relentless in driving out feelings of compassion for "the enemy." On some level, they were probably correct in doing so back then, in that massive conventional war. But in today's smaller, more irregular conflicts, it is the very cultivation of empathy, and the actions sparked by such feeling, that may prove to be the key to future victories that all may claim.
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