This article was originally published at americanchronicle.com on May 4th, 2006
It’s common knowledge among those who know me that I’m a history buff. I love history. I love studying it from as many angles and perspectives as possible. The History Channel is one of my favorite channels, right alongside the Discovery Channel and The Science Channel. But no matter how much I study history, there’s nothing like talking to someone who’s actually experienced it.
Valentine and I were talking the other day, as we often do. Valentine was in the army during WWII. Fortunately for him (though he may not have thought so at the time), he had bad feet. They swelled up mysteriously one day at the beginning of the war and sidelined him. They got so bad that at one point there was talk of amputating them. He spent several months in the hospital and in rehabilitation. By the time he was once again fit for duty his unit had been shipped overseas. The doctors never did figure out what was wrong with feet.
Valentine’s unit ended up fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He lost many of his good friends in that battle. He was fortunate in that he never saw battle. His bad feet kept him stateside. There was a war on, however, and the army wasn’t about to discharge him. Instead, he drew guard duty in Virginia watching over German POWs for much of the war.
I asked Valentine what it was like to guard the Germans. He told me a couple of stories. He told me that they were just like anybody else. They had families and other jobs before the war. Many people forget that being a soldier is a temporary thing, that most of them are students, farmers, professionals, artisans, or some other such thing during peacetime. Many of them felt that Germany was going to win the war. One German officer in particular knew English and he would translate for everyone. Valentine would frequently talk to this gentleman. He told Valentine that Germany was working on many secret weapons and that with these weapons they would eventually win the war. Remember that back then Germany was a superpower. America was only an emerging power. The Germans had every right to be confident.
I asked Valentine if they had ever tortured German POWs.
“Oh no,” Valentine said. “They were treated quite well.”
He went on to explain that they were given a roof over their heads, beds and food the same as the American GIs. They were given things to do. They would play basketball. They would pick apples in the orchards and they seemed to enjoy the work. When working they were allowed breaks. They lived under virtually the same conditions as the American soldiers. They never attempted to escape, but then again, they had nowhere to go. These were men who may have known something about secret weapons, who may have known something about the battle plans of a large and dangerous enemy, and the thought of torture never entered the minds of our military leaders back then. Why? Because we had a high morality. It’s wrong. What’s wrong is wrong. The ends never justify the means.
Two of Valentine’s brothers were fighting in Europe. One of them went through a rather harrowing experience in France. He was dug in with his unit when their position was overrun by the Germans. German soldiers went to each foxhole, pointed their guns down at the Americans lying there, and demanded surrender or they would shoot. Many American soldiers were still alive and they jumped up and surrendered. Valentine’s brother stayed down in his foxhole and played dead when a German soldier pointed a gun at him. The German soldier left without shooting. The soldiers who had surrendered were executed with a machine gun. That night, Valentine’s brother made it back to Allied lines and reported what had happened. Valentine told me that one of the American commanders wept when he heard the story.
I’m not saying the Americans of that era were perfect. Similar stories are told of our guys taking similar actions on the German soldiers, though usually not to such a scale. Things happen in the heat of battle that one may or may not regret later. Emotions run high and life becomes cheap in the midst of a firefight. Still, once a German soldier was captured he had little to fear. He had given himself over to a humane enemy. The Americans were not known for taking revenge on their prisoners. I believe that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, no matter how horrifying or grim the conditions are, we need to strive to maintain our humanity. Once we lose that there is nothing left for us to do but devolve back into something less than human.
As we move forward into the future, we should continue to remember our past. We should look at it carefully and change the behaviors that are bad, but we should also maintain those that are good. Only in this way can we earn the respect and admiration of those we wish to influence.