Perhaps one of the first lessons learned in college reserve officer training from the study of military history is that troops are reticent to take up arms. Studies show that about a third of trained infantry soldiers facing the enemy in a conventional battlefield environment will actually point their weapons at an identified enemy and pull the trigger. Not so with field artillerymen. Usually they don’t see the enemy nor the huge explosions where their shells impact.
During World War II, my father directed artillery fire in the corp artillery group assigned to Patton’s Third Army. He lost a full half of his young second lieutenant aerial forward observers who radioed back information needed to adjust the aim of his artillery battalion, this after German forces, figuring out what those slow flying airplanes were doing, began to shoot them down. Dad did not talk much about these losses for he had personally trained each and every one of these fine young men, and losing them was just too much to bear.
Yet after the surrender of forces in Europe, both my father, then a POW camp commander, and his men went out of their way to help their German detainees. There were no fences. None were needed for the only way to get food was to eat in the chow hall. Detainees were not issued ration cards until their processing was completed. And background checks were slow for officer detainees.
Seeing these officers sharing their meager rations with their kinfolk, my dad and his men shared their rations, too. One officer wishing to restart his career as an artist asked my dad to help him get art supplies. Speaking no German, and barely knowing the difference between a pencil and an eraser, my dad put this man into the jeep and drove him to an art store. Today a beautiful pencil drawing of old Regensburg, Germany from north of the Danube still hangs on my wall, gifted back in thanks for this accommodation. And I treasure a pair of field glasses given to my dad by another German officer whom he drove into the Bavarian Alps one weekend so that he could be with his wife for the birth of their first child.
Is it somehow different today? After Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan, have we somehow allowed events to turn us into barbarians? For the sakes of my dad’s lost forward observer lieutenants, I certainly hope not. For that’s a toll too big to pay!