Where do I find accounts of soldiers NOT killing the enemy in spontaneous acts of remarkable compassion?
September 18, 2009 11:36 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have personal accounts/know of any documented accounts of soldiers fighting one another and then showing sudden, spontaneous, and probably court-martial-able acts of compassion? I was reading a moving testimony of a WWII British soldier who was about to be shot point blank by a German soldier who then shook his head, said something to the effect of "I can't do this" and let the guy go. Very touching stuff. Thanks.
posted by holdenjordahl to Human Relations (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: the Christmas Truce between English and German forces during WWI.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:40 PM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Trench warfare was horrible (and static) enough that to set about killing one another seemed like a needless addition.
In trench war, a structure of ritualised aggression was a ceremony where antagonists participated in regular, reciprocal discharges of missiles, that is, bombs, bullets and so forth, which symbolized and strengthened, at one and the same time, both sentiments of fellow-feelings, and beliefs that the enemy was a fellow sufferer.
Much more here. I think this sort of thing is (was?) actually quite commonplace, in wars when you were constantly in close proximity to an enemy, when both sides were heavily conscripted, and you could (so to speak) see the whites of the enemy's eyes. The structural elements of the conflict fall away in the face of the participants' common humanity.

I think I saw a documentary which was about a new training regimen for recruits introduced after WW2, when studies showed that only a few soldiers in battle ever got around to firing their weapons, let alone killing anyone, driven by a combination of fear and our basic aversion to shooting guns at actual living people.
posted by so_necessary at 5:44 AM on September 19, 2009

OK, turns out that last part might be crap.
posted by so_necessary at 5:48 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a small piece of jewellery in little powder-blue box somewhere about the house. It's the thing used to attach a watch chain to clothes. Supposedly it's how my mother's family came to be Quakers.

I was eight when my great aunt gave it to me. I haven't seen her since and she wouldn't remember me now. It was her father's. Perhaps she knew more details of the story and didn't tell me, but I don't think I've forgotten anything:

In France, during WW1, he found himself in a shell crater. There was a German there. They couldn't talk, but decided not to kill each other. They exchanged watch chains and after a time, left the crater.

Every now and then I think about finding out whether the thing's really German and wonder a little about whether it would be possible to find out if its original owner lived - and then further onto various romantic fripperies.

But I don't. Maybe I'd find out something grim or bad. Probably I'd find out nothing. I don't even really like to know exactly where it is. I haven't looked at it in decades.

But it's somewhere about the house.
posted by hawthorne at 7:54 AM on September 19, 2009 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I think I saw a documentary which was about a new training regimen for recruits introduced after WW2, when studies showed that only a few soldiers in battle ever got around to firing their weapons, let alone killing anyone, driven by a combination of fear and our basic aversion to shooting guns at actual living people.

The data produced by Marshall as to the fraction of soldiers who fired their weapons has been called into doubt, Bourne for example in her Intimate History of Killing, suggests that he can be shown to have interviewed less than the 400 veterans claimed and that where veterans that were interviewed have been identified none can apparently recall being asked about whether they fired their weapon or not. Marshall claimed no more than 15% of soldiers fired their weapon during the battle he collected data from Makin Island), despite the fact that most had the opportuity to do within a combat situation. While Marshall's stats probably did have some influence, the US and other military's had already initiated 'realism' training for its personnel in order to try and prepare them to take a more active approach to killing on the battle field.
posted by biffa at 8:21 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: There's a fascinating book on this subject called On Killing by Lt. Colonel David Grossman. He reviews Marshall's work, along with many other studies (including analyses of guns left on civil war battlefields), that suggest that a large portion of people have a strong, natural aversion to killing and that in wars past, many soldiers have been unable to force themselves to actually fight.

He also explains how, once military heads were aware of this issue after Marshall's report, they set up trying to overcome this aversion, mainly through habituation and dehumanization. He also talks about the psychological toll this takes and how many cases of PTSD are due more to memories of killing than memories of being afraid to die, or seeing fellow soldiers die.

(I think this might be a bit of a derail, but I really like this book!)
posted by shaun uh at 9:25 AM on September 19, 2009

Władysław Szpilman was hiding in an abandoned building as WWII was winding down, having escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and living in hiding for several years. A German officer discovered him and briefly interviewed him. When he found out Szpilman was a professional pianist, he had him play Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor on the piano that had been left behind. The officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, left Szpilman there rather than shooting him or taking him prisoner, and even brought Szpilman food a couple of times. When the war ended Hosenfeld was taken to a POW camp in Russia, where he later died. Szpilman had tried to find Hosenfeld for years, but only discovered his location when it was too late. (The entire story can be found in Szpilman's memoir, The Pianist.)
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: British soldier Henry Tandey allegedly spared the life of a young Adolf Hitler during the Battle of Ypres in World War I, but the authenticity of the story remains in dispute.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:13 AM on September 19, 2009

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