The above photo is a screen shot of a Youtube video which inspired a 3 part documentary called "Why We Fight" which offers one of the most incredible looks into the anatomy of war. I warn, it is a long documentary with each video approximately 1-2 hours, but absolutely one of the best I've seen. If you want to watch just the Youtube video, it is available at the bottom of this blog post.
This post is an informal thought experiment which seeks to unpack the words "War has its own laws." Uttered by a German WWII Veteran who had served with the Wehrmacht, this was his response to a woman who questioned the ethics of Germany's involvement in WWII. Often separated from the S.S. forces, the Wehrmacht in German history were the old fashioned army which somehow managed to remain relatively unscathed by the taint of Hitler's S.S. troops. In essence, the Wehrmacht fought the spread of communism. The S.S. troops murdered the Jewish people The clip ends with the woman's stunned silence.
I often get asked why I study war. How someone with such a bleeding heart can hold such a fascination for one of the most horrifying aspects of humanity. It is because the phrase "War has its own laws." is somehow so TRUE. My brain doesn't understand how it is possible that killing during war is acceptable but punishable by death in peace time. A truly great example of this is the french novel Captain Conan. Written after the First World War it follows the life of veteran who, unable to separate killing during war from killing in peace time, is convicted of murder and imprisoned. The novel asks this fundamental question: Why is killing O.K. during war but prohibited in peacetime? My brain needs to know.
Why do humans have to rationalize war. Why do we feel the need to valorize it? While in the 1970s the U.S. saw a shift in the valorization of war with the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. The actions of those who had called the returning Vietnam veterans "baby killers" are today seen as dishonorable. Thus, suggesting a reversal back to a valorous soldier who is at the same time somehow morally flawed. The anti-solder or soldat sans gloire, finds it first origins in the aftermath of the First World War, but when prodded the figure of a morally flawed soldier is present in even the most iconic soldier the world has known: Achilles.
This anti-soldier is morally flawed. S/he questions the notion of obtaining glory from war. S/he typifies the tension between being an inglorious human and also a soldier/veteran. S/he is our contemporary understanding of a soldier. Complex, mortal, ethically flawed, but nonetheless glorious. Combing through literature you find this new type of soldier everywhere. In plays this figure finds expression in Journey's End, in Post-Mortem, in Antigone, in Henry IV Part's I&II, etc. In novels The Good Soldier Švejk, All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, etc. In poetry the "Chanson de Roland", Sassoon's "Attack" and many of his other works, in Homer's Illiad, in Virgil's Aeneid, etc.
Looking at the fundamentals of what the term 'soldier' also gives voice to the phrase the German WWII veteran uttered. Thus, is becomes clear that inside that one phrase there is the possibility of hundreds of questions, for example: Why does war have special rules? Why is world peace such an unachievable goal when we know what happens to the men/women who fight in the wars? What steps does Man have to take to make it so s/he is capable of engaging in warfare? What steps does Man have to take to make it so s/he can live with themselves the act of war end?
The comment thread of the Youtube video speaks to how we go about rationalizing eradicating each other by segregating homo sapiens into races, nationalities, and ethnicities. By separating humans into categories and saying "we are this and they are that" we distance ourselves from the humans who did not grow up in our culture, society, and household. By distancing ourselves from the "others" we detach ourselves from our moral imperatives when it comes to warfare. We mobilize our minds around the phrase "its us or them". In doing so we trick ourselves into a fight or flight mentality by activating our survival instincts. You can see an example of what happens when this mentality fractures for a soldier and an example of how we rationalize war-guilt in the comments below:
The quote on the left, a soldier expresses that from the distance his gun afforded him, he had no problem killing Russian's at Stalingrad. When he had to result to using his bayonet those "Russians" "boys". Humans devoid of such a separating characteristic as political belief. Whereas the quote on the right demonstrates a unique insight into how Germany modernly understands their involvement in the Second World War. It is interesting that they separate the SS from the Wehrmacht as the bad vs the good. In doing so, they did as the U.S. had in the Cold War, they positioned Socialism as the bad guys and those who protected against that bad as the good guys. Similar tactics are used almost universally by nations who have to address after the war is over the actions they took during it. Rhetoric such as "glory", "democracy", and "freedom" are used to bolster argument, to connect a universal concept to the tangible loss of life. To give purpose to the death toll. The glorification of the war effort is the first step in cultural demobilization, which reverses the "us vs them" mentality.
Comparing these two comments to the other comments in the thread I grew more confused and mildly frustrated. Comments that blatantly denounced all German soldiers and the war itself, seemed insulting and a little ignorant from a military historian's perspective. It is an easy thing to say "That war was terrible and the men who fought for the "bad" side were monstrous murders". But by doing so they employ the same type of alienation that is used by both the "bad" and "good" sides to rationalize their actions. Further, it is always easy to detach yourself from the horrors of war by saying "I could never do something like that". In such a proclamation the person is essentially giving themselves the morally superior ground upon which they judge what they'll never experienced. Without the consideration that a soldier was a boy/girl first and then became a soldier. Thus, if they are capable of committing such acts than so are we.
This is not to say that acts of war are not condemnable as acts against humanity, the use of Mustard Gas as a weapon was banned after the First World War, the Nuremberg Laws after the Second World War condemned the extermination of masses, and the aftermath of Hiroshima saw the disuse of nuclear weapons. All three of these instances suggests that while war does indeed have its own set of laws, those laws are subject to a greater universal law. Frustratingly enough, the laws of war are only altered when Man creates new ways to destroy each other. For it took the use of Mustard Gas in WWI, the concentration camps, and the dropping of the atomic bomb to rain down such a cruel devastation that the laws of war had to be changed as consequence.
This is all a long-winded way to express why the exasperation of the German WWII veteran, his phrase, and need to defend his war experience was so profound to me. For after 6 years of studying ancient, modern, and present warfare I know two things that have yet to be proven false. One, there will always be a disjunction between veterans and civilians. And, two, war is seemingly unavoidable.
So, I leave those of you who actually managed to read ALL THIS the words of a Calgary veteran who witnessed Dunkirk: "Tonight I cried, because it is never the end." Continually, as I read soldiers letters, memoirs, plays about wars, watch demobilization videos, and research the aftermath of wars I too weep for the past, present, and future grievers.
Still I blindly hope, may the future prove my cynicism wrong.