The internet has a funny way to connect the dots. While the unacceptable behavior of a few American soldiers is raising legitimate fury all over the web, I’m reminded of something I angrily posted last year in memory of my grandfathers’ service during WWII by an American who recently inquired about the medals they were awarded. And these two men had deep lessons for me through personal anecdotes.
By some ironic twist of history, my father’s father fought Germans at almost the exact same spot in Somme where his own father had fought the same people 24 years earlier, illustrating how those who don’t learn from History’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them (and doom is not too strong a word to describe the pain France and Germany inflicted to each other through the 19th and 20th centuries). My grandfather was captured (the 1940 debacle is moronic out-of-touch French management at its "best"), and described his guards’ behavior as harsh but fair. POWs, at least on the western front, were given decent rations of Kartoffeln and not beaten up or humiliated at random. (What both parties did on the Eastern front was much more barbaric.)
My other grandfather knew for sure he had killed at least one German, somewhere near Monte Cassino, because he had seen the guy face-to-face fall from the mortal wound and discharge his weapon in the air. Now, it was clearly a "him or me" situation (in some way I’m alive thanks to a quick trigger), and as a Lorrain, the least I can say is that my grandfather didn’t entertain tender feelings about the German people (given they had repeatedly invaded and annexed our homeland — even in the mid-nineties, maybe two weeks before his death from cancer, to my question about finally trusting the Germans, his answer was a wary no). Still, that resentment, as well as the body count he witnessed during the war (Cassino alone is one of the most gruesome battles ever), didn’t jade my grandfather about the value of human life. He used to say he remembered that guy he killed every day thereafter, a young man far from home just like him. He had probably shot other people during these years, but with the distance and chaos in the battlefield he didn’t know for sure — the one dead right in front of him couldn’t be abstract or uncertain.
Human treatment of POWs is the last barrier between war and total barbaric mayhem. There are bad apples in every army, and conflicts as well as the chaos that follows them are usually ripe with rape and larceny, but such behavior needs to be prevented and punished as strongly as possible. I didn’t support the war in Iraq to see that kind of unapologetic thuggery (those guys photograph and film their deeds for chrissakes). I’m glad the warbloggers I’ve staunchly criticized for their insulting misrepresentation of French behavior in times of war, this time make sense and are clamoring for Court Martial.