Can We Handle the Truth? Weighing the ethics of war is not easy
By David Wood
- New Orleans Times Picayune, May 27, 2001 - Newhouse News Service
In the waning days of World War II, Army Pfc. John Lee and a few other GIs assembled about 60 German soldiers, lined them up against a wall and shot them down in cold blood as the Germans stood surrendering with their hands in the air. (See Timeline)
The executions clash sharply with the cherished notion of World War II as the last clean, clearly "moral" war, where good was on our side and evil on the other, a war crime by any standard, committed by American boys of the "greatest generation."
On this Memorial Day, with its celebration and remembrance, of those who served, how should we think about such incidents?
"It was wrong," Lee said recently, "But you had to have been there."
Can civilians, normally sheltered from war's grim reality, understand what soldiers exprience under stress? Should civilians judge the actions of those who fight on their behalf, and if so, by what standards?
Who should be held accountable? Who punished?
Many combat veterans and others say the questions and the probing should go as far as possible. Suppressing or denying the truth can turn soldiers into psychological casualties and stain the nation's honor.
If there are no investigations, how can civilians understand and truly welcome soldiers home? How else to fully measure the physical and ethical costs of waging future conflicts? But weighing ethical behavior is not so easy.
Seeking to understand
Those were not ordinary German soldiers executed by John Lee's unit. They were fanatical SS Nazi troops. The GIs had just liberated the notorious death camp at Dachau, where the SS had tortured, beaten, starved, mutilated and exterminated tens of thousands of Jews and others and, among other horrors, made lampshades and slippers from the skin of their victims.
Does that excuse the executions?
If the United States holds itself out to the world as a moral beacon, then not only its solcliers but
its policymakers and ultimately its citizens must be held to a high standard, say those who have wrestled with these issues.
Sorting out morality and culpability in war "are questions we have to address," said Gary Solis, who teaches the law of war at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. A Marine veteran of two tours in Vietnam, Solis has written two books on war crimes in that conflict.
"There are no clear-cut answers in life, and surely not in combat," he said. "And as we go on, its going to become more murky."
Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist who has worked with severely traumatized Vietnam combat veterans for 13 years, agreed. To understand what happens in war "is our moral duty toward those we ask to serve on our behalf," Shay said.
PHOTO: NNS PHOTO John Lee, 75, recalls with horror his first glimpses of the notorious Nazi death camp at Dachau as his unit liberated it in the closing weeks of World War II. "Nothing prepares you for that," he said. He and his fellow GIs "were shocked and enraged."
Kerrey's dark secret
Last month (April 2001), former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., acknowledged that in 1969, he and his team of Navy commandos killed unarmed women and children during a nighttime raid in South Vietnam. Kerrey, who later lost a leg in combat and was awarded the Medal of Honor, said the incident has been burning into his soul ever since.
"Don't presume that because I'm wearing a medal that I'm a perfect hero," Kerrey said during an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes." In war, he said, American soldiers are "trained to do horrible things."
Kerrey's team was on a mission that itself might have qualified as a War crime: the kidnapping or asassination of civilian political leaders in the Mekong Delta, taking no prisoners.
Where, then, does responsibility lie? Does it stop with Kerrey, as the unit commander? With the men who issued his orders? Or with the government in Washington that authorized or acceded to that strategy?
"The whole Kerrey story made me want so much for a complete truth-telling at every level about what went on during this war," said Randy Kehler, a Vietnam war resister who was imprisoned for two years for his refusal to be drafted.
"There are levels of culpability amongst all of us, myself included, from soldier to civilian to general to political officials," Kehler said. "We have to come to terms with why we allowed this to happen."
But it is dffficult to look at what retired Marine Col. John Greenwood, who led Marines in Vietnam, called "a darker side of human nature" - one that can emerge under stress.
"Most people, for good reasons, don't want to hear the truth about the battlefield," said Shay, the psychiatrist. "You see good kids doing terrible things. Who wants to hear that stuff."
And so, Shay said, "The truth of war is constantly being submerged."
Taking no prisoners
John Lee's comrades, the men of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry (45th Div.), had seen hard combat. They had fought from North Africa through Italy, France and on into Germany, in 511 days of continuous and exhausting combat.
Ordered on April 29, 1945, to secure a local prison camp, they scaled a masonry wall to find 36 railroad boxcars of rotting corpses, inmates who had been sent to Dachau from other death camps and allowed to starve.
It was overcast and chilly as Lee, 19, and the others cautiously advanced beneath tall pines, finding more stacks of bodies and atrocities of which some still cannot speak.
By the time they began rounding up the prison guards, amid the roaring of 32,000 gaunt and sickly inmates still living, the men of I Company were "boiling mad, half out of our minds," one soldier said later.
"I looked at the bodies as we went past - their open eyes seemed to say, 'What took you so long?'" said Lee, now a frail 75 and living in West Lake, Ohio,.a Cleveland suburb.
"There was a deathly silence. Somebody blurted out, 'No prisoners' We lined up the SS guards. One of the guys cocked the machine gun. The Germans started moving and somebody shouted'Fire!'
"To this day I do not know who that was," Lee said.
Army investigators later summoned Lee and others to gather statements and other evidence of that day, including photographs taken by an Army photographer showing the bodies of the SS guards piled up against the wall.
Their secret report, quietly declassified in 1991, details several similar incidents at Dachau. A lieutenant ordered four German soldiers into an empty boxcar and personally shot them. Another American soldier clubbed and shot those still moaning. Several GIs turned their backs on two inmates beating a German guard to death with a shovel. One of the inmates had been castrated by the German they were murdering.
Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, said, "It was one of those situations I was unable to control for a short time."
"Nobody's really proud"
The report was sent to Gen. George Patton, commanding the 3rd Army. No action was taken. Among veterans of the 157th regiment, legend has it that Patton threw the report in his wastebasket, tossed in a match and barked at the investigators: "Get the hell out of here!" But a copy made its way to the National Archives.
"Nobody's really proud of doing something like that," Lee says today. "The Army trained you to fight. It did not train you for the psychological shock."
To be sure, many veterans say that no one who hasn't experienced combat can pass judgment.
On a larger scale, the moral behavior of its soldiers matters to the nation, said David Skaggs, a former congressman and Vietnam veteran.
"It's important for us to try to apply our beliefs about civilized behavior and the rule of law even in the most uncivilized activity human beings engage in", Skaggs said. "Just kind of suspending the rules would make it that much worse."
But Kehler said that weighing the actions of men in combat, and their consequences, should be done gingerly.
"I look at a guy like Kerrey, he is a decent and honorable man - yet look what he did...
"That says to me, if I am honest with myself: In the same circumstances, I could have done the same thing myself."
David Wood can be reached at [email protected]
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