Tuesday, February 26, 2019

War's End

A 32nd Division soldier peers over the trench line during World War I.
(U.S. Army photo Source)
Not sure if y'all remember my series of posts* leading up to Armistice (Veterans) Day last year, but in one of those posts I mentioned Henry Gunther, the last American soldier to be killed in action in World War I. (As a bear mentioned in a comment on one of the posts in the series, "I’d wager that while Gunther may have been the last to die *in* combat, he was not the last to die *from* combat.")

The end of a war (as opposed to the "end of war") is an odd time. On the one hand there is the relief felt by those who came through unscathed, often with its attendant "survivor's guilt," - as one remembers the friends and comrades lost along the way. On the gripping hand (as my friend the Cap'n likes to say, he knows his Niven and Pournelle very well), there are those who wonder what peace will bring.

War is invigorating in some ways, it takes one outside of the normal boundaries of society, which actively discourages killing and breaking things, it brings times of excitement and sheer terror. Many who have engaged in combat have mentioned that they "never felt so alive." Understandable when you consider that being right there on the edge, that line between life and death, and surviving is something you can't experience in a normal peacetime existence. The adrenaline junkies know this, they seek the edge, they push the limits.

But of course, modern society puts many limits on those who push the limits. Try jumping off a tall building with a parachute and see if you don't get arrested!

For most though, the end of a war is looked forward to with anticipation. No doubt there are worries, one becomes cautious, no one wants to be the last man to fall. But someone has to, it's the very nature of armies that there are always those in command who will demand that the killing continues, right until it's "officially" over.

The Armistice which ended hostilities in 1918 was signed shortly after 0500, a cease fire would go into effect at 1100 on the Western Front. Not everyone got the word.



Now those soldiers in that clip no doubt fought honorably, they fought because their country called them to the colors. While atrocities occur in war, much more frequently than some care to admit, World War I wasn't an ideological conflict. It was the last of what I call the dynastic wars, wars initiated because a King or Emperor didn't get his way. Or someone had something they wanted.

World War II was an ideological war, perhaps less so in the Pacific which was, in some ways, an old fashioned war for resources and territory fought between inimical cultures. Which made it all the more bloody and unforgiving.

There were those for whom the war ended, they had survived, but a reckoning was about to come due. Yes, the victors write the history books and get to dispose of the losers as they will, but I don't think anyone can argue that the Nazis did not deserve the punishments meted out at Nuremberg.

Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945.
After watching the clip above regarding the last moments of World War I, YouTube thought I might be interested in the following clip as well. They were correct, I thought you might be interested as well.

I had never heard of Mr. Pierrepoint before Sunday. I did a little reading up on this chap, seems that during his tenure as one of the official hangmen of the United Kingdom he executed 435 men and women between the years 1932 and 1955. This clip, from the brief research I did on the man, seems to capture his personality quite well.

He was a technician, just doing his job. He did not decide the guilt or innocence of the people he executed, the State did that, he was, shall we say, just following orders. The difference being, of course, that the men and women he executed were all guilty of capital crimes, in the case of the Nazis, crimes against humanity itself.



But from my brief reading, there was at least one instance where the State got it wrong and Mr. Pierrepoint executed an innocent man. While you cannot fault the executioner for that, I wonder how someone can face themselves in the mirror after such an event.

For the Nazis, hanging was a merciful end. Unlike those suffered by their millions of victims, guilty of nothing more than being numbered among the groups the Nazis hated. Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, members of other political parties, etc., etc.

I'm sure Mr. Pierrepoint and the other executioners lost no sleep over executing Nazis.




* The link is to the first in the series, "Six Days."

32 comments:

  1. I've had that conversation with a soldier: "How do you face yourself, after the killing is over?" I tried to convey that when the government sends you to war, it takes on the responsibility for the killing. They individual is under authority, and that authority is under God. If it is abusing it's authority, then God will punish it. Romans 13 lines it out quite well.

    He took some measure of comfort in that. I reckon we'll have that conversation a few more times. There is quite a difference between killing and murder. Mr. Pierrepoint had to have known that in order to remain sane in his line of work.

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    1. Well said STxAR. I think you're right about Mr. Pierrepoint.

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  2. As you said, Sarge, Albert Pierrepoint (another Frenchie name eh😉😉😉) was the instrument - it was The State that pronounced the sentence and, by vicarious liability, was the killer. Slightly off-topic, but I came within a Demi-second (more French for you 😇) of shooting a man right between the eyes. In the fleeting moment of the remaining half second it became clear he was unarmed and the threat to life had subsided in that instance. Had it not and, based on my perception from the briefing that this was a likely terrorist whose group had recently bombed and killed innocents (not IRA, I might add), I had shot and killed him, I would have had to face the very similar moral dilemma that you raised.

    I know a chap who has shot and killed three people in the course of his duties. He lost little sleep over them because he knew that, based on the threat he perceived at the time, there was nothing else he could have done. What did cause him many lost hours of sleep, was the legal system that tried to hang HIM out to dry when he was the one at the tip of the spear that was also being held by others who caused that spear to be deployed in the first place.

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    1. And that right there is the crux of the matter, innit?

      (The Normans did indeed leave their mark upon England didn't they?)

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    2. Yes, the Normans did, bringing a more fair and just legal system to what was a bunch of little tin-pot dynasties. Everyone makes the Normans out to be the bad guys, but not so. Though later Norman-descended kings and nobles went a tad off the rail, what William brought was much more fair across the board for everyone.

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    3. I didn't say it was a bad mark.

      (Warning, Python reference: Bloody Vikings.)

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  3. Would it have been off-color to link to Blazzing Saddles?

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    1. I know the scene to which you refer. The link might have been a bit much, the reference to the film should suffice for those who know.

      (I can't really picture Mr. Pierrepoint remarking, "I can't possibly squeeze him in until Monday, sir...")

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    2. It's never off-color to link to "Blazing Saddles" or "Young Frankenstein." Never ever.

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    3. I mean, just a guy hanging a horse?

      https://youtu.be/oHSkMwUa2i4

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    4. Back in the "Days of We don't get offended by everything," BS and YF poked fun at what we had survived and evolved away, as a society, from.

      Now? If it pisses the snowflakes and socialists off, well, GOOOOOOOOOD!!!

      Can't stand the heat of freedom? Well, get the hell out of my country!

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  4. Death....sanctioned by the State...whether by war or judicial system....death. Couple of poignant clips to show that Sarge. Makes you think.

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    1. Death sanctioned by the State, a very scary proposition.

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    2. Death, sanctioned by the State, as now legal in New York and soon to be Virginia, Maine, California...

      Socialists are evil, are they not?

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    3. Well, there you are talking about murder. For real.

      Socialists epitomize evil.

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    4. They, the socialists, don't call it murder as it is sanctioned by the socialist state.

      The Khymer Rouge, Bolsheviks, Leninists, Maoists, Ho-Ch-Min-ists, Stalinists and other -ists would agree with the above statement.

      Which, now that large minorities in this nation also agree with the statement, scares the living be-jeebus out of me.

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  5. It does. I'm afraid my 'sick' mind goes to the crazy side some times to blunt the harshness of the subject.

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    1. Well, we in the military (and retired) do have a rather black sense of humor. Some times it's the only thing which keeps us from going insane.

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    2. Dark times call for Dark Humor. Listening to Cop Humor, EMT Humor and FireFighter Humor would destroy most people's minds. And, funny, attempts by administrations to shut down the dark humor actually result in more stress and coping issues than just letting the people joke. Almost like dark humor was a positive design consideration, rather than a flaw, n'est ce pas?

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  6. Interestingly (for me at least) for the Pierrepoints hanging was a family business. His father, Henry Pierrepoint and his uncle Thomas Pierrepoint were also official executioners. Albert had a variety of jobs before being accepted as an assistant executioner, such as drayman and eventually managing a haulage business. His view on his role was that he sat at the end of a long judicial process and that by the time a prisoner reached him all legal avenues had been exhausted and it was his job to carry out the execution efficiently and in a humane manner. In later life he became equivocal about the death penalty.
    As a point of interest to you in the USA the condemned cell in a British prison was usually situated right next to the execution chamber so that from Mr Pierrepoint entering the cell to the execution of the prisoner was usually a period of seconds.

    BTW as an ex police officer I agree with dark humour as a safety valve, just be careful who you use it around though. My wife was a nurse in a casualty department and one of my sons is a doctor and what we find amusing other people definitely don't. It is a useful stress relief valve but non emergency services people often think you are either harsh or a bit weird.
    Retired

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    1. I had read that the Mr. Pierrepoint's father and uncle had also been executioners. Having the cell close to the place of execution seems more humane, no long walk of the condemned like we see here sometimes.

      Cops, docs, nurses, firefighters, soldiers, etc., we do have a dark sense of humor that folks not in "the business," so to speak, have difficulty believing. Definitely a stress relief valve!

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  7. Re: the end of war - I know a former British sniper who was in WWII. He told me the story about how in the late spring of 1945, he was up the loft of a barn in Germany and had taken out a few roof tiles to observe the enemy lines a few hundred yards away. He felt quite secure, since he had his platoon in the main barn below him. He was also comfortable, having arranged some of the hay bales in the barn to make a nice shooting/observation platform there in the loft. He had noticed a work party about 400 yards away, but they seemed to all be lower level soldiers, just digging fortifications. However, he felt that sooner or later they would be checked up on by a more important senior NCO or officer. Sure enough, a while later a new figure came on the scene and was being treated deferentially by the others. So my friend got down behind his Enfield No. 4 Mark 1 (T) and lined up his shot. But then he heard a bit of a commotion in the barn below and someone started climbing the ladder to the loft, so he released the tension on the trigger (he had gotten that far into making the shot!). Turned out to be his captain, who came over to him and asked if he could have a look. This was very unusual, but my friend wasn't about to tell him 'no'! So the captain got down behind the rifle and took a look, then asked if the person that was being deferred to was the target. My friend told him that was the case, that the guy was essentially done for. The captain then said, "Well, that must be the luckiest German in the world - we just got word that the war is over and have been told to stand down!" My friend was really thankful that he had not taken that shot, since it would have bothered him to have killed someone after the war was over.

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  8. I get annoyed about war criminals nonsense. If the Axis had won who would have been the criminals? There are only the dead, the victims and survivors in any war. Convince me that the bombing of Dresden wasn't a war crime. Or the Allies were god guyd for declaring war to insure a free Poland while Corning the Russian invasion? By the way how is it the Allies were willing to go to war to preserve a free Poland but were happy to see it enslaved by the Russians? Explain to me why a British sub commander who machine gunned survivors in the water not once but twice wasn't tried as a war criminal but promoted to admiral? The same can be said of Morton who loved machine gunning survivors in the water.

    War is war. I do not condone it or excuse it but I don't use a double standard either. Before you condemn those nasty Nazis explain to me why Eisenhower denied Germans POW status after the Germans surrendered and denied the Red Cross access to Allied POW camps.

    War is war and the sooner people face up to the realities perhaps we will realize the horros of it rather than pretend our side was any better than our enemies.

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    1. Our side was better, we did not murder six million civilians simply based on their religion.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)