Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Other Side

(Source)

In wartime we dehumanize the enemy, it makes it easier to kill him (or her). But nevertheless, the other side are still human. Their culture might be vastly different, doesn't mean it's wrong, just different.

It's always the old men, the party politicians who send the young to fight, sometimes those young are indoctrinated sufficiently to think that right is on their side. That their enemy is evil and must be ground underfoot.

Throughout history there have been men, evil men, who desired to take something that was not theirs, was never theirs. All of the misery our species has suffered throughout the vastness of time can be attributed to one thing - greed.

The common people oft times have absolutely no say in what their leaders seek. Sometimes they're swept up in the passionate argument of why their side is right.

Seldom does the common soldier have any say at all in where, or who, he or she fights.


I'm in the midst of reading a very fine book on the Normandy Invasion, which the anniversary of fast approaches. It is Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams, which is available here. (Other places too, I'm sure.) This is the second of his books I've read, the first I wrote about here. Having enjoyed that one, when I had the opportunity to buy Sand and Steel, I jumped on it. (Picked it up at Barnes & Nobles, in an actual brick and mortar book store.)

The other day, at breakfast, I was reading of some of the bitter fighting waged behind Utah Beach. Turning the page I came upon a photo of three dead paratroopers. It was obvious that the three men had died violently. They were piled on a cart, awaiting burial. Not something one necessarily wants to see over morning coffee. But it happened, I have spent my life reading history, while a bit of a shock, it's not like I haven't seen that sort of thing before.

While looking at the photo, I had the thought I often had upon seeing such a thing: who were these men, where were they from, did they leave a family behind? I also noticed that one of the men was a captain, his body thrown unceremoniously upon a simple farm cart with the bodies of two of his men.

You may be forgiven for thinking, how dare they treat the bodies of our dead this way? Well, the battle was still raging, in wartime there is often not the time for the pomp and circumstance of a proper burial. Due to the threat of disease and the sheer number of the dead, it was often expedient to gather them quickly, take note of what you could, and quickly get them in the ground. Often in mass graves. So it has been since antiquity, the dead are mourned when there is time, the war rages and there is a job to do, a fight to win.

Thing is though, these men were not American paratroops, nor were they British paratroops. They were not men of either the U.S. 82nd or 101st Airborne Divisions, nor were they troopers from the British 1st Airborne Division. These men were German. Men of the 6th Fallschirmjäger¹ Regiment commanded by Major Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. If you've seen the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, these were the men who faced the men of Easy Company at Carentan.

Yes, they were the enemy. Yes, they served one of the most evil regimes to have ever ruled a nation. Perhaps they were die hard Nazis, some Fallschirmjäger were indeed true believers. Most were soldiers like other soldiers. Swept up in the maelstrom of war, perhaps with little choice in the matter, other than perhaps they wished to be part of an elite unit. Much like our own airborne troopers.

You could see two of the faces of these men, both, including the captain, were quite young, probably no more than 25 for the captain. According to the text, the captain was probably one of von der Heydte's battalion commanders. (In the German Army it was often the case where a soldier of a lower rank could command a unit which, in peacetime, required a higher rank. Colonels could, and often did, command divisions.)

I was haunted by that picture for the rest of that day, and still am. Though they may have been the enemy, they were men. They had hopes, they had aspirations, they had, until the Invasion of Normandy, a future. They had families who mourned their loss, if the families themselves were still alive that is, even civilians are consumed in modern war. War is not particular in who dies.


While thinking about how to approach the topic of those dead Germans, and doing further research, I came upon the story of Leutnant² Friedrich Lengfeld, commander of the 2nd Company of the Fusilier Battalion of the 275th Infantry Division.

It was November of 1944, the American Army and the German Army were locked in combat in the Hürtgen Forest. The weather was miserable - wet, cold, muddy - and the United States Army, to include my Great-Uncle John's outfit the 4th Infantry Division, were pushing against tough German resistance. My uncle was eventually wounded in the Hürtgen Forest and evacuated back to England. (I told his story here.) A good man with whom I worked closely in Germany, Johannes, told me that his father had been captured by the Americans during that battle.

During that battle, there was one day, when an attack upon a German position, commanded by Leutnant Lengfeld left a wounded American soldier in a minefield. Assuming that American medics would come to collect the man, Lengfeld ordered his men to keep an eye out for such a thing and to hold their fire. Yes, hold their fire.

The Americans did not come, the wounded man was obviously in great pain and was crying out for help. So Leutnant Lengfeld took his own medics out to assist and evacuate the wounded man from the minefield.

During the rescue attempt, Leutnant Lengfeld stepped on a mine, badly wounded he was evacuated, dying of his wounds a few days later.

I have been to the German military cemetery where that memorial is, though I have not seen it myself. It is worth noting that the memorial was placed by men of the American 22nd Infantry Regiment, the opponents of Leutnant Lengfeld's Fusilier Battalion. The Leutnant himself isn't actually buried there but at a smaller military cemetery about ten miles away. You can read the whole story in the sources listed below.

I think, during this time of remembrance of our fallen, that it is worth remembering that heroism, compassion, and mercy are not the exclusive purview of any one side in a war.

We are all human.

Leutnant Friedrich Lengfeld
(Source)

Sources:
  • Legacy of the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest Link
  • The heroic German officer killed in a minefield trying to save an American Link
  • 22nd Infantry Monument to a Fallen German Soldier Link
  • Friedrich Lengfeld (German Wikipedia) Link
  • Lt Friedrich Lengfeld Link
  • This Nazi³ officer risked his life to save an American soldier Link


¹ Fallschirmjäger = Paratroop or paratrooper
² Leutnant = Second Lieutenant
³ It is worth noting, again, that not all Germans were Nazis.

36 comments:

  1. I hate war. That's all I can begin to say.

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  2. That LT deserves honor and respect. What a man. Thanks for the link.

    Several older men I remember from my youth did not share that sentiment after the PTO. You mentioned true believers, but that foe went far past that. There are enemies that are human or better, humane. There are some that aren't. Best not to mistake the one for the other.

    I remember a story from "Those Devils In Baggy Pants". They called a temporary truce to clear the battle field of the wounded due to the difficult terrain they were in. Italian campaign. They came out and sunned themselves while they waited. The medics on both sides worked together. I don't remember even one story from the PTO that resembled that. Maybe it happened, but I've never run across it.

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    1. The Pacific was a far more difficult theater of war. The Japanese warrior ethos (Bushido) had been corrupted by militarists and industrialists early on when it was desirable to crush the samurai, ushering Japan into "modern" times. This was further perverted during the long series of Sino-Japanese wars as the Japanese became convinced that they had to save Asia from the West. Apparently that meant butchering any Asian who didn't agree with them. The fight in the PTO was horrible. The Japanese might as well have been from a different planet, they were that much different from us.

      That being said, post-war meetings of American and Japanese veterans have been held and were relatively successful. Of course, in many of the battles we fought in the Pacific, there weren't that many Japanese survivors.

      It wasn't just the Pacific where soldiers hated their enemies until their dying day. One of my uncles, infantryman in the ETO, hated the Germans until the day he died.

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    2. Yet, in comparison, the southwest Asians (as the British would say) have turned out to be far less comprehensible as a people than even the Imperial Japanese.

      As to Japan's lust for slaughtering the Sino population, there's never been a whole lot of love between the two people. And the Sinos believing they are the most competent people after over 6 centuries of everyone from the Mongols to the Portuguese to even the Vietnamese beating the ever-living dog-snot out of the mainland Chinese, well... Not saying that what Japan did was right, but, again, lots and lots of bad blood over there and one thing Eastern Asians don't do well is forget a grudge. They make the Irish and the Sicilians look positively happy and carefree.

      Still sucks. Bad blood everywhere. The National Chinese were better at being civilized enemies. The Communist Chinese? Not so much at all, especially if you were a National Chinese (even during WWII.)

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    3. To say that the Chinese have a superiority complex is a bit of an understatement.

      As to "Southwest Asia," if by that you mean the Middle East, I get that. However, those folks are most definitely NOT Asians. Different culture altogether. That lot is driven by religion. In my reckoning Asia begins roughly at the line of the Ural mountains. I also include the 'stans in there as well. (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, etc.)

      The traditional Imperial definition of an Asian is essentially "anyone who isn't from Africa and isn't white."

      Racist? You betcha.

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  3. War sucks, but sometimes it is better than the alternative, namely to live under the subjugation of a cruel enemy.
    "All of the misery our species has suffered throughout the vastness of time can be attributed to one thing - greed." I generally agree, although there are some folks who just ain't right in the head and who cause a lot of grief and misery just for the heck of it, e.g., psychopathic serial killers.
    My dad, who lost too many men and saw too much horror in France and Germany, was one of the ones like your uncle who had no love lost for the Germans. He was even a bit suspicious initially of my wife, who has German and Austrian ancestors. He also wasn't thrilled that I took a couple of years of German in school.

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    1. Bear in mind that the psychopathic leaders could not have attained their positions of power without backing from those who saw something to gain (wealth, power, which equals greed) by backing the psychopath. Hitler was brought to power by the industrialists (who saw great profits in weapon production) and the militarists (who wanted a bigger military for the power and prestige they would gain).

      Serial killers do cause a lot of grief and misery, but nothing like the grief and misery caused by war. How about the grief and misery caused by greedy business-types who manipulate the market, or cheat the consumer on quality? While it's not necessarily death and destruction of property it does destroy lives through the loss of jobs, the loss of savings, and the loss of a prosperous future.

      Greed is the root of 99.99999999% of evil. The rest can be attributed to mental illness. It's really a question of scale in my mind.

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    2. And the common people, who wanted hope, and change and lots of other vague slogans that meant nothing but sounded good, along with art that was 'topical' and 'eye-catching.' Can't forget the common people's role in bringing that monster into power.

      Kind of the same way that Wilson, FDR and some other presidents made it into office. Offering hope and change. Who's hope? Who's change? Never said...

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    3. The common people who "elected" Hitler were swayed by the "stab in the back" post-war propaganda (which preceded the Nazis) and the Depression. When it takes a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy bread, and there isn't any bread, then yeah, you're gonna vote for change. Who wouldn't?

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  4. “It is well that war is so terrible–we would grow too fond of it!” General Robert E. Lee to General James Longstreet on the battlefield at Fredericksburg.

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    1. General Lee knew what he was talking about!

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  5. The process of 'othering,' as Angus McThag talked about a while ago on his blog, is all about making the other side not human.

    Sometimes it is political, like how the Left portrays every conservative, including black or asian, as a white racist and anti-intellectual.

    Sometimes it is a whole nation. Like how mainland China considers itself, no matter who is running the place, as 'The Middle Kingdom' and every other person on the earth is in 'lower kingdoms' (meaning not-quite-human) and therefore ripe to pluck and ripe to ignore and ripe to kill.

    Sometimes it is a racial group, like the obvious anti-semitic movement of the democratic party in the New York area. Armed members of the police state being filmed shutting down a synagogue because the mayor ordered it. (Which someone spectacularly modified by making it grainy and adding some decidedly Nazi-ish music behind it.) Or the anti-Irish mentality in the 1830's and later in the northeast United States.

    We, as a nation, have striven to not do othering of people here. It is hard. Oh so very hard. As sometimes othering is a reaction to a problem (such as, sad to say, violence in the 'Hood, or violence by illegal aliens from Central or South America, or bad driving by people from Canada (no, really, live here in Florida during the winter and you'll see a lot of 'othering' aimed at Canucks because they suck at driving in Florida, it is a thing, a serious thing.))

    Sad. Very sad.

    But, well, sometimes othering is a 'good' thing, as someone who sees all people as equal will have a hard time shooting said all people as all people storm the gates of civilization.

    It's a difficult thing. Othering. We are all guilty of it in small ways. It is a normal human reaction. It is the struggle against othering in a big way that makes the US a rather unique place.



    There were lots of little civilized episodes in WWII. I fear we will never see a 'civilized' war ever again. Which is a shame, because uncivilized wars eat at the heart of all who fight them, and often do more damage to the more civilized people.

    Sad, very sad.

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    1. Got the book "A Higher Call" and have been passing it around the family.
      Frank

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    2. There is no such thing as a "civilized" war. There may be episodes of civility, but war itself has never been civilized and will never be civilized.

      I know all about "othering," if you paint the opposition as less than you, then it's easier to hate them.

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    3. Frank - That's an excellent book!

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  6. Oh the other hand, speaking of Civilization and good things... The Donald is coming to Florida tomorrow to watch SpaceX do what no other company has done before, put humans into space. What was once a National Project has become a capitalistic project. And we are happy. Short of equipment shutdowns or weather, looks like sometime around 4:23pm Eastern Time. We are excited. Oh, very very excited.

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    1. It's cloudy today on the beach. I hope it moves away. Less than 24 hours to go.
      SpaceX seems to do things in a "fun way". This demonstrates that engineers, led by liberal arts majors can do great things with style. ;-)
      Wonderful post today, Sarge. There is a certain humanity in us all that is hard to understand at times.

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    2. That ship has a lot of style. I like it, but of course, I hope it works!

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  7. (Don McCollor)...Go Baby..Go Gp Go!!!...

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  8. Combat is a very great challenge on a great many levels. Recognizing the humanity of the enemy is one of the hardest hurdles. And it's not a one time hurdle either -- it takes a lot of time and living and thinking to get a handle on the thing.

    It is well that combat is so hard. For a great many reasons.

    The way we treat the dead is also interesting. Hauling body bags out of a swamp in high North Carolina summer. You simply cannot treat those remains with the gentle care you feel you must. I don't think they cared that they were sometimes tossed about and dragged. But I still feel bad.

    Ape-lizards are funny.

    Great post Sarge and thanks for making me aware of Leutnant Friedrich Lengfeld.

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    1. Glad, as always, to hear your perspective on this kinda thing. I know you've "been there, done that."

      Recognizing the humanity in the other guy (or gal) is pretty critical to being a successful human being. At least it is in my book, as the Bard would say, my efforts in that area are More honour'd in the breach than the observance. (Hamlet)

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  9. I remember stories like this early on in my study of wars against Germany- from WWI shootdowns, to the Christmas truce, and to relatively well treated POWs, that the Germans were humans. (We'll leave out discussion of the Holocaust for today). Inhumane monsters is an extreme understatement in describing their Axis partners in the PTO. Not sure if it was because I wasn't listening, or because they just didn't put out things like Hogan's Heroes for the Japanese camps. Could it be the brutality just wasn't something we wanted to know about? Could the German treatment be due to a shared Christian faith or race? Possibly. Stories and movies about WWII seem to focus far more on the Germans vice the Japanese, but I could be wrong.

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    1. The Japan of the 30s and 40s was almost a different planet than the rest of us. Their culture was so radically different in their Army that they really were ravenous monsters. Rape, murder of prisoners, it was pretty bad, the closest thing to how the Japanese treated the Chinese was the way the war was fought in Russia. The SS thought nothing of murdering prisoners and civilians.

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  10. Mercy was not always one sided...

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  11. I just shared the link to your blog on a Cowboy Action Shooting forum that is heavily populated by former, and current
    military types from all branches.

    Not only a great post, but well thought out comments.

    Thanks.

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  12. I have never heard this story. Thank you.

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  13. You have said something significant with the words "in their army". The army contained a lot of fanatics. They had used assassinations freely to gain political power. Admiral Yamamoto spent much of his time at sea so he would not be in reach of army assassins. John George, who fought on Guadalcanal and in Burma and spoke to some witnesses in later war-crimes trials, said that "to many Japanese civilians, the Japanese soldiery of that era wore worse than vermin." I remember reading, as a boy, that liberated American sailors said they had been treated decently by the Japanese sailors who had first picked them up. Only after they got to the Army-run prison camps did the horror stories begin. On the other side of the world, the war in northern Africa has been called one of the last chivalrous wars, but probably only because "thank God, we had no S.S. divisions in the desert" (attributed to General Bayerlein). Which outfit you're up against matters, even if you're fighting Americans. Sorry to post this so late. A lot of the stuff you write about is worth thinking over, and by the time I decide I want to comment I really have to be careful that I'm saying what I want the way I want to say it (besides going back and checking my references).

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    1. I had just watched a documentary on a Japanese general named Ishiwara. Ishiwara Kanji was a general in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. He and Itagaki Seishirō were the men primarily responsible for the Mukden Incident that took place in Manchuria in 1931. It's on Amazon Prime Kanji Ishiwara: The Man Who Triggered the War. The Japanese Army meddled constantly in politics, they even assassinated a Prime Minister!

      The Japanese Navy wasn't quite as bad as the Army.

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