A squeamish conversation with Anthony Beevor, the British historian of World War II, who talks about the facts of war that don’t make it into history books. Excerpts:

If there’s one thing that sets Beevor apart from other historians – beyond his gifts as a storyteller – it’s that he is not afraid to look at the most uncomfortable, even frightening subjects, but does so in a way that doesn’t threaten the reader. There’s rarely a judgmental note to his writing. It’s like having Virgil there to lead you through the underworld: he doesn’t leave you stranded amid the horror, but leads you back out again, a wiser person for having undergone the journey.

He has a knack for choosing controversial subjects at the right moment – when they are raw enough to touch a nerve, but not so raw as to be too painful to acknowledge. His latest is an account of the battle of the Ardennes in 1944. The book, which comes out this month, is a natural progression from his earlier history of D-Day. There is the same political tension between the British and American commanders; there is the same desperation in the fighting of ordinary soldiers on both sides; but at the heart of it lies another dark subject: the indiscriminate killing of prisoners. This, Beevor says, is “unmentionable”, one of the last taboos of the war. “I still haven’t read any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners. And until recently I don’t think many British historians have written about the British killing of prisoners. That was something the Germans did, but we prefer not to talk about our boys doing it.”

Beevor speaks of fighting between Americans and Germans in a thickly forested part of the Ardennes:

Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.

“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.

The things the Germans did, the things we did, beggar belief. One last excerpt:

As we talk, it is clear that Beevor struggles with these issues. Outside academia, there are few people who are prepared to look unflinchingly at the less flattering parts of our behaviour – and certainly no one with Beevor’s large readership has. What’s more, it is one thing to state that such events happened – an admission that many historians have shied away from – but quite another to know how to react to them. The whole subject runs counter to our most cherished communal myths about British and American heroism and gallantry.
Beevor knows instinctively that he must tread carefully, neither condoning the revenge nor reaching for outright condemnation.

“I think what one should try to do is to leave the moral judgments up to the reader. There’s no use in being judgmental. Far from it; we can only speculate as to how we would react in the circumstances ourselves,” he says.

Read the whole thing.

For me, the most intellectually and morally difficult task is facing the horror of what Our Side (e.g., our ancestors, our country, our church) did in a given situation, without surrendering to the despair of nihilism. I was watching Selma with the kids the other night, and telling them, to their very great shock, that such things happened right here in our town too. When I wrote a while back about the reign of racist terror that white supremacists — my own ancestors, broadly speaking — presided over in the South, I compared it to the rule of ISIS. 

That angered lots of readers, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe the lawless terror, including killings, for the sake of ideology. It doesn’t look like that to whites today, because that world disappeared so quickly, and it’s hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to have lived knowing that white power could and would kill you for getting out of line, and there was nothing you could do about it, because these people controlled the legal system. We Americans look at the atrocities that ISIS perpetrates, and are rightly horrified by them, especially by the revelry in sadism and gore that those Islamist berserkers embrace.

We did it too. As I wrote in that ISIS post:

See the photo that illustrates this blog post? It shows the charred remains of Jesse Washington, a black man lynched by a mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He had confessed under police interrogation to murdering a white woman. From the Wikipedia account of his lynching:

Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea and was quickly sentenced to death. After his sentence was pronounced, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.

That was not the Middle Ages. That was 99 years ago, in Texas. The killers were not berserker jihadis. They were the people of Waco, Texas, including the leadership of the city.

It is a recurrent theme in human history that we tell ourselves lies to hide our own complicity in evil from ourselves, and to absolve ourselves of guilt. One of my favorite films, but a difficult one to watch, is Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity,  a lengthy 1969 documentary about collaborationists in Nazi-occupied France. It’s a spellbinding work, because it shows how ordinary people, people we might otherwise think of as good, do horrible things and justify them. Not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been put to that test, just as not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been under fire in the Ardennes, and faced with taking as prisoners German soldiers who had committed war crimes.

We tell ourselves after the fact that the Cause, whatever it is, or was, absolves us, but it doesn’t, not really. War is at best a necessary evil. But an evil all the same.

And not only war. I feel certain that every Catholic bishop who facilitated child sexual abuse did so not because he wanted to see children abused, but because he thought that covering up these atrocities was necessary for the Cause. If it had not been for the courageous Boston Judge Constance Sweeney opening up the evidence in the Geoghan trial to the public, it would have been easy for those inclined to deny the truth to continue in their delusion. The people within our government’s national security apparatus who have signed off on torture, and who have approved massive spying on American citizens, no doubt aren’t doing it because they choose evil, but because they believe the good requires it.

“History will absolve me.”

It is our way as humans to see the world from the point of view of Exceptionalism: we as, [fill in the blank with race, religion, nationality, sexuality, political ideology, etc.], are not guilty, because we mean well, or were forced into behaving that way, or because Good People Like Us Can’t Possibly Be Guilty, Unlike Those Not Like Us.

“Mistakes were made.” 

I want to believe that I would not have shot surrendering German prisoners, or would not have gone to that barbaric public lynching. But I cannot say with confidence what I would or would not have done. Unless you were there, neither can you.

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