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Take No Prisoners Part 1: Band of Brothers "Day of Days"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the second episode of Band of Brothers, “Day of Days”. Pvt. Malarkey walks by a group of captured German prisoners. While he’s making fun of the POWs, he discovers that one of the prisoners hails from Eugene, Oregon, his home state. They chat, then Malarkey leaves.

Lieutenant Spiers--in an apocryphal story that may or may not have happened; the series stays intentionally vague on the details--gives the German POWs cigarettes, then executes them with his sub-machine gun.

We’re writing about Band of Brothers because the series asks big questions, and this moment asks one of the biggest questions: when should we kill prisoners? When is it ethical?

Shooting prisoners--or surrendering Germans in the case of another memorable scene in Saving Private Ryan--strides perfectly across the line between right and wrong. On one hand, this is war and sometimes advancing armies don’t have time to take prisoners. On the other, it means killing people who have given up the will to fight.

So I’ve asked Matty P, Michael C and myself to share thoughts about the morality of taking prisoners, and this scene itself.

Eric C

I have three thoughts on this incident.

First, I have to open with a caveat: I don’t know what I would have done in war. I don’t know if I’d shoot straight or run and hide. I’ve never been to war; I can’t say either way.

That said, we (civilians) can make moral judgements about war and soldiers in war, because that’s our right, as citizens. (More on this here and here.)

So I get to my second, more crucial point: on a gut level, killing surrendered prisoners doesn’t make sense to me. Something doesn’t sit right. It violates universal values.

But not always. This Band of Brothers episode shows why. German soldiers actually surrender three times in “Day of Days”. In the first case, Lt. Winters leads an ambush on a German convoy. One man raises his hands in surrender, and the ambushers still shoot him. Next, Lt. Spiers executes surrendered, safely captured German soldiers that one soldier alone could guard. Finally, during the attack on the German artillery battery, in the middle of a battle, a German soldier tries to surrender. Winters knocks him out with the butt of his rifle.

In the first and last example, taking prisoners makes no sense. Situations reversed, even ten seconds earlier, the Germans would have killed the Americans. You can’t take prisoners in the middle of a firefight.

But the Spiers example is unethical. The American advance would arrive shortly. Even if the landing and invasion at Normandy wouldn’t have worked, the prisoners could have been killed later.

Morally, this killing haunts the soldiers. It still haunts Dick Winters. According to Mark Brando, “Winters emphasized to me [Brando] that he took a very dim view of prisoner shooting, that it was not a common mode of behavior in the 506th and that he felt ashamed of any such incidents which might have happened.”

It should.

Finally, as I wrote earlier, we don’t know whether this event actually occurred. According to Brando, there were no eyewitnesses to the event. Then again, would soldiers want to admit to executing prisoners?

Probably not.
Matty P

“Look, I washed for supper!” yelled one American soldier to another, mocking the surrendering German soldier he’d just gunned down.

It’s a dark moment from the movie Saving Private Ryan. An American soldier summarily executing a prisoner is evil. But what got to me, the thorn in my craw so to speak, is that it was a joke. That a man’s life--Nazi or not--was a joke.

The rules that govern our societies dictates the preciousness of life. We should never treat the taking life lightly. We punish murderers. In some places, we put them to death. But this is not done lightly. We have trials; trials that can last months.

In that vein, life should be treated with no less respect when at war. Enemy combatants deserve no less than murders in our society, due process. This may not be simple on the battlefield, admittedly. The taking and transport of prisoners cannot endanger those taking the prisoners, but nor should the taking of prisoners be frowned upon because it’s hard or cumbersome. Prisoners are alive, and life deserves consideration.

Eric wrote that war is the opposite of civilization. War does not have the same rules as society, but there are still rules. We are mandated as moral creatures to abide by these rules or doom ourselves to chaos. We take prisoners not because it’s convenient, but because it’s right.

One comment

Best tvshow EVER made.