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Take No Prisoners Part 2: Band of Brothers "Day of Days"

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

Today, we continue yesterday’s discussion of one of the most thought-provoking scenes in Band of Brothers: Lt. Spiers (allegedly) executing German POWs in the second episode of the series.

Michael C

In some ways, I’m not in love with this debate. I worry that--especially with the crew we have lined up to debate the issue--we will all come out on the same side. Killing a calm group of captured German POWs seems inherently wrong...so I don’t know how to argue that it’s not. Shouldn’t everyone say that?

A similar scene from Saving Private Ryan, though, makes a much more compelling case for murdering prisoners. In the scene, Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath (played by Tom Sizemore), having climbed up the bluffs of Normandy, runs across two German soldiers as they stumble out of a German bunker, putting up their hands to surrender. Horvath pretends like he can’t understand them, then shoots them.

At the time--when I was still in middle school in 1997--I didn’t understand why he did this, especially mocking the men he was about to shoot, as Matty P wrote about yesterday. My dad, playing devil’s advocate, explained the logic: in the hectic beach invasion, the Allies didn’t have time to take prisoners. This was war after all.

Though he didn’t say it then, I feel like the hypothetical is, “What would the Allies have done if the entire German force on Normandy had just surrendered? What would we have done with them all?” To which I have to say...

“Yeah, exactly.”

I don’t care about the morality or the ethics or the legality of the two scenes. Forget those. Sergeant Horvath and Lieutenant Spiers’ actions piss me off from a purely rational and tactical perspective.

We want our enemies to surrender.

We want to let them surrender, and protect them when they do. We want our opponents to know that, if they stop fighting, no harm will come to them. We want them to know we won’t torture them if they surrender either. If our enemies trust us to do them no harm, they will end up surrendering in droves as soon as they know the fight is lost. As Sun Tzu said or King Leonidas knew, when the choice is fight or die, you’ll fight like hell. If the entire German Army at Normandy had surrendered, then we would have taken them all prisoner.

During the Persian Gulf war, whole divisions gave up rather than face U.S. annihilation. In the Iraq war invasion twelve years later, whole units gave up instead of fighting. Because these units rose their white flags, American lives were saved. Lots of lives. Soldiers in WWII sacrificed then so that whole Iraqi units would surrender now, saving U.S. lives. The characters in films who shot prisoners put their fellow and future soldiers’ lives at risk. Maybe not immediately, maybe not even in their own unit, but someday. If our opponents believe they can’t surrender, then future Americans will have to fight them to the death.

In World War II, the Japanese warrior ethos inspired their troops to refuse to surrender. Russian atrocities proved that, in future wars, no one should surrender to Russian soldiers. The American experience in World War II, and since, has been to place the ultimate protection to surrendering POWs, so all our enemies know: give up and you won’t have to die; you can trust us.

Our military still practices this ideal. As a cadet planning squad missions, we started planning for the presence of POWs on the battlefield. American and NATO rules of engagement keep surrendering units safe as well. The leaders of our military (and most of our allies) understand the value of letting the opponent give up.

Some of our civilian leaders don’t understand the importance of this. CIA agents (or their contractors) who tortured prisoners violated this ethos, and encouraged future jihadis to fight, not surrender. Kill/capture missions that mostly end in “kill” don’t understand this ethos.

What Lieutenant Spiers didn’t understand--but what Lieutenant Winters did--is that sacrifice means risking your own life so the lives of your children, grandchildren and so on will improve. By violating the laws of war--executing POWs, torturing detainees, unlawfully detaining people indefinitely--we risk the lives of our descendants.

two comments

I posted some pictures of prisoners taken during the first Gulf War’s 1991 invasion – as you can see by their expressions, they didn’t seem to mind their situation. I’m sure it beat the alternative.

http://waronterrornews.typepad.com/cgtwa..

While our ground forces certainly take prisoners, I do question how much “drone culture” has gotten us away from it. With Apache attacks, drones, and other bombing raids, we’re not offering any opportunity to surrender. I’m not sure we should, or if the targets would take it, but we certainly aren’t asking first.


1. I retweeted that link because when you enemy willingly surrenders, your own men live longer.

2. I hadn’t thought of all the ramifications of “drone culture” as you aptly put it. And besides not giving the enemy the ability to surrender, it also kills innocent people. I wrote in a post a few months back called, “Join the Taliban…the Americans will Kill You Anyways” that this can actually strengthen the insurgency. Your point doubles down on that.