Several times recently, while discussing prisoners of war, a child has asked me, “Why didn’t they just kill them?” One such question came while talking about prisoner exchange and Andersonville, the prisoner of war camp in Georgia. The basis for the question came from the child’s experience with a video game where, apparently, wounded enemy fighters keep coming at you until you kill them, teaching the player to always kill the enemy no matter what.
The second incident came while talking about Pvt. Philip Grine of the 83rd Pennsylvania. During the fighting on Little Round Top, he ventured out between the fighting lines twice to retrieve wounded Confederates. He was killed while trying to get a third. A child asked me why he did what he did. “To get their stuff?” No, to get them to the aid station for medical treatment. “Why? They’ll just start fighting him again. I would have killed them.”
Can the ideas of treating POWs humanely and of showing compassion to injured men really be so foreign to a child? As our children grow and learn what to believe and think, we need to make sure they know what is right. If we lay the right foundation, they will be able to evaluate outside ideas (from games, books, movies, etc.) and keep them in the right context.
Let me suggest that the most basic foundation for a good worldview is a respect for life. The Declaration of Independence points out that all humans have “certain unalienable rights”—rights that we have had since the beginning of time and creation, and that are not dependent on what a king or president says. The most important one is the right to life.
If humans have the right to life, then preserving that life is the right thing to do. There are times when war is necessary, but war is not a carte blanche for going out and killing all the enemy to the last man (which is why we have the Geneva Conventions). If an enemy has given up fighting, the honorable thing to do is to preserve their life and treat them as a human being again, even if five minutes ago you had “dehumanized” them to justify shooting them in battle. Yes, war is paradoxical. In his memoirs of WWII, Audie Murphy wrote about the strange paradox of gunning down attacking Germans and then, after capturing them, treating their wounds.
Without the basic respect for life—if we do not see a defeated enemy soldier as a human being—we open the door to war crimes and atrocities:
At Fort Pillow during the Civil War, African-American soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.
During WWII, German SS troops (not to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the German army) rounded up 80 prisoners who had surrendered, herded them into a barn, and then tossed in grenades and strafed them with machine gun and rifle fire. As if that weren’t enough, they brought out some of the POWs and executed them by firing squad. Somehow, 15 prisoners in the barn survived. This was not the only time the SS killed POWs in cold blood.
In bushido, the code of the Japanese samurai, to lose is to lose your honor (respect). This is why defeated samurai would commit seppuku (ritual suicide) to die with honor. This view meant that Japanese soldiers in WWII had no respect for defeated enemy soldiers, since the latter had lost their honor. As a result, POWs were murdered, brutally mistreated, and tortured. During the Bataan Death March, Allied POWs were made to march over 80 miles, in extreme heat, without food, with little to no water, and in constant fear of random beatings or death by bullet or bayonet. Any who fell by the roadside were shot or bayoneted, but prisoners were not permitted to help their weaker buddies (prompting prisoners to come up with alternatives, like speaking encouragement). Any attempts by local Filipinos to give food or water resulted in beatings of prisoners and locals alike.
Do we want our children to have such a mindset?
But, you say, my child doesn’t think that! But the only difference between “Why didn’t they just kill the enemy soldiers (POWs)” and the SS just killing the enemy soldiers (POWs) is a matter of degree. What our children fill their minds with will shape who they become. If they cannot see the “other side” as anything but an enemy that must be destroyed, then they are at risk of losing a heart for their fellow man. And how will they know to separate the enemy on the screen from the “enemy” in their real life? How will they respond when faced with a bully, an annoying co-worker or boss, family troubles, or people with different opinions and beliefs?
A worldview of respecting your fellow man is not a view that ignores the realities of the world we live in; it is a view that works to make the real world better. Let us foster a respect for life in our children—even for the “enemy.”