Technology, Men, and War

We are still learning more about World War II, and much of it is rather depressing.  Recently German researchers have published the transcripts of conversations among German soldiers held as POW’s.  The soldiers and airmen were secretly recorded by the Allies and their conversations offer a disturbingly honest glimpse of the war from the soldier’s perspective.  You can read about the transcripts in a Der Spiegel Online article, “Nazi War Crimes Described by German Soldiers.” Here is an excerpt that caught my attention:

Men love technology, a subject that enables them to quickly find common ground. Many of the conversations revolve around equipment, weapons, calibers and many variations on how the men “whacked,” “picked off” or “took out” other human beings.

The victim is merely the target, to be shot and destroyed — be it a ship, a building, a train or even a cyclist, a pedestrian or a woman pushing a baby carriage. Only in very few cases do the soldiers show remorse over the fate of innocent civilians, while empathy is almost completely absent from their conversations. “The victim in an empathic sense doesn’t appear in the accounts,” the authors conclude.

Be advised the content of the article is at points graphic and disturbing.

2 thoughts on “Technology, Men, and War

  1. I’ll preface my comment by saying that I’ve been reading too much Judith Butler lately, and I’ve only taken one graduate class in Holocaust literature. Also, this article is very disturbing, as are many accounts of soldiers’ and guards’ actions in Germany and German-run camps, and their actions are unconscionable. Preface aside (and I know that’s a huge prefatory statement), I can’t help but wonder if, in a climate so hostile to dissension, if many of these men were not performing a certain kind of masculinity vis. their roles as soldiers and the behavior expected of them OR if the only way they could do what they had to do to keep themselves out of the camps (since political dissenters, including insubordinate soldiers and what we would call conscientious objectors, were often sent to camps themselves) was to emotionally distance themselves from their targets. Reifying their targets, not thinking of them as people but as things, perhaps was the only way these men (or women, as some guards were women) could stand to do what they felt they had to do to stay alive. While I do think technology would have assisted them in this reification, from the accounts I’ve read, it seems like even people who were engaged in more physical brutality (herding people into the ovens, cleaning the ovens, the sort of horrible science experiments that went on at some camps, etc.) were able to regard their victims as things, not as people, and therefore were able to avoid the empathetic link that (we hope and assume) would have stopped them from committing such atrocities. Hitler and company, particularly their propaganda, would have helped people to reify others since they made reification a core part of the regime’s ideology and a commonplace within the public discourse. Even in prisoner of war camps, reflecting on their actions, perhaps these POWs were still so inculcated in the ideology that their victims were not people, that they persisted in lacking empathy. Or, perhaps the culture of fear was so pervasive that prisoners did not even trust one another enough to be honest, to reveal what may have been considered an “unmanly” vulnerability.

    Also, it seems a slippery slope to me when you (not you in particular; the general “you”) start saying that it’s okay to kill the enemy, but one should feel empathy for killing innocent civilians, as though one should not feel empathy for one’s enemy. Killing a person is a horrible act, no matter if you are killing an enemy or an innocent (and even those are loaded terms). Turning a person into an “enemy,” into the Other, is a critical step toward reifying that person, depriving them of their humanity, making them into a thing that is easy to “take out” because you don’t think of it as human. But maybe that’s just the pacifist in me speaking.

    1. Butler or not, these are all significant questions and observations. I’m reminded of Jonathan Glover’s analysis in Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. It’s been some time since I read it, but the issue of reification or dehumanization that you raise was central to his analysis. I can’t imagine, of course, the maneuvers the psyche must undertake in order to treat another human being in the manner described by the soldiers. The recent photos from Afghanistan remind us that this is not an isolated phenomenon and, the shock is in how quickly these attitudes seem to manifest themselves. Your last paragraph also reminded me of that well known poem by Hardy:

      Had he and I but met
      By some old ancient inn,
      We should have set us down to wet
      Right many a nipperkin!

      But ranged as infantry,
      And staring face to face,
      I shot at him as he at me,
      And killed him in his place.

      I shot him dead because—
      Because he was my foe,
      Just so: my foe of course he was;
      That’s clear enough; although

      He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
      Off-hand like—just as I—
      Was out of work—had sold his traps—
      No other reason why.

      Yes; quaint and curious war is!
      You shoot a fellow down
      You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
      Or help to half a crown.

      Casting about for some hope perhaps, I was also reminded of a passage from Gilbert Meilaender on the possibilities of choosing well and against the grain:

      If trying to stand under the truth means the practice of an ars moriendi, we begin to see what the moral life really requires. I have been reminded of two favorite passages of mine, the first from Peter Geach, the second from C. S. Lewis.

      Every man is given sufficient grace to make the right choice, but many reject that grace and are lost. How this choice does come a man’s way, what chances men have and how they take or reject them, we shall not know till the Day of Judgment. In the stories of the Vikings there is recorded that one Viking was named Bairnsfriend because he would not share in the popular sport of tossing infants from spearpoint to spearpoint; let us hope that he took his chance; in such ways the Grace of God may show itself despite the most corrupting environment.

      And from C. S. Lewis:

      In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely “First Servant.” All the characters around him-Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.

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