- - Thursday, May 25, 2023

Most Americans do not know the name Franz Stigler. In late 1943, in the air war over Germany, Stigler climbed into the cockpit of his Messerschmitt Bf-109 to pursue a badly damaged B-17.

The American “Flying Fortress” was limping back to base after dropping bombs over Bremen. As he soared into the sky, Stigler expected to do what all Luftwaffe flyers did to Allied aircraft raining death on German cities. But as the young Bavarian airman neared the hole-ridden B-17, he decided not to open fire.

He showed mercy.

Stigler, fighting for Hitler’s Third Reich, safely escorted the U.S. aircraft to the North Sea, where it continued on to England.

What stirred Stigler’s conscience? “He saw bits of fuselage were peeled off and that all the guns seemed out of action. … Stigler saw through holes in the fuselage that men were inside huddled over wounded comrades. In a flash of shared humanity, with full realization that there were indeed real men inside the machine, he chose mercy. He flew astride the cockpit and made direct eye contact, noting blood on the pilot’s face and jacket,” writes Cathal J. Nolan, a cutting-edge military historian at Boston University, in “Mercy: Humanity in War.”

As to why some men choose mercy — why they withstand “the pressures to conform to expectations that for most soldiers simply overwhelm private conscience” — Mr. Nolan does not presume to have a definitive answer. In this concise volume about rare acts of restraint amid the pitiless landscape of industrialized warfare, Mr. Nolan suggests mercy comes down to “the individual character of soldiers and a psychology of personal standards” rather than abstract political theories, lessons in military law, or social mores.

Mercy can intervene unexpectedly in the heat of battle against a foe who moments before had killed one of your comrades but now has his hands raised in surrender. In that moment of blinding fury, soldiers of all nations and cultures and creeds have pulled the trigger rather than take a prisoner.

Mr. Nolan is interested in warriors like Stigler, who exhibited a kind of heroism unlike what we see in most war films that influence the cultural memory of “good wars” and “just causes.” He zooms in on medics crawling through minefields to reach a wounded enemy. We meet a submarine commander towing the survivors of a torpedoed freighter to shore rather than machine-gunning them in the water.

It will surprise no one to learn that mercy has been the exception to the rule of battlefield cruelty. If the objective is to destroy the enemy, mercy seems out of place, even counterproductive. “Crime and murder will be found on all sides in every war, although some armies surely behave more mercifully than others.”

But Mr. Nolan, whose previous book “The Allure of Battle” also challenged conventional wisdom, says modern military forces must cultivate an ethos of mercy if they wish to win counterinsurgency campaigns in such places as Afghanistan.

Imagined as ethically superior to boots on the ground, the U.S. drone program in Afghanistan killed hundreds of civilians. Deploying the world’s most sophisticated technology thousands of miles from the battlefield turned targets into grainy figures on a computer screen.

To Mr. Nolan, this kind of detached, long-distance killing precluded the choice of mercy because it was not evident that civilians were targeted until the aftermath of the airstrike. All too frequently, the consequences were high-tech death for Afghans at a wedding party and what Mr. Nolan refers to as lasting “moral injury” for the drone operators. Rather than winning “hearts and minds,” the drone killings drove more young men into the ranks of the Taliban while terrorizing ordinary people who stopped sending their children to school out of fear of another mistaken attack.

“Another lost war,” the author concludes.

One name you won’t find in “Mercy: Humanity in War” is Giulio Douhet, the father of strategic air power theorists. In the chapter on mercy or lack thereof shown to civilians, I hoped Mr. Nolan might undertake a more thorough treatment of the development in modern warfare of targeting “enemy civilians.” Douhet theorized that killing a person manufacturing artillery shells or sewing uniforms was as strategically vital as killing front-line soldiers. This became known as “terror bombing” in the Second World War. Scores of cities, especially in Germany and Japan as the Allies’ vice closed, were firebombed. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.

Mr. Nolan’s decision to steer clear of bookish theories is a testament to the author’s humanity, his earnest call to begin thinking critically about — rather than glorifying or mindlessly memorializing — war’s consequences.

As another Memorial Day approaches, with its solemn ceremonies and paeans to brave Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice, we might talk with our friends at the beach or barbecue about why it is that our nation continues to send its young to faraway places to kill or be killed, against enemies we don’t understand, in the name of causes we can barely explain.

• Martin Di Caro is host of the “History As It Happens” podcast for The Washington Times.

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By Cathal J. Nolan
Oxford University Press, 328 pages

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