I was rather astonished recently when I read the Guardian’s notice of the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the First World War.
Astonished, because it contained this memorable – and very moving – disclosure about how he had lived and fought:
He was in the trenches at Ypres between June and September 1917, where he and his gang of five machine gunners made a pact not to kill an enemy soldier if they could help it: they would aim for the legs.
The same report quoted the chief of staff of the British Army, Richard Dannatt, saying: “… we give thanks for his life … for upholding the same values and freedom that we continue to cherish and fight for today.” I cannot held wondering whether Dannatt would really approve of contemporary soldiers undertaking pacts not to kill the enemy. Frankly, I doubt it very much.
Harry’s pact reminded me of an article I read in the New Yorker a few years ago, about the effects of the Iraq war on its veterans. That article, The Price of Valor, by Dan Baum (July 12, 2004), described an extraordinary and appalling turn in modern military history: the point at which a modern army realised that humanity is no asset in combat, and set out to kill it in its troops. Baum tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall, the US military historian who realised through his interviews with US troops who had fought in World War Two, that, “only about fifteen per cent of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy”.
One lieutenant colonel complained to Marshall that four days after the desperate struggle on Omaha Beach he couldn’t get one man in twenty-five to voluntarily fire his rifle. “I walked up and down the line yelling, ‘God damn it! Start shooting!’ But it did little good.” These men weren’t cowards. They would hold their positions and willingly perform such tasks as delivering ammunition to machine guns. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to aim a rifle at another human being—even an armed foe—and pull the trigger. “Fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual,” Marshall wrote. “At the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector.”
The US Army immediately adopted revised training techniques, intended to stop its men from seeing the enemy as human beings.
Within months, Army units were receiving a “Revised Program of Instruction,” which instituted many of Marshall’s doctrines. It was no longer sufficient to teach a man to shoot a target; the Army must also condition him to kill, and the way to do it, paradoxically, was to play down the fact that shooting equals killing. “We need to free the rifleman’s mind with respect to the nature of targets,” Marshall wrote. A soldier who has learned to squeeze off careful rounds at a target will take the time, in combat, to consider the humanity of the man he is about to shoot. Along with conventional marksmanship, soldiers now acquired the skill of “massing fire” against riverbanks, trees, hillcrests, and other places where enemy soldiers might lurk. “The average firer will have less resistance to firing on a house or tree than upon a human being,” Marshall added. Once the Army put his notions into practice, they bore spectacular results. By the time of the Vietnam War, according to internal Army estimates, as many as ninety per cent of soldiers were shooting back.
Which is probably a good part of why we can hardly even imagine modern soldiers swearing a pact like that of Harry Patch. Certainly, I do not believe I have ever met Harry’s likes amongst former South African soldiers who fought in the apartheid state’s wars in Angola and the other Frontline States.