On Dec 20, 1943, with most of his crew killed or incapacitated, American bomber pilot Charlie Brown was desperately trying to fly his battered B17 back to England. Rather than parachuting to safety, he and the rest of his able-bodied crew decided to try to save their injured comrades rather than parachuting to safety.
But to his horror, Brown looks to side and sees a German fighter plane flying just off his right wing. The German then repositions to the left of the bomber and gesticulates wildly to Brown, who could make no sense of what the German pilot was saying. After a few moments, the German salutes Brown, and peels away without firing a shot.
The German pilot’s side of this story wasn’t discovered until the early 1990s, when Brown tracked him down. The German pilot, Franz Stigler, related how he came upon the B17:
He had his finger on the trigger, one eye closed and the other squinting through his gunsight. He took aim and was about to fire when he realized what he wasn’t seeing: This plane had no tail guns blinking. This plane had no left stabilizer. This plane had no tail-gun compartment left, and as he got closer, Stigler saw the terrified tail gunner himself, his fleece collar soaked red, the guns themselves streaked with it, icicles of blood hanging from the barrels.
Stigler was no longer energized. He was alarmed. He pulled alongside the plane and saw clean through the middle, where the skin had been blown apart by shells. He saw these terrified young men attempting to tend to their wounded. He drew equal to the B-17 and saw that the nose of the plane, too, had been blown away. How was this thing still in the air?
Stigler’s gesticulating was his attempt to tell the American that his plane wouldn’t make it, and that he should follow Stigler’s escort to Sweden. He flew off only after one of the B17’s gunners finally managed to swing his turret toward him. Had the Nazis discovered Stigler failed to shoot down the American bomber, he’d been shot as traitor. Had Stigler chosen to down the American, he’d have 23 kills, and “he’d be awarded the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II and one that symbolized exceptional bravery.”
Why did Stigler spare the American bomber? Because of speech given to him by a commanding officer, Gustav Roedel, in Stigler’s first days as fighter pilot:
“Honor is everything here. […] “What will you do, for instance, if you find your enemy floating in a parachute?”
“I guess I’ve never thought that far ahead,” Stigler said.
“If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute,” Roedel said, “I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you—not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
Roedel was not alone in this philosophy, and not just among the Germans. Most of these young men now at war—American, British, German—had grown up on the stories of the great World War I fighter pilots: the American Eddie Rickenbacker and Manfred von Richthofen, the German Red Baron.
These were men who fought by a code, who would look each other in the eye mid-air, who would never strafe an enemy plane that was already going down. They had been taught that they very well might survive the war and, if they did, they needed to know that they had fought with honor and as much humanity as possible. It would be the only way they would ever be able to live with themselves.
Roedel’s defense of honor—one acts honorably to maintain one’s humanity—comports neatly with (fellow honorethics.org contributor) Shannon French’s account of honor in her The Code of the Warrior. For French, the honor code works to personalize the enemy and thus to protect the humanity and psychological well-being of warriors and soldiers.
It may sound paradoxical to say that humanizing the enemy makes things easier for those who fight. But French points to research showing that the gravest psychological trauma arises from feeling that one fought without honor, and against dishonorable foes. It is imperative for their self-image that those who fight can conceive of themselves as easily distinguishable from murderers or killers in a meaningless campaign. Call this the “therapeutic” theory of honor.
One thing that I think this account leaves out, however, is why this particular type of humane act—sparing vulnerable foes—is so characteristic of the implicit honor code in warfare. Mightn’t one preserve one’s self-image as a moral killer by conceiving of oneself as a holy warrior, fighting a crusade or jihad meant to cleanse the land of some evil corrupting influence? Mightn’t it console to see oneself as a sort of policeman, who may morally kill because the enemy is resisting detainment? Neither of those codes proscribe taking advantage of a target’s vulnerability, however.
So I think we need some additional theory to explain why attacking the vulnerable in particular was viewed by Roedel and Stigler as dishonorable. I lay out that view in a forthcoming paper on the topic, where I argue that seeing honor as an ethic regulating prestige competitions entails that conflict must be fair. If war is to be fought honorably, then, it must adhere to a “fair fight” principle one way or another.
We are familiar with this rule in many forms from the schoolyard, where young boys seem instinctively to understand that if one feels the urge to fight, he must “pick on someone his own size,” or that in a fight one doesn’t “kick a man when he’s down.”
Warriors and their aristocratic descendants from around the world adhered to the fair fight principle from time immemorial. Among Aztecs, jaguar warriors would challenge their foes in highly stylized single combat. Achilles challenges Hector. In 683 B.C, the aristocratic Duke Hsaing of Sung refused to set upon attacking Ch’u troops as they crossed the Hung river, as did Byrhtnoth to marauding Vikings at Maldon in 991. In the 18th century, one of the heydays of honorable warfare, various traditions upheld this principle. For instance, the captains of larger warships (“ships of the line”) wouldn’t fire on smaller enemy frigates during fleet actions as long as the frigates didn’t fire on them first.
The fair fight principle suffered as the honor tradition in war was replaced by other ethical perspectives, such as realism and Just War. But one encounter during WWII shows that aspects of the old tradition still survived in some places. Despite its current official disfavor in academic circles, it still has the power to inspire, as some of the offhand comments to the Post article demonstrate:
- honor among men. they were a different breed back then. not like todays generation
- A real story about real people. It is truly ashamed that we as a people have changed so much over the last 60 or 70 years. This story is a report on the way that we used to be. Honor. A word that has lost its meaning over the years. It is terrible that this current generation has no clue as to the basis for such honor. Push a button to kill someone miles and miles away. Seeing loss of life as a mere statistic. These are things (advances?) that have caused us to lose our humanity. I hope these next generations can see things in a different light while there is still a chance we won’t blow ourselves up.
- HONOR…that virtue which sets one person apart from the masses. What a fine story.
Also notable is the way people who are attracted to honor will try to reconcile it with their existing ethical frameworks:
- When honor meant something. Both these men were christians and this was not the only time christian mores superceded duty in that war.
- The JudeoChristian Tradition at work.