Friend or foe, warriors in fierce combat show respect for human life
April 7, 2003
Amid the death and destruction of cannon, tank and machine gun fire, humanity doesn’t just vanish in the dust of war.
Through the despair and darkness, there are glimmers of compassion, kindness and hope that emerge, even crossing over battle lines.
An American nurse mends the wounds of Iraqi soldiers aboard a U.S. hospital ship after overcoming her distrust. “Then you see the pain and the agony of the people, and that whole mind-set is erased,” said Kimberlee Flannery, 23, of Chillicothe, Ohio.
Or flash back almost 140 years. A Confederate sergeant in the Civil War dodges bullets from Union soldiers while crossing over a wall with canteens full of water to give to the North’s own wounded.
In World War I, German and British soldiers emerge from their respective trenches, a truce spreading up and down the line as they belt out carols on Christmas Eve 1914. The soldiers talk, trade food, organize soccer games and help each other bury the dead of both sides.
In the life-degrading enterprise of war, there are acts that say even one life matters. Putting a unit at risk to rescue one POW or going into fire to retrieve a comrade who is already dead is the military’s way of showing that each life has value.
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And these acts of humanity extend to the other side. The USS Comfort hospital ship is treating injured Iraqi combatants. An Iraqi lawyer led American rescuers to POW Jessica Lynch. And on the road to Baghdad, a huge Army convoy took a detour when Iraqi farmers asked that U.S. soldiers avoid driving through a field.
“In the midst of the madness, violence and destruction, we try to find ways to stick some humanity back into things,” says Daniel Kuehl, professor of strategy and airpower history at the National Defense University.
Bold acts of kindness to preserve human life and dignity have extended beyond battle lines in almost every war.
Civil War soldiers from North and South were so hungry for news that they would call a time out to exchange newspapers with each other. They also took impromptu breaks in fighting to swap northern coffee for southern tobacco.
“The ultimate means of warfare is hurting people and breaking things, violence,” says Kuehl, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “And yet you will find over and over again soldiers in the midst of doing things that seem entirely out of context.”
When aiding a comrade, the phrase used by military — “brothers in arms” — isn’t used lightly, Kuehl says.
In the largest rescue in Air Force history, a lieutenant colonel was plucked from enemy territory in northern South Vietnam — some 30,000 enemy troops nearby. The United States lost one helicopter and its crew in the rescue.
In the Afghan war, U.S. soldiers snatched two American women Christian evangelicals from a Taliban prison.
In Somalia, Americans near a downed Black Hawk chopper passed up a chance to fight their way out. Instead they hunkered down until they could retrieve the pilot’s body, caught in the wreckage.
In the Iraq war, U.S. forces at the edge of Baghdad are confronting greater numbers of civilians than they did in their push through the desert. Opportunities for violence and compassion are on the rise.
American snipers summoned help for an Iraqi woman in labor in a pickup truck.
British surgeons operated on a 12-year-old boy whose mother said he was among dozens of children shot by Iraqi hit squads near Basra.
An American officer assured Iraqi farmers that no more U.S. vehicles would trample through his farm — the perfect instance of how wars are won not only by attaining military victory but also winning over populations, Kuehl said.
“In this case, it’s ensuring Iraqi populations understand the war is not to conquer them, but to free them,” he said.
But there are risks involved in trusting, too.
Last week, a car bomb killed three uniformed personnel at a checkpoint when a pregnant woman jumped from the vehicle screaming for help. Iraqi television reported two women had carried out a suicide attack, apparently the same incident.
In the Civil War, perhaps no one better exemplifies the spirit of risking life to help another than Southern Sgt. Richard Kirkland, known as “The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg.”
After a bloody battle, Kirkland asked the general if he could bring wounded enemy soldiers water. Carrying canteens, he crossed a wall and went through a shower of bullets to reach wounded Federal soldiers.
The Federals ceased fire on him and for an hour or so as he tended to their men.