Mercy: humanity in war


The new German-language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which arrived on Netflix last autumn, pulls no punches in its depiction of the savage violence of World War I. In the film, helpless young men are cut to pieces by machine-guns, buried alive by collapsing trenches, and rained on by relentless artillery-fire.

But there’s one scene in particular in which the carnage catches up with the film’s protagonist, Paul Bäumer. Deep within a flooded bomb-crater, Bäumer gets into a hand-to-hand scuffle with a French soldier, whom he fatally injures with a knife. Witnessing up close the man’s agony and fear, Bäumer is suddenly overwhelmed with remorse at his action, and attempts to bind the Frenchman’s wounds before he inevitably dies. It is certainly one of the more memorable sequences in the film.

Mercy of the type shown by Bäumer is the subject of this new book by Cathal J Nolan. A professor of history at Boston University, Nolan is the author of previous books including 2017’s The Allure of Battle, which posed the question of how decisive single engagements are throughout the history of conflict.

In this latest book, he reflects on the profoundly human quality of mercy in warfare – which must be the most merciless environment possible – and all the surprising, unpredictable, and irrational forms it can take. In its pages, Nolan explains why a Paul Bäumer figure could still display pity and regret in the midst of such a savage frenzy of killing; how his long-suppressed humanity is able briefly to resurface and overpower his primary duty as a soldier, which is to kill people.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section, ‘Culture’, looks broadly at how the glorification of some of the most violent and merciless warriors in history – men such as Manfred von Richthofen (‘the Red Baron’) and Vasily Zaitsev (a Soviet sniper in World War II) – has pressurised subsequent generations of soldiers into being every bit as ruthless. The following section, ‘Combat’, looks at instances in which individual warriors have gone against the examples of the killers they are supposed to emulate – and have instead risked their own lives to rescue wounded enemy combatants.

In the third section, ‘Protected’, Nolan moves away from the front line and looks at mercy as displayed towards the wounded, civilians, and prisoners of war.

The concluding chapters then examine the relationship between technology and mercy, from strafed aircraft in the Battle of Britain to the ‘precision’ drone strikes of today.

In one of those last chapters, Nolan rather grimly reflects that the machines and weapons of war rarely show any mercy whatsoever. A landmine, for instance, can blow your legs off but still leave you alive, writhing in pain on the battlefield. Only a fellow soldier can come along and put you out of your misery. And this kind of act can occur anywhere, on any side. For mercy, Nolan insists, has no allegiance nor uniform.

Fittingly, then, this book moves about across history and geography, from the forests of the Western Front in World War II to the Westward Expansion in the United States after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Nolan even takes us up to today, discussing the failures of the Afghanistan and Iraq occupations and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Core challenge

So what are the main conclusions to be drawn from this book? The first is that acts of mercy are often not popular, either in times of war or thereafter. While the likes of the Red Baron or Vasily Zaitsev were venerated as heroes by the militarised societies that produced them, more merciful soldiers have often been ignored, dismissed – and even shunned. Nolan has various examples of this at hand, including that of the three heroic members of an American helicopter crew in Vietnam during the My Lai massacre in March 1968.

Pilot Hugh Thompson was forced to land his craft between American troops and Vietnamese villagers to stop the senseless violence, and even issued a warning to his colleagues that he would open fire on them if they killed any more civilians. ‘I figured, at that point, that was the only way to stop the madness,’ Nolan quotes Thompson as later saying.

American troops head towards the front lines during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, 1944. It proved to be one of the worst defeats for the US army during World War II. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Along with his crew chief Glenn Andreotta and gunner Lawrence Colburn, Thompson was awarded a Soldier’s Medal by his country in 1998. But, as Nolan states, this award was only given ‘reluctantly’, and had come after 30 years of death threats, hate mail, attacks by newspapers, and other slanders to their reputations.

The reason for their unpopularity was that, in their merciful act, they had complicated the simplistic idea of the North Vietnamese as subhuman enemies who needed to be utterly destroyed – and thrown into question the righteousness of their own country’s war effort. Meanwhile, Nolan adds, ‘some actual war criminals were protected by government and feted by society’.

Richard Wadani had a similar experience. A Czech-born Austrian who was reluctantly drafted into the Wehrmacht when the Nazis annexed his country, Wadani later deserted his own side in disgust at the war crimes he witnessed on the Eastern Front. But he was no coward. In fact, Wadani joined an all-Czech unit in the British army immediately after he deserted in 1944 and fought his former Nazi comrades until the end of the war.

Much like the helicopter crew in Vietnam, Wadani’s heroism was only recognised very belatedly: Austrian deserters from the Wehrmacht were forgiven in 2009, and a memorial to them was unveiled five years later, at a ceremony an elderly Wadani attended. Despite all the public knowledge of the evil of the Third Reich, the memorial was still controversial.

Particularly for older generations, men like Wadani presented a ‘core challenge’ (Nolan’s phrase) to their ideas, however deluded, about a clean Wehrmacht and their belief that traitors should be executed, as some 1,500 Austrian deserters were. As Nolan writes, it is ‘truly hard for anyone, in any army, to stand up in moral protest or resistance and for their society to accept that their dissent was higher than patriotism’.

Call for restraint

Another major conclusion to be drawn from Nolan’s book is that merciful acts, no matter how heroic, are often largely pointless. Again, the author provides plenty of often heartbreaking examples. There is the German soldier by the name of Friedrich Lengfeld who, during vicious fighting against the Americans in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in late 1944, attempted to save the life of a wounded American soldier – only to get himself killed in the process.

Or there is the similar instance of the American soldiers in the Ardennes just a few weeks later who dragged a wounded Nazi into the mansion they had requisitioned as a base. They patched up his wounds, but he still died within hours. All that came of it was that the Americans had spared themselves the lifelong ‘moral injury’, another Nolan phrase, that they would otherwise have incurred by killing a defenceless man.

Nolan naturally spends time looking at the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in December 1914, perhaps the best-known merciful act in any war in history. The ceasefire arose partly from the very common temporary truces that took place to allow both sides to collect their dead (one of the few vestiges of chivalrous warfare that survived into the era of the trenches).

Important, too, in bringing about the Christmas Truce was the sheer proximity of the opposing forces: Frenchmen could hear Germans chatting, singing, and playing games, and vice versa. It wasn’t all that surprising that conversation soon began, later to be followed by football matches and the exchange of souvenirs. Although, as Nolan soberly reminds us, the truce was only partial and tellingly never happened in any of the following Christmases of the war. Then there is the even grimmer realisation that the period between 1918 and 1939 was an even greater truce, before the conflict was resumed by the following generation for another near-apocalyptic round of killing. It is important not to be sentimental about mercy, either.

For Nolan, the war that Erich Maria Remarque evoked so unforgettably really was merciless, right until its end. On the very last morning of the war, there were some ridiculous mini-offensives, including a vindictive attack by British generals on the town of Mons that lost 2,400 men ‘to no greater purpose than martial vanity’.

But, for all that war is merciless, and merciful acts within war are often unpopular or pointless, Nolan still argues that mercy has an essential role in conflict: to bring about its end. World War I ended as a result of mutual exhaustion as much as any other factor, as have other wars of varying scale up and down the centuries, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, whose conclusion Nolan also briefly examines.

Mercy can help bring leaders to the negotiating table. So, too, can it help win over local populations and freeze out regional enemies in ‘unwinnable’ wars of occupation, something Nolan slams the West for failing to do sufficiently in Afghanistan. Above all, his book is an argument for violence that is restrained, measured, and proportionate to the cause. ‘Make your forces merciful arguments for and not against that cause,’ he writes. ‘Act indecently and you will surely lose.’

Mercy: humanity in war
Cathal J Nolan
Oxford University Press, hbk (£22.99)
ISBN 978-0190077280