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This is a painting by Ernie Boyett of the badly damaged B-17 being escorted back towards England by the German ME-109 fighter. The German pilot was Franz Stigler and the American pilot was Charlie Brown.

This is a painting by Ernie Boyett of the badly damaged B-17 being escorted back towards England by the German ME-109 fighter. The German pilot was Franz Stigler and the American pilot was Charlie Brown.

I recently received an email from a friend which tells the story of an Allied B-17 bomber during the war which, after a mission, had been very badly hit. One engine was dead, the tail and rear section severely damaged, nose shot up, the tail gunner wounded and the remains of the top gunner all over the top of the fuselage. They struggled on, hoping they would make it back to England.

To add to their problems, they flew over a Luftwaffe airfield. A German fighter pilot was scrambled and sent up to shoot it down. When he reached the plane, so amazed was he that it was still flying and seeing that it could no longer really defend itself, he made a different decision.  Instead of shooting it down, he indicated by hand signals that they should either land and surrender or fly to Sweden. The plane did neither, so he escorted it back to the English Channel and, with a final salute to the British pilot, waved it home to England. Many years later, the two pilots met and reminisced about the incident.

When asked why he did not shoot it down, the German pilot said “I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.

At the bottom of the story, someone had written these words.This is a true story. This was back in the days when there was some kind of honour in being a warrior. They proudly wore uniforms, and they didn’t hide behind women and children, nor did they plant bombs amidst innocent crowds.”

Both the German pilot’s comment and the observer’s comment had me thinking. I began to wonder if we were really seeing the full picture here.

The German pilot said he didn’t have the ‘heart’ to shoot them down. I realise this is a typical British turn of phrase (and may just be a loose translation of what he really said), but I would say that the very reason he didn’t shoot them down was because he DID have ‘heart’. He had compassion for them in their moment of need. In fact it was more than that; he actually disobeyed direct orders to shoot the plane down and lied to his superior officer about it on his return. Every cell in his head must have been screaming at him to shoot it down (after all, they were the enemy and this was war) but his intuitive compassionate self won out and he let them go. In fact he saluted them as he turned to head home.

The comment at the end suggests this was an ‘honourable’ thing to do, and I agree, but I wonder if the writer and I are singing from the same song sheet? If it was the other way round and it was the American pilot who had aided the German pilot back to Germany, would the writer also see it as an ‘honourable’ action? Or would it be seen as an act of betrayal by a weak pilot?

Equally, the comment about warriors who “..didn’t hide behind women and children, nor did they plant bombs amidst innocent crowds”  is an interesting one as it supposes that ‘old fashioned’ war was noble and there were no intended deaths of civilians. How do we then explain the bombing of London and Coventry by the Germans and the bombing of Dresden by the Allies in which they killed as many as 135,000 people? It was the single most destructive bombing act of the entire war (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

War is dreadful in all its guises, whether a war fought between armies or a war fought by small radical groups using guerrilla tactics. Think of the child soldiers in Sierra Leone, sometimes forced to kill their own parents. Think of the ruthless killings in Syria of both children and adults in many of the outlying villages by the Syrian army.

War is never nice. Granted, there are moments when owing to very particular circumstances, a nation must go to war to stop an aggressor but make no mistake, war does not create solutions. It does not solve problems. Of course, as in the case of Gaddafi, it may seem to solve a problem but one only needs to look at what is happening in Algeria and Mali now to realise that the effects of the allied effort in Libya are not over. There is a long way to go before we can say the war is finally finished.

Most important of all is the recognition that if fighting breaks out people will die, whether soldiers or civilians; and those that do not die but have been directly affected by the fighting will never forget it. For example, in our efforts (as the west) to rid ourselves of Al Qaeda through violent means, we actually create more anger and more young recruits. There has to be a better way.

Our German pilot was a remarkable man. He had the compassion and also the courage to make a different decision, and one for which he could have been court-martialled at the very least, if not shot. We need more of his type in our world today and it is not just on the battle field that we need to show compassion and courage. We need to ask ourselves, whose rules are we following and why? Why do we think it honourable to be a warrior? How about it being honourable to be a peacemaker? How about it being honourable to stand up when injustice is being done rather than turning a blind eye?

I was a soldier and I loved my time in the army but I am not convinced in any way that it is the only honourable pursuit. There is an Ojibwa Indian saying, ‘no tree has branches so foolish as to fight amongst themselves’. We are all here together, so I suggest it is in all of our best interests to find common rather than uncommon ground and compassion is a great starting point.

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Celebrations as Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed M...

Celebrations as Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi announced Egypt’s president (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad)

The last couple of years have seen the most extraordinary events in North Africa spilling into Egypt, Libya and then onwards into the Middle East. It has of course moved across the globe in various different guises but certainly that is where the main thrust of revolutionary action has occurred.

The battle rages on in Syria and an International political game of football is being played out with both the rebels and the Syrian Government each being funded and supported by different regimes with different agendas. This will not be solved with ease and whether the Assad Government survives or collapses will depend largely on deals made between powers outside Syria’s borders.

Egypt on the other hand was different. The Government was brought down by its own people and it happened with an extraordinary momentum. More than that, the revolution had no leader. There was no single person or no particular group for the Government to arrest or fight and thus they were unable to contain it.

What were the Egyptians railing against? Oppression, corruption and autocracy. What did they want? Freedom.

They wanted freedom from domination, freedom to choose their own leaders and freedom of speech. It was a very strong rallying cry and came from the heart of a people who had for years had to tolerate a system of Government they found oppressive.

Yet now, two years later, their newly elected President Mohammed Morsi has granted himself extraordinary powers which cannot be revoked by any authority, including the judiciary, until the new constitution has been ratified and a fresh parliamentary election held. He has in effect taken on even more power than the previous president held. More than that, despite overwhelming International condemnation, the Muslim Brotherhood are holding firm. Indeed, they have rallied their supporters who are publically supporting the President’s actions and they have come out onto the street in droves.

Why have the people done this? What has changed their opinions so much in the months since the revolution? How many of the same people who backed the revolution two years ago and were willing to risk their lives in order to do so are the same people who are now answering the rallying cry of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Freedom is frightening
As we grow up, wherever that may be and in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, we attach ourselves to certain key pegs which in turn become the ‘anchors’ of our existence. For example our parents, our siblings, our homes, our family history, our culture, our race, our religion, and our class are obvious ones.

To feel anchored is to feel secure and yet being too anchored limits our freedom. Freedom is achieved when we release the anchors and become ourselves, free of the need to ‘fit in’ to a certain attitude and way of life. It frees us to make genuine choices. Whilst this sounds easy, for most people this is very unsettling and requires risking the very essence of what we feel makes us who we are.

In Egypt, with the revolution won and the prospect of a new ‘free’ future ahead, questions began to emerge about what that future meant. The longer it was in flux, the longer the insecurity hovered and perhaps sub-consciously, the insecure turned towards the known anchor of religion. Enter, the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, much to the surprise of the west, the Egyptian electorate turned towards a political leadership that is likely to be anything but democratic. The Brotherhoods’ credo is “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

There are those in power across the globe (not just Governments) who wish for the status quo in the Middle East to continue as is. They may publicly applaud the revolution, but their anchors for their own continued success remain hooked to a ‘no change’ scenario so make no mistake, the Muslim Brotherhood will be well supported from outside Egypt’s borders.

This is not about religion, it’s about anchors. The older we get, the less likely we are to change as there is comfort in the known, good or bad. The future therefore lies in the hands of young people and we must do our very best to help them feel less tied to their anchors than we are, to help them make sensible choices about their lives and their futures rather than feel obliged to follow certain paths simply because we their parents (and their parents before them) have chosen to do so. That way they will be freer to make wise choices, unhindered by the anchors of their past.

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