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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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