Ordinary Men, Band of Brothers, Natural Born Killers

Here is a resonant juxtaposition from two recently published history books. We know people lie easily, but both of the following have the ring of truth, because the individuals concerned could easily have concocted better, more self-serving stories.

The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately. I suddenly felt nauseous and ran away from the shooting site....I then ran into the woods, vomited and sat down against a tree...my nerves were totally finished.
Here is the second incident:

They got to the farm and without a struggle took the [man] prisoner. Liebgott interrogated him for thirty minutes, then declared there could be no doubt, this was the man they wanted, and he was guilty as charged....They prodded the man out of the vehicle. Liebgott drew his pistol and shot him twice.
One of these quotes is from an account of a regiment in the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Europe. The other is from a history of a German Reserve Police battalion.

Are you certain which quote is from which source?

The first is from Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland , by Christopher Browning (Harper Perennial 1992), and concerns a policeman named Kastenbaum. Browning studied the records of a series of judicial interrogations of the members of Battalion 101 that took place in the 1960's. His intent was to determine how a group of ordinary middle-aged men from Hamburg, some of whom had worked with and been friendly with Jews before the war, adapted themselves to the executioner's task.

The second, in a way more remarkable, quote is from a less judgmental book, Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne From Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest(Simon and Schuster, 1992). Liebgott, who executes a former Nazi "head of slave labor camps", is an American soldier. Actually, I loaded the dice a little in editing the second quote. Three soldiers were ordered by their captain to find and execute the Nazi, who was known to be hiding nearby. (The Germans had already surrendered.) One man decided he would not fire, because the captain did not have the authority to order a killing in peacetime. Each of the other two shot the man.

In case we try to derive too much comfort from the fact that one of the three Americans decided not to carry out orders, be aware that twelve members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 declined to shoot any Jews, and a number of others, like the one quoted above, quit when killing became too repulsive. However, they had been told there would be no consequences if they refused to kill. Ambrose does not mention if the soldier who refused to shoot had reason to fear any consequences.

Of course, a story like this would not be so surprising from the Korean or Vietnam wars. It mainly shocks us because almost everyone agrees that World War II was a just war reasonably handled. A description of the events at My Lai in 1968 with place names and people's names excised would be indistinguishable from an account of the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 similarly treated.

What this really means is that E Company and Battalion 101 both consist of ordinary men and form part of the same band of brothers. Though their difference in actions may be extreme (this is the only account of cold-blooded murder recounted by Ambrose, while Battalion 101 participated in the murders of 1,500 people on the first day alone), the difference in potential may be imperceptible. E Company did not have leaders instructing it to participate in genocide. Battalion 101 did. Had the situations been reversed, the men of Battalion 101 would certainly have been as decent as the Americans of E Company. Would E Company, if given genocidal orders, been as bloody as Battalion 101? Who can say no with confidence?

Shooting actions, whether genocidal or otherwise, against unarmed civilians have never ceased to occur since World War II. Americans, Jews of the fledgling state of Israel (Deir Yassin, 1948), Russians, South Africans and most recently, Rwandans and Serbs have committed such slaughter.

Yet somehow we are raised to believe that we are morally better than the Germans under Hitler, that what happened there could not happen here. This is self-delusion. The line between the average German in 1933, and the American, Rwandan or Serb today is thin or imperceptible. In any society in the world today, if the authorities order slaughter, a few will refuse, but most will comply.

This is the thesis of Oliver Stone's repellent movie, Natural Born Killers. All humans are murderers, or have the potential to be. Some admit it and act it out, others deny it but are. The police, the prison officials, the FBI agent and even the journalist in the movie are all murderers when the moment presents itself.

If we start from the premise that we are not, that we are better, then the truth may take us by surprise. But if we look inside and admit that we cannot be sure that we would perform differently than Kastenbaum of Battalion 101 or Liebgott of E Company, we have a firm footing to attempt a climb out of the mire.