Do a search for quotes about war, and you’ll find a thousand statements about combat’s horror, brutality, and dehumanizing, with many quotes coming from former warriors. For example, there’s this poignant bit from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” And yet, even as war can reveal the worst examples of man’s barbaric nature, so to can it also reveal his honorable side.
The history of war contains examples of enemies putting aside their differences, if only for a brief moment, and showing each other honor, dignity, and mercy — even as the fires of war wage around them. One of the most famous examples of this was chronicled in the movie Joyeux Noël: In 1914, soldiers on both sides of WWI put aside their differences on Christmas, and spent the day singing carols, exchanging gifts, and commemorating the dead.
CNN recently posted this fantastic and incredibly moving story about two former enemies who, decades after their initial meeting in the skies over Europe, became the deepest of friends. In December 1943, Lt. Franz Stigler honed in on a beleaguered B-17 bomber, determined to blow it from the sky and avenge the death of his older brother. The B-17 had suffered massive damage and was far behind enemy lines when Stigler came in for the kill, but when he locked eyes with the American pilot, 2nd Lt. Charles Brown, he found himself unable to pull the trigger. Instead, Stigler flew beside the bomber as an escort to ensure that his fellow Germans wouldn’t shoot it down.
Neither man forgot their encounter, and years later, Brown became obsessed with learning about the pilot who had spared his life. In 1990, he finally made contact with Stigler and the two met again, this time in a hotel lobby:
One of Brown’s friends was there to record the summer reunion. Both men looked like retired businessmen: they were plump, sporting neat ties and formal shirts. They talked about their encounter in a light, jovial tone.
The mood then changed. Someone asked Stigler what he thought about Brown. Stigler sighed and his square jaw tightened. He began to fight back tears before he said in heavily accented English:
“I love you, Charlie.”
Years later, author [Adam] Makos says he understands why Stigler experienced such a surge of emotions.
Stigler had lost his brother, his friends and his country. He was virtually exiled by his countrymen after the war. There were 28,000 pilots who fought for the German air force. Only 1,200 survived, Makos says.
“The war cost him everything,” Makos says. “Charlie Brown was the only good thing that came out of World War II for Franz. It was the one thing he could be proud of.”
I highly recommend reading the full article, and not only because it tells more of Brown and Stigler’s truly heartwarming story (which was chronicled in the book A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II.) It also discusses the complexities of modern warfare (and in particular, the “war on terror”) that undermine long-standing notions of wartime chivalry, nobility, and fraternity.
I love stories like that of Joyeux Noël, Brown and Stigler, or German general Erwin Rommel (who refused to follow his superiors’ orders to kill Jews and civilians and whose treatment of his enemies in the field of battle was the stuff of legend) — perhaps even moreso than more “traditional” stories of wartime heroism and bravery. I think that’s because they speak to deeper, holier truths: that our shared humanity can never be completely obscured, not even by the fog of war, and that the most stirring displays of honor and courage occur, not when we kill and conquer our enemies, but rather, when we show them love, respect, and mercy in spite of war’s brutality, futility, and stupidity.