Now we shoot through a screen, darkly

Via Mark Shea, Time has a lovely story about a German pilot who couldn’t find it in his heart to shoot down a crippled American bomber during World War II.

As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.

He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.
Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.

Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.

…[He] could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”

Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

The line Stigler draws between fighting and murder reminds me of the disgust inspired by Civil War snipers that Drew Gilpin Faust discusses in This Republic of Suffering.  They killed from a distance, and couldn’t be opposed or reasoned with.  They didn’t fight fair.

I talked about snipers and the changing sense of what is honorable in warfare in the context of drones.   The sniper and the drone pilot both are an assault on the idea that there is some place that is not the battlefield or that soldiering is something you do at particular times, not something you constantly are.  But, from far enough away, the victim might just be another shape, instead of a person.

But Stigler’s story seems to highlight a different danger.  The PTSD rates among drone pilots suggest that the hi-def cameras do bring the pilots close enough to the action to viscerally understand that they are killing other human beings.  But what’s missing isn’t just the ability to look at the victim, but for the victim to look back.  Stigler held back, because he could see the American pilot looking at him and saw how he saw him — as Death, not as a brother.  And Stigler couldn’t bear to be that man.

The more distance between us and our enemy, the harder it is to see how we are seen, and to consider whether the face we’re showing to the enemy is a face we’re comfortable wearing in any context.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • B. R. Lind

    Huh? “The PTSD rates among drone pilots suggest that the hi-def cameras do bring the pilots close enough to the action to viscerally understand that they are killing other human beings.” Doesn’t a low PTSD rate suggest the opposite? (The article says “the number [of drone pilots suffering PTSD] is very small” and there were only “a handful.” It doesn’t give a rate, but another article on the McDonald study said that about 4% of the drone pilots were “at elevated risk” for PTSD.)

    Most of the article is about burnout, not PTSD, and while killing people can certainly burn you out, shift work and multiple demanding roles will do it too.

    • leahlibresco

      Zut! Had a couple tabs open when writing, pulled the wrong link. Fixed now.

      • B. R. Lind

        Well that’s definitely going into the “Dissertation – drone” bookmarks folder. Awesome (the resource, not the PTSD).

        • leahlibresco

          Need a beta reader? Then eventually, I can cite you!

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com Turmarion

    A great article with much food for thought–thank you for the link, as well as the link to the book, which looks fascinating.

  • grok

    Thanks- I enjoyed the article. I wonder who Stigler’s commanding officer was? Those words notwithstanding, I’m sure Stigler was breaking his army’s rules and must have been aware of that-his disobedience shows great moral courage. I wonder if he was severely punished…

    Today’s OT reading is on that topic-disobedience to authority based on a higher law – the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnance.
    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/032013.cfm

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are referenced by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from Birmingham Jail as models of civil disobedience (like the 21st paragraph i think)
    http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/annotated_letter_from_birmingham/

    My favorite part of the Daniel story is this quote”
    “IF our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace
    and from your hands, O king, MAY HE SAVE US! BUT EVEN IF HE WILL NOT, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up.”
    They are hopeful of God’s power to save but their actions are set no matter what. It reminds me of Frodo at the base of Mount Doom:
    “No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.”

  • http://bensix.wordpress.com BenSix

    The more distance between us and our enemy, the harder it is to see how we are seen…

    And yet, people with swords and spears have managed to kill men, women and children for millenia. Perhaps there is balance between being close enough that one can see the consequences of one’s behaviour and far enough away that one is not blinded by endorphin and endorphins.

    • http://bensix.wordpress.com BenSix

      [*] adrenaline and endorphins

    • Darren

      Posted this link on another of Leah’s Posts a few months back, but it seems like relevant further reading for those who might be inclined to explore the human reluctance to kill their fellow man:

      The Psychology of Killing

      ! – Trigger warning – the article discusses death and killing in a brutally frank manner, not gruesome, but frank.

      I actually found the article hopeful. The case with Stigler is dramatic, but surprisingly (to me) not as rare as one might think.

      • Jack

        “the human reluctance to kill their fellow man”

        What planet are you on?

    • Jack

      The pretend Christian doesn’t understand duty. She thinks it detaches you from people.

      • Kristen inDallas

        Duty vs Humanity… isn’t that pretty much the theme of the whole Game of Throne series?

        • Jack

          ever seen this pretend Christian?

          “shall love”

          • Jack

            *comma between this and pretend

    • Jack

      Oops, in reply to this:

      “And yet, people with swords and spears have managed to kill men, women and children for millenia”

  • Darren

    I am pondering the story and wondering if it might not have important insights into what we mean when we say humanity, morality, and human decency.

    What is it about being able to see another’s face (and specifically the face as opposed to their back or any other part) that makes us less likely to pull the trigger?

    What is it about, not just being able to see them, but to know that they also see _us_ that makes us even less likely to pull that trigger?

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      The question remains though. Is this something that points to a deeper truth about the human person. The idea that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Or is this just an artifact of evolution. A weird thing about humans that means nothing at all.

      • Mike

        I think we see ourselves in others, that’s what causes us to think twice. There but for the grace of God go I and the like. And I mean we really are all related so there’s that too. It’s a cliche but we really are all one big family.

        • Anna

          Human and non-human primates both have large areas of their brains devoted to processing what another individual’s eyes are doing. In general, primate brains have large areas devoted to reading body language. Presumably in social beings it’s helpful to have some insight into another individual’s state of mind. The face is a great indicator of what another individual is thinking/feeling, with fairly nuanced expressions. This is true across species.

          In a lot of animals, eye contact is perceived as a threat. It’s not surprising that humans would also have an emotional reaction to eye contact (both what we experience and what you see human brains doing). You say that the eyes are the windows of the soul with regards to a human person, but I think to be consistent you would have to say the same for animals if you’re going to make that argument.

          Back to the original question, I would assume that, since a face does trigger “emotional” parts of the brain more than a back or other body part. A face expressing fear is a particularly strong trigger for the amygdala. It’s not hard to imagine how that would benefit social animals evolutionarily or how that would make it harder to shoot someone who looks afraid.

          • Mike

            Q: Why do you think it’s important or valid to be consistent regarding non-human animals and humans? Not trying to goad you just think it seems like an arbitrary assertion. I mean I would agree you have to be consistent across humans but why treat or attempt to treat 2 things that are not the same as if they were. That seems wrong doesn’t it?

          • Anna

            I’m sorry, I was trying to reply to Randy but it ended up in a response to you. My point is that they (we) are all the same. I think people are incorrect in limiting this discussion about faces and eyes to humans or human nature because non-human animals do it to (which, to me, is one of an overwhelming number of things that points to a common lineage).

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            To say that you are connecting with somebody’s soul is not to say that there is no discernible brain activity. The spiritual touches the physical but it does not contradict the physical. Even saying this brain capability evolved is not inconsistent. Just that what evolved was the capability to discern something real.

            Animals do this to? Really? A monkey is ready to kill another monkey and sees his face and changes his mind? It is hard to know why humans make these choices. I imagine it would be much harder to know why monkeys do what they do. I don’t think they kill each other the way we do. I don’t think they feel the moral qualms about it that we do either. But I am no expert. If you have something to read on this topic I might be interested.

          • Anna

            So are you saying that non-human primates have souls? Because they definitely have emotional responses to other primate’s faces. They have brain activity that is similar to humans’, though obviously not identical since our brains are different, though similar enough that many of the studies on facial recognition are done in non-human primates. Here’s a good explanation of the many tools they use in neuroscience, including non-human primates: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/122/the-need-for-research-on-non-human-primates-i/ This paper is a good look at why they use non-human primates: http://biomedicum.ut.ee/sjlas/36_1_77-85.pdf

            When a macaque’s brain reacts to faces and eyes in the same way that a human’s does, does that mean that it is “discerning something real”? I’m more inclined to believe that eyes don’t really have anything to do with the soul (if it exists, which is a discussion that I think would derail Leah’s post).

            As far as the neuroscience behind when and why a person changes their mind, it is still in its infancy. That said, they know that it happens mostly in the pre-frontal cortex (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex). Humans have particularly large, well developed pre-frontal cortex (http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~knutson/bad/semendeferi01.pdf). So I would argue that is why a human might change his/her mind more easily than a non-human primate. You can call it moral qualms, a conscious, whatever word you want to use to describe what’s happening in the pre-frontal cortex. It’s definitely happening more in a human’s brain than an ape’s, though I don’t think you can say it’s not happening at all for them. But again, no soul required.

        • grok

          @Mike,
          +1

      • Darren

        Randy said;

        ”The question remains though. Is this something that points to a deeper truth about the human person. The idea that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Or is this just an artifact of evolution. A weird thing about humans that means nothing at all.”

        You are definitely on the right track.

        Not quite an artifact; an evolutionary artifact is men’s nipples (or some evidence tentatively indicates the existence of gay men) – a non-adaptive (or counter adaptive) phenotype in the male that is strongly adaptive in the female. But this is a quibble over language.

        Humans are very social animals, and a large part of our brains appear to be devoted to facial recognition and empathy – for good and bad purposes.

        Some have suggested that humans have an evolutionary disposition to readily kill “others” – food animals, threat animals, even humans from other tribes, but a reluctance to kill their own kind. It is pretty well established, IMO, that the process of turning other humans into “others” is strongly associated with an increased willingness to kill (and rape, and brutalize, and genocide, etc.).

        I retain some skepticism about evolutionary psychology, but such characteristics would make sense for a tribal hominid. Such characteristics would also make a lot of sense for how such instincts can go wrong and work counter to modern morals.

        What I suspect happened in the story, is at that moment of eye contact, the two enemies were no longer “others”, just two naked apes on the metaphorical savannah.

        I am curious why you think that would be meaningless if it was a result of natural evolution, whereas (presumably) it would be meaningful if it was the Christian charity engendered by Herr. Stigler’s stroking of his rosary…

        • Mike

          If I may: because if it was the result of natural selection it would by definition preclude the ability to wrestle with a moral choice and would therefore be accounted for by some instinct, whereas if it was Christian chartiy it would necessarily involve a moral quandry of some sort and an act of the will.

          • Darren

            Still a moral quandry – duty to protect my homeland/family .vs. empathy for a fellow human who is looking right at me…

            Instinct does not obviate free will, IMO.

          • Mike

            I agree instinct doesn’t totally obviate (although it kind of has to doesn’t it?) but only because it is not really instinct then but a real act of the will. But we’re just going around and around. I guess what I am saying is that I can’t wrap my heard around how if this universe is nothing but some self-referential/independant self-generating process without aim without purpose, totally random, how then within it there can exist “real” choice. Do you remember what GKC said about a materialist’s inability to even ask someone to pass the mustard? It’s like that. Ok, totally going off topic but I continue to come back to 2 simple thoughts: either this is all a grand illusion and I am not really conscious therefore OR this is actually real and therefore this can’t be the only or primary or base reality, there must be another and then therefore there has to be something more. Anyway I am rambling.

          • Caravelle

            @Mike : Sorry for the thread necromancy/hijacking but I’m curious so just in case :

            either this is all a grand illusion and I am not really conscious therefore OR this is actually real and therefore this can’t be the only or primary or base reality, there must be another and then therefore there has to be something more.

            What would it mean for you not to be “really conscious” ? Do you disagree with the statement “I think, therefore I am” ? It seems to me that even if everything you perceived were an illusion you would still be “really” conscious – the very act of asking yourself if you’re conscious would show that you are. Or are you assuming some kind of dream-state ? (it’s true that in dreams we’re not conscious in a common sense of the word, but we still exist (or some aspect of us does), so “I think therefore I am” remains true in that circumstance).

            I wonder if a productive question wouldn’t be to ask yourself whether you’re “really conscious”, but whether “consciousness” is what all your intuitions tell you it is. The former seems logically contradictory to me, but the latter is a real question, and one we can actually investigate.

            As to the second half of your statement I’d also be interested in exploring that but as it is I don’t completely understand it – what’s does “this” in “this is actually real” refer to ?

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I don’t know if Stigler thought it through. That these men might well have just dropped bombs that killed his countrymen. That if he allows them to go they will almost certainly do it again. I wonder if he just forgot about that in that moment or if he pondered it and let them go anyway.

    I think of Valjean letting Javert go and Hugo makes explicit that he knows the act of mercy won’t change him. He will not show mercy in return. I think of God forgiving us knowing that often we commit the same offense again and again. But those offenses are against themselves. They are not against innocents. The bombers will kill innocents. I wonder about it.

    • Darren

      Randy said;

      ”I don’t know if Stigler thought it through. That these men might well have just dropped bombs that killed his countrymen. That if he allows them to go they will almost certainly do it again. I wonder if he just forgot about that in that moment or if he pondered it and let them go anyway.”

      And that is a very interesting question.

      Where was that B-17 returning from, with it’s bomb bays damningly empty? Had it been sent to a military target, or had it just firebombed a town? Perhaps Herr. Stigler’s wife and child, or his parents, or childhood friends now blown apart or burned alive all due to that lone B-17…

      Certainly if he let them return, the able bodied crew, that pilot in particular, would be over the skies of Germany the very next day, raining death and terror on the just and the unjust.

      As compassionate as it was, perhaps even noble, it is hard to view it objectively as anything but a moral lapse. His duty was clear, and he failed it. He chose the path of human compassion, and how many died at the hands of that bomber pilot after?

      An interesting question, indeed…

      • Niemand

        Had it been sent to a military target, or had it just firebombed a town?

        Recall the “dehousing” campaign. Dresden. Hiroshima. The Nagasaki bombing that occurred at the same time as Japanese officials were touring the damage at Hiroshima and deciding to surrender. Most likely it had just firebombed a town.

        Sometimes compassion can have unfortunate consequences. What if a certain British soldier in WWI who spared an enemy had shot him instead? That Austrian solider took the act of mercy as a sign from God that he was meant for “greater things” and went on to orchestrate genocide. (Yes, obviously, Hitler was the enemy spared.)

        That being true, though, what good is a calculated “love of humanity” or desire to do the right thing if we can’t act compassionately to actual humans? Stigler saw people who were vulnerable, defenseless against him, and chose not to kill them. That must be the right decision no matter how many of them might become Hitler later on in life or what can “right” possibly mean?

        And, of course, drone pilots who make the decision to show mercy to enemies who can do them no harm are court martialed. Or at least, moved to other duties and replaced by people who are willing to shoot the helpless.

        Your tax dollars at work, Americans.

        • Darren

          Neimand said;

          ”Most likely it had just firebombed a town. “

          And this is what I find so very fascinating about the story.

          The bomber pilot was on his way back from firebombing a German elementary school (or might have been, certainly B-17’s did such things, and if not this time, then perhaps the last, or the next) and Herr. Stigler knew that to be so, yet let him go.

          Herr. Stigler, being a German fighter pilot had doubtless killed bombers before (the US 8th squadron’s losses prior to the deployment of the P-51 were murderous), perhaps even the day before, and tomorrow he would do it again, and again, and again. Perhaps even this very pilot.

          And the bomber pilot would be back over the skies of occupied France and Germany the next day, raining death and terror. And again, and again. On Herr Stigler, his family, his children.

          But that one hour was different…

          This, and my recent heated discussion on the other thread, where I had the surprising discovery that I appear to be distinctly in the minority in my view (the honorable Jake excluded) that it is morally wrong to stand by, to wring our hands and stare uncomfortably at our shoes, as the trains roll on into Auschwitz, and Berkinau, and Ravensburg. That we have an obligation, to blow up the tracks, to throw ourselves beneath the wheels if need be, whether it works or not, whether history remembers us as heroes or monsters, that we are evil to stand by and let evil prevail.

          And that it is our actions that speak truest to our beliefs…

          My actions fall short; I should try harder.

          • Niemand

            And the bomber pilot would be back over the skies of occupied France and Germany the next day, raining death and terror.

            Or not. Sometimes an example does lead to people’s behavior changing. Maybe the pilot or the crew of the bomber would refuse to go on another mission and get court marshaled…but there would be one fewer people trying to kill the innocent along with the guilty. Maybe the bombadier would start dropping his bombs just a bit before getting to the city. There is value in a good example, even if the immediate act was futile.

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  • Mike

    Hmmm, I wonder how much of it is PTSD and how much is guilt or some moral problem. Lots of situations are stressful but not morally problematic and vice versa.

  • Jose

    great article!

  • Jack

    And if being close is better than what’s up with staying away from fundies Leah? You do stay away from fundies do you, otherwise you get contemptuos.

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  • JohnE_o

    ST:TOS is my Catechism

    Here you go:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKmUd0zHW4w

    ANAN: There can be no peace. Don’t you see? We’ve admitted it to ourselves! We’re a killer species, it’s instinctive. It’s the same with you! Your General Order 24.

    KIRK: Alright. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill – today!

    Season 1 Episode 24: A Taste of Armageddon

    • Darren

      Beauty!


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