The WWII Model

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 12 2011 @ 9:10am


Rick Hertzberg compares how the US handled prisoners of war during WWII to Guantanamo today:

[B]y the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.

And it makes one weep to see what we have now come to. In the Republican policy riders to the budget deal – one of the more jaw-dropping documents I have read in a while – there was an absolute insistence on not funding the closure of Gitmo. It was that important – to retain something that the entire world sees as a black mark on America and the West.

All war is unspeakable – but there is a civilized as well as a barbaric approach to it. In a civilized culture, you respect how the enemy, however we have to demonize them to kill them, is still human. And so there are limits to what will be done to them if they come into our custody. And there are laws of war to manage this. And then there are those moments, like those German POWs becoming American, when a gesture takes on a grander scale and actually heals.

It would be hard to think of a bloodier war than World War I. Its psychic scars are still profound in Europe. You'll find a war memorial in most English towns, somewhere, and even today, everyone wears a paper poppy in their lapel in November, to honor the fallen in Flanders. And if you go to New College Oxford chapel, you'll also find a war memorial: an etched list of names in stone of those students who died in combat. And in one section, you will see a list of German names, for those German transfer students from New College who went to war to fight against England.

They are still remembered and honored, not as Germans or as Englishmen, but simply as members of New College. I recall the moment I first saw that, and absorbed the values it upheld. It taught me something about what it was to be English, just as the memory of decent American soldiers conveyed what it meant to be an American. 

We need to find that sentiment again. It's still there, but buried in fear.