War Stories

Le Chambon

There are two things, it has often been said, that human beings cannot gaze at directly without going mad – the glory of God and the darkness of human evil. After years of studying human cruelty, Philip Hallie, professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University and a veteran of World War II, must have felt close to madness. Working on a project on Nazi cruelty, he focused on the medical experiments Nazi doctors conducted on Jewish children in the death camps.

“Across all these studies,” Hallie wrote later, “the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetitions of the patterns of persecution…. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Between the bars and the walls I revolved like a madman … over the years I had dug myself into Hell.”

During this time Hallie came across a short article about a small town of three thousand in the mountains of southern France, which was the only safe haven for Jews in all of German-occupied Europe. Reading with academic objectivity in his effort to classify types of cruelty and forms of resistance to it, he was about halfway down the third page of the story when he became “annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks.” Reaching up to wipe away a piece of dust, he felt tears – “Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.” Those tears, Hallie wrote, were an instinctive “expression of moral praise.”

What Hallie was reading was his introduction to the citizens of Le Chambon and their heroic rescue of more than five thousand Jewish children in the Second World War. Later written up in his modern classic Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Hallie came to realize the rightness of a summary by one of his readers: “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Yes, he concluded, “I realized that for me too the little story of Le Chambon is grander and more beautiful than the bloody war that stopped Hitler.”

What emerges in his story is the strands of the stubborn courage of the Chambonnais. They were Huguenots, French Protestants fired by their faith in Christ and the experience of three hundred years of persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. And they were led, taught, and encouraged by their indomitable pastor, Andre Trocme, and his equally heroic wife, Magda. But what comes across repeatedly is their character and the down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality of their faith.

Many French let themselves be deceived by the infamous “night and fog” propaganda with which the Germans concealed the death camps. But the Chambonnais simply did what had to be done, what they’d been taught to do, what Christ would have expected them to do – they sheltered and saved their neighbors, the Jews, who were in danger.

The evening Pastor Trocme himself was arrested illustrates the whole story. The pastor and his wife had been invited to dinner by church members who, knowing they often forgot such invitations, sent their daughter to remind them. But when she entered the dining room, she saw the police arresting her pastor. So the word flew around the village: Andre Trocme had been arrested.

Typically, however, Magda Trocme invited the two policemen to have dinner with them. Friends were later incredulous and upset with her. “How could you bring yourself to sit down to eat with these men who were there to take your husband away, perhaps to his death? How could you be so forgiving, so decent to them?”

Madame Trocme always gave the same answer: “What are you talking about? It was dinner-time; they were standing in my way; we were all hungry. The food was ready. What do you mean by such foolish words as ‘forgiving’ and ‘decent’?”

Such a response was typical. The Chambonnais shrugged off praise again and again. They would look Hallie in the eye and say, “How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” An outsider’s words of moral praise, Philip Hallie concluded, are “like a slightly uncomfortable wreath laid upon a head by a kind but alien hand.”

Source: Os Guinness. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Kindle edition. Locations 1092-1095).

The Realities of War

I wonder if you can remember the Gulf War of 1990-91? What are the most enduring images you have? I suspect that for most of us it’s the “smart” bombs. Do you remember them? Night after night our TV’s showed us images of laser guided missiles, bombs we could direct with an amazing amount of precision. Do you want to take out a factory making weapons? No need to bomb the entire area. Now we can send down a bomb, guide it through the air vents on the factory roof, and destroy the factory while leaving the surrounding area intact. As we stood in awe of this amazing technological triumph we took comfort in the fact that this war was one which would be fought with surgical precision, that would see only essential targets taken out, which would minimise human casualty.

Sadly, the reality was as far removed from this as possible. You see sometimes we targeted the wrong buildings. Of course, at the time we denied it, but 6 months after the war the Columbia Journalism Review got its hands on video footage that had been heavily censored during the war. It showed aid workers removing bodies from a shelter the Allies had wrongly identified as a weapons factory and taken out with one of the “smart” bombs. This is what the reporter who viewed the unedited video tape wrote: “They showed scenes of incredible carnage. Nearly all the bodies were charred into blackness; in some cases the heat had been so great that entire limbs were burned off, Among the corpses were those of at least six babies and ten children, most of them so severely burned that their gender could not be determined. Rescue workers collapsed in grief, dropping corpses; some rescuers vomited from the stench of the still smouldering bodies”.

Horrifying as that is, it’s only the beginning of the story. You see, smart bombs amounted to less than 10% of the bombs dropped on Irag. The “weapon of choice” in the Gulf War was the cluster bomb. A cluster bomb is a container that holds a number of smaller bombs about the size of a cricket ball. You drop it from a plane and after it falls a certain distance it releases its bomblets. The idea is that the bomblets spread out across a wide area and saturate it with bombs. 62,000 of these were launched from planes during the Gulf war, along with 110,000 by artillery, with their millions of bomblets wreaking havoc across Iraq and Kuwait. But in addition to the initial damage cluster bombs created another deadly problem. You see not all the bomblets went off when they hit the ground. Between 5% and 25% remained unexploded, lying on the ground until someone walked on them. So bad was the problem that at one point during the war the US had to halt its troop advances, because more of their soldiers were getting killed by unexploded bomblets than by the Iraqi army. But of course the armies didn’t take the unexploded cluster bomblets home when the war ended. They remained there in the fields of Kuwait and Iraq, fields that the children returned to play in. More than 1600 civilians were killed in the first two years after the war by these unexploded bombs.

But the story continues to worsen. You see it’s not just weapons that kill people, but the disease and famine brought on by war. When we bombed Iraq we took out power grids, water supplies and the roads. This not only stops the enemy army it also stops the transport of medical supplies, the availability of fresh water, the operation of hospital equipment. It is believed that 250,000 Iraqi men, women and children died during the war, and that in the years after the war hundreds of thousands more have died as a direct result of it.

Source: Information reported in John Pilger, Hidden Agendas and Human Rights Watch web site.

The Myths of War

Chris Hedges is a war correspondent. He has spent most of his adult life covering conflicts – in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, the Punjab, Romania, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. During these years he has had some hair-raising experiences. “I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by MIG-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers and shelled for days in Sarajevo…” he writes.

Through all this Hedges has gained an insight into war few of us ever will, and it disgust him. This is what he had to say in a 2003 article for The Nation. “War itself is venal, dirty, confusing and perhaps the most potent narcotic invented by humankind. Modern industrial warfare means that most of those who are killed never see their attackers. There is nothing glorious or gallant about it. If we saw what wounds did to bodies, how killing is far more like butchering an animal than the clean and neat Hollywood deaths on the screen, it would turn our stomachs. If we saw how war turns young people into intoxicated killers, how it gives soldiers a license to destroy not only things but other human beings, and if we saw the perverse thrill such destruction brings, we would be horrified and frightened. If we understood that combat is often a constant battle with a consuming fear we have perhaps never known, a battle that we often lose, we would find the abstract words of war–glory, honor and patriotism–not only hollow but obscene. If we saw the deep psychological scars of slaughter, the way it maims and stunts those who participate in war for the rest of their lives, we would keep our children away. Indeed, it would be hard to wage war. For war, when we confront it truthfully, exposes the darkness within all of us.”

Source: “The Press and the Myths of War”, The Nation April 3, 2003