“Mercy and cruelty intertwine in war. Acts of compassion may coexist with pitiless depravity within just a few yards.”
The notion of mercy or humanity in war seems like an oxymoron. Still, as Cathal J. Nolan reveals in the above quote taken from his new book, Mercy: Humanity in War, there is quite a bit of kindness and compassion in wartime. Not enough to offset massive property losses and lives lost but enough to remind us that we are still human.
Approaching history differently
Nolan is a historian by trade, but as he told me in an interview, he approaches his subjects, often war, from the viewpoint of humanity and culture. Nolan, who teaches at Boston University, told me, “I wrote this book the way I teach. My courses are not traditional history courses or traditional military history courses. I think of them as courses in the human condition.” And for that reason, what he writes and teaches has relevance to organizational culture. Nolan explores the moral code that binds us together.
What makes mercy compelling are the stories. Some of the stories, like that of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who inserted his aircraft between the soldiers and the villagers of My Lai to stop the brutality, are well-known. Others, like the one of Lieutenant Fredrich Lengfeld, who sacrificed his life to save a dying American soldier in the Hurtgen Forest in December 1944, are not.
Each of these tales took on added life long after the incidents. Thompson returned to My Lai decades later and met survivors of the massacre. In 1994 American veterans traveled to a German military cemetery to unveil a monument to the memory of Lengfeld.
Moral code expressed
These stories give life to the moral code exerted in wartime, typically by combatants on both sides of the conflict. For example, during the awful trench warfare of World War I, there would be temporary truces. They were “frequently initiated, but not always by medical officers on one side and agreed to by medical officers on the other,” says Nolan. “And that’s to go out and collect each other’s wounded. So you have this bizarre moral circumstance where we’re trying to maim and kill you. And then we will pause this kind of mutual return to decency for a set period of time. We go out and recover the wounded, and often we’ll carry your wounded to you, and you’ll help carry our wounded back and forth. And then we resume try[ing] to kill and main you.” Absurdist, yes, but it happened.
Technology has made killing in war easier. As Nolan explained, warfare was up close and personal for most of human history. When soldiers engaged in combat, they would be splattered in the blood and flesh of their victims. (Think of the TV series Vikings.) Now warfare can be conducted from great distances. Yet, Nolan says, the morality of war has yet to evolve. We are still human, after all.
The concept of mercy exists deep within the human psyche. And in times of adversity, when inhumanity prevails, it reminds us that we are human. Therefore, we can act for the better good, even in the face of evil.
First posted on Forbes.com 00.00.2023
Note: Click here to see my full LinkedIn Live interview with Cathal J. Nolan.