I’m often asked my “expert” opinion on intelligence and counterintelligence matters. I’d like to clear this up. I’m qualified to give expert opinions on three things: a very limited window of Russian history, political science, and aviation. That’s it. Though I write fiction about spies, I’ve never been one, and my “expertise” in that area comes from research, study, and a couple of resources I have who are experts in the IC (intelligence community). So, I don’t give “expert” opinions on matters involving the IC.
Because of my 30+ years in government, I will hold forth on matters related to the government’s operation and politicians in general. Being the daughter of a military man, I have opinions about military service as well, i.e., I don’t worship military service as holy. I see it as a calling to some, and when we ask of our troops to go into dangerous situations, we should certainly appreciate them for it and provide them everything promised them when they volunteered.
In 1943, my father didn’t volunteer. When he knew he was likely to be drafted, he enlisted at 17. By the time he was 18 he was in the Battle of the Bulge. He had participated in the liberation of concentration and POW camps. He had been assigned to “watch over” German soldiers who’d surrendered. He later was part of a security detail at the Nuremberg trials.
He talked about little of this, though when any of this was covered in a history class, he’d answer questions I posed but with scant detail. Except in one instance.
In early 1945 when it became evident Germany could not win a two-front war and with the Soviets pushing from the east and the Americans and British pushing from the west, many German commanders had a tough decision: surrender to the Soviets, whose country they’d invaded and whose cities they’d besieged at the cost of millions of Russian lives, or the Americans, who were likely more angry with the Japanese than the Germans.
The Germans wanted no part of the Russians in a surrender; the Russians had a lot of grievances to settle. And so it was the Americans. My father talked of the hundreds of prisoners he and his fellow soldiers in the Third Army encountered. When the Americans made them count off one to fifty, the German soldiers wept: They thought it was a prelude to their execution–because they had done this with their captives.
Instead, in groups of 50, they were surrounded by tangles of barbed wire and overseen by armed sentries. They received from American soldiers, my father among them, loaves of bread and cartons of cigarettes, small but welcome comforts. There were, my father said, among the Americans those who wanted revenge, who wanted nothing more than to fire their weapons into those groups of 50 prisoners until there were none left alive. He admitted to having had those feelings because of friends who been killed, maybe by some of the prisoners.
But my father had taken his military training to heart. He understood the way we treated prisoners would reflect on any American taken prisoner before the surrender. Also, he saw among the prisoners, young men his age or younger, who’d been conscripted as he was about to have been, who, like him, followed orders to advance. It didn’t sit well in his gut, but he treated the prisoners he was responsible for with care.
Because it was the right thing to do.
I’m of the generation that grew up after World War II, in the shadow of a horrific war crime: the extermination of six million Jews in death camps established by the Nazis. In my adulthood, I was witness via the news media of war crimes in the Balkans, in Rwanda, and in other places around the world. It seemed this was a lesson we could not learn, that war, even though it’s repugnant and vile, does have rules, that you don’t target civilians, that you treat prisoners as you want to be treated if you were one, and more.
There are conventions and rules about the treatment of prisoners, and branches of the military have a legal process to deal with those who choose not to follow those conventions and rules. It’s a process that’s long been respected and has provided deterrence. There are also international tribunals to administer justice against war crimes or crimes against humanity. And they work, though the process may be tedious and protracted; just ask a few dozen war criminals from the Balkans who are sitting in prison right now.
So, you would think that when a member of an elite military unit kills a non-combatant, who kills with such impunity that members of his unit render his weapons useless and report his actions via the chain of command, who, instead of giving aid to a dazed and wounded teenaged combatant, stabs him repeatedly in the throat and poses for pictures with the severed head, this long-established process enforcing the rules of war would work.
It did until someone decided to intervene despite being strenuously begged not to. My father would compare that to Nazis who were never brought to justice for their war crimes or who were released after only a few years in prison.
And This Has What to do With Writing?
I’ve written fiction about my dad, about Nazis (past and present), and about war crimes (in the Balkans). I describe my work as being “ripped from the headlines.” (Don’t hate me; it’s marketing.) However, because on occasion my written work doesn’t fall under my three areas of expertise (see above), I have to read, to study, to ask questions of experts.
The reading haunts my dreams. The study frustrates me when it appears we haven’t learned. The answers to my questions aggravate and anger me.
And I write. Because the stories often have to be told. No, they always have to be told. Because if you get too bored to listen to this in a classroom, maybe you’ll pay attention to a story. Because a cavalier attitude toward war crimes is unacceptable; thinking neo-Nazis aren’t all that bad, that they only have a difference of opinion and maybe we should dialogue with them is unacceptable; and I want to believe that my father didn’t risk his life for nothing.
And I write. And I’ll keep on writing until you get it.