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The faceless enemy

I read a surprising story today that shows what happens when you remember the people you disagree with are human, too. This is the story of an incident that happened during World War II, over Germany.

From CNN:

The pilot glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision… a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.

The B-17 pilot, Charles Brown, was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy on his first combat mission. His bomber had been shot to pieces by swarming fighters, and his plane was alone in the skies above Germany. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead, his blood frozen in icicles over the machine guns.

But when Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, looked at the fighter pilot again, something odd happened. The German didn’t pull the trigger. He nodded at Brown instead… [He] 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 sight of a crippled bomber and half-dead crew drove a bloodthirsty German fighting ace, bent on avenging the death of his brother earlier in the war, to an act of mercy.

The story asks the question about what happens when we fight wars where we can’t see the enemy, and can conveniently forget they are human.

It happens online too. In effect, I fight wars. I never see the enemy. I don’t know if he’s a guy like me, who learned skills like evading antivirus software and finding vulnerabilities in systems and then turned bad out of greed, or if he turned bad as an act of desperation, trying to provide for his family. Or maybe he’s a bored and lonely 14-year-old kid, just like I was once.

And then I see forums where people, hiding behind screens, launch horrible written attacks at one another. They’re people who share common interests, but differences in opinion cause them to act like vicious, rabid beasts toward one another.

Here was a man who wore a swastika on his sleeve, who, upon gazing into his enemy’s eyes, forgot about the other U.S. pilot who had shot down his brother, forgot about the glory of the medal he would receive from downing the crippled plane, clutched his rosary, and saved his enemy’s life.

There’s a lot to think about there, much of it uncomfortable.

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