About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.
Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.
She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.
I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.
I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.
The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.
It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”