When working with military and law enforcement personnel in our Ethical Warrior and Ethical Protector classes, it is inevitable that we confront the issue of how we treat the bad guys — not just legally, but ethically. We define the Ethical Warrior as:
Protector of life.
Self and others.
This sounds very nice as a bumper sticker, but upon reflection we have to admit that caring about, much less risking our lives to protect, the bad guy is extremely counterintuitive. We are far from the first ones to address this issue of respecting (dare we say, loving?) our enemies, of course; the sentiment has been around for thousands of years. But it is still the toughest admonition to follow. Why? Because sometimes an act is so immoral, strange, illogical, uncomfortable, disgusting, and shocking, it is almost impossible to believe that it was done by an equal human being. But it was. Rather than try to argue this very emotional point intellectually, we tell this story.
The Story of the Japanese Prisoner
Most Marines know the story of Iwo Jima. One of the “dirty little secrets” of that battle was that Japanese did not believe in taking prisoners, as surrendering — even when wounded — was wrongly considered a violation of the warrior code of Bushido.
Unfortunately, some Marines began to follow suit with the killing of wounded, captured, or surrendering Japanese soldiers.
One day on patrol, Dr. Robert Humphrey and his men came upon a young, emaciated Japanese soldier in a torn, filthy uniform emerging from a cave waving a white flag. This, in and of itself, was unusual as Japanese soldiers rarely surrendered. One of the Marines on the patrol, convinced that this was some kind of trick, raised his rifle to kill the boy.
Humphrey found himself ordering the Marine to put down his weapon. A short, intense confrontation occurred between Humphrey and the Marine. But good order and discipline prevailed, and the Marine lowered his weapon. It turned out that the Japanese soldier’s surrender was genuine and he was taken safely to the rear. As it happened, the prisoner even turned out to be of some intelligence value.
Humphrey thought little of the incident at the time. There was so much killing before the incident — and so much afterward. Yet nearly fifty years later, when asked to share his proudest achievement, he cited this incident. He explained with words to the effect that:
“On Iwo Jima it was life or death every minute of every day. There was unavoidable killing every day. When I saw that Japanese boy trying to surrender and understood that this was perhaps the only time that I didn’t have to kill, I took the opportunity. I believe that action saved my humanity. Like most veterans of Iwo Jima who survived, I was deeply affected by the experience. Yet, I never suffered the profound depression and shell-shock (PTSD) that some of the others did. I attribute it to saving that boy’s life. Protecting my enemy, if you will.”
There is a saying, “detest the crime, but respect the criminal.” This perspective is not only for the benefit of the criminal, but also our own. There are negative consequences when we judge the value of people’s lives by their relative cultural or behavioral — or criminal — values. We’ll talk about the real psychological dangers of dehumanizing others in our next article.
In the meantime, please think about this story and its implications for the Ethical Warrior during this Holiday (dare we say Christmas?) season. We hope it is a safe and happy one for you and yours.