Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Are some people truly evil?

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This post is a response to a question posed by jilldennison in a reply to a comment I made on one of her articles. I felt it was a little too long for a comment there hence this post. You can view the original thread by visiting here. The following is a story originally told to me by my father on the rare occasions he opened up about his experiences of war.

My father was a platoon sergeant at a time when the front line was moving favourably for the allies. In an early morning patrol my father’s platoon stumbled across some 50 – 100 enemy soldiers who had taken over a school in which to spend the previous night. It was evident that they were unaware of how much the front line had moved, as most of the soldiers were in various states of undress and conducting morning ablutions in a stream that bordered one side of the school. Their weapons and helmets were neatly lined up against one of the school rooms and were actually closer to my father’s platoon than to most of the enemy. The lieutenant commanding the platoon ordered the platoon to advance to a slightly more advantageous position then on the command of my father to open fire.

My father ordered the platoon to stay put and under no circumstances to open fire. He made it clear to his men and the lieutenant that such an action was not only unnecessary, it was immoral. The enemy were clearly unarmed, and in no position to resist. Their best chances would have been to try to escape across the stream, but an embankment on the other side would have made them easy targets as they clambered up it. The morale of the enemy at that point of the war was very low, and often they viewed surrender as the best possible outcome regardless of any military advantage they might have.

The lieutenant and my father got into a heated (but whispered) argument which didn’t end even after my father was relieved of his command. My father never revealed what happened next apart from the final outcome where he paraphrased the official report of the incident, but it was clear that it didn’t go well for the enemy. The official report recorded that “heavy casualties” were inflicted on the enemy, and eleven combatants were captured. When asked on what happened to the rest, all my father would say was that a few crossed the stream and “one or two” escaped. Even when pressed he refused to say what happened to the rest. When I put it to him that they had all been killed, he refused to look at me and didn’t respond. Even I, as an autistic, was able to grasp the significance of his (lack of) response.

My question is: was the lieutenant and those soldiers who opened fire evil (a few, like my father refused)? If you say no, they were in a war situation, does that justify the slaughtering of up to 100 unarmed men, who, as my father described, “were sons, husbands, fathers, lovers, labourers, professionals, and most probably honest, decent people first and foremost”? If you excuse their action, then surely those who kill for different, but in their mind equally valid reasons, must also be excused. If, as in the case of the Christchurch mosque shooting or the Sandy Hook shooting, you consider them acts of pure evil, and therefore the persons committing them also evil, then surely the same applies to those who my father witnessed kill unarmed defenceless men.

If you believe one act was evil, but another not (and it doesn’t matter which you consider evil and which not) are you not justifying the event based on the premise that one group of perpetrators are “friends” while you regard the others as “enemy”. Do you not think that those who support the “enemy” might have the same mindset?

My father first relayed that story to me when he was in his mid to late seventies, some 55 years, perhaps a few more, after the event, and I heard it retold two or three times before his death at 90 years of age. There were minor discrepancies in the description of the locale between each telling, but not what happened, and as I last heard it perhaps 15 years ago, I can’t be sure I have remembered with absolute accuracy. However I am confident that the essential elements of the story are true.

In case you’re wondering, the lieutenant mentioned above was commended for his deeds that day. My father was court marshalled.

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Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

8 thoughts on “Are some people truly evil?

  1. Good story. It would seem like the least evil option in the case of the lieutenant would have been to capture the enemy forces rather than killing them, which should have been made much easier by their lack of weaponry. The whole question of what is acceptable or not in war is fascinating – we have rules for war just like for many other human endeavours and killing unarmed people does tend to be against those rules, despite the goal of war being to overcome the soldiers.

  2. This is a tough question, however it is not exclusive to this situation. As we know in Ukraine many civilians are being killed by field artillery, drones and tanks etc. These casualties are called collateral damage and in this type of warfare it is usually understood as being mostly unavoidable but rightly condemned by the world and rarely if ever taken into a court. I think this is a similar attitude and because they were military personnel it was completely justifiable whether they were armed or not. I agree humanity should come first, however the mental state of this officer we know nothing about and likely the majority of the men in the platoon would have witnessed many of their own comrades and mates killed or wounded over many years by enemy soldiers such as these, therefore they would have either willingly or not followed the lead of this officer. War will harden the minds of men who can only see this act as revenge. Good men like your father do not always stand up to be counted.

  3. no doubt there are truly evil individuals among us I am grateful that they seem to be few and far between for the most part. Individuals can choose to do evil/mean/vindictive things without being fully evil. I always find your blog is something to make me think deeper about whatever topic you discuss. Thank you!

  4. You’ve definitely given me some food for thought, my friend. Nothing about this is ‘cut and dried’ as I might have assumed in the beginning of this conversation a few days ago. Your father’s story is … tragic … heartbreaking. I’m no longer quite sure where I stand, am re-thinking some of my own views, but when I think of a man who walked into an elementary and murdered 20 little children age 5-6 … I find it hard to forgive that person. I find it hard to believe he had a ‘reason’ for his actions. Most species kill if they feel threatened or if they need food, but humans kill for so many different ‘reasons’ … and where is the line. Or is there a line? Good, thought-provoking post, Barry. Thanks.

    • One person’s “reasons” is another person’s “excuse”. My perspective is that if a person commits atrocities for no other reason than that they can or for fun/pleasure, then that person is evil. Otherwise it’s the act that’s evil committed by a person (or persons) who have in their minds a belief that there is no better alternative. I cannot imagine any reason that might justify the murdering of innocent children. The act was evil and unforgivable. Perhaps that murderer is evil, perhaps not.

      But if evil, could not the same be said of the firebombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atomic bomb of Nagasaki? Neither of these cities contributed significantly to the war effort. The target in both cases were the civilian population with the intention of creating terror. In the case of Dresden intent was to force the civilians to leave the city in droves thereby blocking/congesting the supply corridors necessary for the German war effort in the east. It had a military objective but used chaos created by a panicked civilian population to achieve it, and as a result 25,000 men women and children died – almost exclusively by suffocation due to the lack of oxygen as a result of the firestorm created by the bombing.

      The fact that both the bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki achieved their military objective should in no way affect whether one views them as necessary “collateral damage” or an “act of evil”.

      And if one argues that such action was necessary, even if horrendous, could not a similar argument be put forward for 9/11 which has a similar purpose: to use terror so that Americans would force the administration to change their policies on the Middle East. A military objective using the civilian population. In that particular case it backfired completely, and one could argue that it has caused even more suffering in the Middle East due to America’s response.

      My father once said “there’s no such thing as a just war – it’s just a war, the end of which will sow the seeds of the next”. I doubt very much that quote originated from him, but whoever first made that observation was very astute indeed.

      • The theory of just war has been discussed in many tomes. Wars of liberation have been considered to be just wars. But I agree with your father and those before who made the argument.

  5. I think it is in the Rebel where Albert Camus attempts to deal with this question. If the state can be allowed to kill, why shouldn’t an individual do it? And your father was in an impossible situation. While the course he advocated was the more moral one, the war situation breaks down most sensibilities and especially the propaganda that accompanies it.
    Are there evil people? I don’t know. Outcomes yes.

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