Columnists > Voices

The quality of mercy

Why Germans and Iraqis surrender to Americans

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

THE BIG SURPRISE IN THE WIZARD OF OZ IS NOT THE embarrassing exposure of the wizard as a two-bit carnival fraud, nor the final revelation of the tale as all a dream, but an incident involving a bucket of water and the climactic engagement of the forces of good and evil in the witch's own fortress. A pregnant pause ensues after Dorothy's misfire not only douses the Strawman's wardrobe but melts the mistress of malevolence to a steaming puddle at the feet of her minions. What will her henchmen do now? Unleash upon the encircled company all the vengeance of hell? Not a bit of it. A cheer goes up from the ranks of those long in bondage, and the farm girl from Kansas is hailed as a savior.

The big surprise after D-Day in 1945, when columns of Soviet tanks rolled into Berlin, was that the city was a ghost town-not merely because 125,000 Berliners had lost their lives in the siege, and others committed suicide, but for far stranger reasons: "... the great migration of Germans from east to west in April, when 8 million left their homes in Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia to seek refuge from the Red Army in the Anglo-American occupation zones.... [T]he demarcation line agreed between Moscow, London, and Washington had become known to the Germans during 1944, and the last fight of the Wehrmacht in the west was motivated by the urge to hold open the line of retreat across the Elbe to the last possible moment. Civilians too seemed to have learned where safety lay and to have pressed on ahead of the Red Army to reach it." (American Heritage New History of World War II, Stephen Ambrose).

The May 14, 1945, issue of Life magazine shows photos of those German infantrymen on makeshift rafts paddling their way across the Elbe River to deliver themselves into the hands of the Allies. "To most German soldiers, the sight of a GI or Tommy standing in front of them was almost as welcome an event as it was for the Allied POWs. Those who surrendered safely thought themselves among the luckiest men alive" (Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose). "The difference between being occupied by the U.S. Army and the Red Army was, for nearly the next half century, apparent to all the world" (New History, Ambrose).

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A big surprise for me in the holy chronicles of the wars of ancient Israel is a little-noted concession in the mouths of the officials of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram. After breathing threats to their neighbor living peacefully to the southwest, Aram had launched a series of unprovoked attacks, all of which were thwarted by a God who turned out to be not only "of the hills" but "of the plains." In desperation, war-weary advisers counseled the pagan Hadad: "Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Let us put sackcloth around our waists and ropes on our heads and go out to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will spare your life" (1 Kings 20:31).

It is fashionable among many moderns, who show supercilious contempt for both the Bible and for past ages when men solved their differences through war and not peace slogans, to regard the international scuffling in the ancient Near East as undifferentiated barbarism. We are interested to learn that the ancients themselves did not so esteem the situation. In the backhanded compliment from Hadad's cronies (there's nothing like praise from your enemies!), we are given to learn of a reputation of one nation in the neighborhood of the Tigris and Euphrates, a nation under charter to God, a nation given grudging praise for being more merciful and morally different from the rest of the pack.

Be not proud. America has had its inglorious episodes, to be sure. America has given aid and comfort to some unsavory men; America also slouches toward Sodom, whose main sin was that she had "pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease" (Ezekiel 16:49). Be not proud, for we only ride the residual morality of our greater fathers, whose godly foundations are nibbled away at daily.

Nevertheless, be not ignorant either of the recurring fact of history that wherever a nation has been tempered by the word of God-be it ancient Israel or modern America-that nation is held to a higher standard. When she falls short of it, she is reviled by all. When she meets it, she is not praised, for it was only expected.

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