Photo Credit: Jewish Press

On July 14, 1943 two American soldiers were involved in killing German prisoners of war. Sergeant Horace West of the 45th Infantry Division shot a group of prisoners with his Thompson submachine gun. Later that afternoon, Captain John Compton ordered soldiers in his infantry company to form a firing squad and execute 36 captured soldiers. Lt. General Omar Bradley, who was their corps commander, ordered both men court-martialed. West’s primary defense was that he was exhausted and under tremendous stress. He was found guilty on all charges. Captain Compton, however, put forward a different defense.

Compton claimed that based on a speech given by Lt. General George Patton, his overall commander, his orders were to kill all the enemy soldiers that he could. According to Compton, Patton had told his men that if they get within two hundred yards of the enemy, they should kill him even if he wants to surrender. When word of Compton’s defense got to Patton, he claimed that his words were misunderstood and that he had no intention of ordering his men to kill prisoners.

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Although Compton violated the laws of war he was simply reassigned without punishment (he was killed in battle a month later). In the autumn issue of Military History Quarterly these cases were compared to a more recent case. In May 2006 in Iraq, soldiers from the 187th Infantry were found guilty of killing unarmed teenage and older male civilians. They claimed that their brigade’s commander, Colonel Michael Steele, had instructed that all men between 15 and 65 should be viewed as combatants and could therefore be “destroyed.” Steele claimed, that while he told his men to be aggressive, he never intended for them to kill every male. Unfortunately, whatever distinctions he had in mind did not reach his soldiers. John A. Haymond, the author of the article, concludes his analysis by emphasizing that: “Clearly, neither Patton nor Steele ever directly ordered soldiers to refuse to accept an enemy’s surrender or to murder any prisoners they did take. To that extent, the soldiers who carried out those crimes were fully responsible for their own actions. But these cases, separated by more than half a century, show how important it is for military commanders to avoid ambiguous orders that leave their moral intentions open to interpretation” (p.19).

After reading this article what struck me was that neither Patton nor Steele ever seemed to accept responsibility. They claimed they were misunderstood and that what they did say was fully appropriate for a wartime situation. While commanders have the responsibility to inspire their soldiers to action, they must also ensure that their soldiers act within the law. Thus, they must be forever vigilant about what words come out of their mouths.

While reading this article I was also reading a new book entitled, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, by David Robson. Robson’s essential argument is that smart people, due to their intelligence, are much better at justifying their mistakes, explaining away contrary evidence to their beliefs, and deflecting responsibility for their own errors. Reading these things has helped me understand the steps of the teshuvah process.

Teshuvah is divided into several stages. The first is recognizing that a sin was committed. The next are regret and confession, followed by a commitment to not repeat the sin. The question is why are both regret and confession necessary (according to the rabbis who view them as separate steps in the process)? It would seem that regret alone should propel the person to future commitment. However, from the military cases we discussed, it’s clear that people, even if they realize a mistake or sin was committed and regret that it was done, are not quick to accept responsibility. From Robson’s book we see that intelligent people (and I believe we can assume that both Patton and Steele were intelligent) are quite adept at deflecting responsibility. Therefore the confessional step becomes entirely necessary. Only recognition and regret that lead to a person confessing his or her role in the sin will lead to sincere future commitment. Without the confession, people can insulate themselves from feeling any real responsibility for the sin, and thus, find no need to commit to be better. After all, in their minds they didn’t really do anything wrong.

Whereas all people need to be careful of what their words may cause, leaders must especially be careful in this regard. And if their words lead to error and mistakes, leaders must be quick to focus on their part of the problem and rectify it as soon as possible.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah let us all do a proper self-reflection and identify how we might have contributed to people’s problems and pain. By regretting our mistakes and confessing our errors we will better ensure the likelihood that we will do a proper teshuvah and become a part of the solution.

Shanah Tova

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Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.