In war, a trace of humanity


White is the color a soldier holds forth when he can no longer fight. It's the color the innocent wave to show this is not their fight, and please, please, do not shoot.

It is a powerful symbol, a universally known appeal for the suffering to end. It is recognized by international law.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit using a flag of truce as a ruse to get the other side to drop its guard. Yesterday in Iraq, that rule was apparently violated.

Lt. Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command said a group of Iraqis near An Nasiriyah, a crossing point over the Euphrates River northwest of Basra, waved the white flag of surrender, then opened up with artillery fire. As many as nine Marines died before the Americans prevailed, he said.

The Geneva Convention in 1864 marked just one in a long line of efforts to bring order to the most disorderly of human activities - to establish rules for how wars are fought, and especially for how they should end.

The link between white and a cry for peace seems to be intuitive. No one has to tell war's bystanders to beg armies to spare their homes by marking them with bed linens.

Battlefields are multihued, with the red of blood, the black of sleepless nights. But in the end, they are marked by little patches of white. Bedsheets hang from civilians' windows. Laying down their weapons, beaten and exhausted soldiers wave flags of surrender. After the Battle of Yorktown, a British officer tied a handkerchief on a pole, an admission that his American opponents had won their War of Independence.

During the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces would wave a white flag as a signal to stop firing while fallen comrades were removed from a battlefield. The historian Xenophon reports the Spartans similarly raised a flag of truce to remove their dead in a war 2,374 years ago.

Soldiers forced to raise a white flag as a sign of surrender often can't forget the humiliation. In the dark days after Pearl Harbor, an outnumbered American detachment put up a losing battle for Corregidor in the Philippines. When they could fight no longer, their commander ordered that the U.S. flag be taken down and a white flag raised, signaling their Japanese opponents that the battle was over.

Decades later, those who survived the Japanese prison camps gathered to honor those who didn't make it. The old soldiers insisted that the ceremony begin by lowering a white flag, then raising Old Glory.

That impulse can be experienced even by those otherwise devoid of a moral sense. When he defeated France in 1940, Hitler insisted that the French sign their capitulation in the same railroad car where the Allies had forced Germany to surrender at the end of World War I.

The Romans' word for surrender was dedito. Its meaning was clear: unconditional capitulation. The opposite term is peace with honor. History witnesses a continuing debate over which is the better way for wars to end.

Even the stern Romans could see the other side of the argument. When, after a rare lost battle, their Germanic opponents imposed harsh terms, the Romans protested: "Woe to the vanquished!"

In those days, surrender often was accompanied by slavery. Ancient generals celebrated their victories with triumphal parades of their captives.

By comparison, Americans generally are modest and thoughtful winners.

U.S. Army field manuals contain strict orders governing an enemy's surrender. In military jargon, it is a "capitulation." U.S. guidelines say that it "must take into account the rules of military honor." In plain English, Americans think a defeated soldier is still a soldier, a vanquished human is still human.

That doesn't mean the United States can't be demanding in laying down terms. In the middle of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Casablanca to set terms for the peace to come. They made it clear to Japan and Germany that there was only one option: complete and unconditional surrender.

They were anxious to avoid a rerun of World War I, which ended with the Germans asking for an "armistice," a timeout rather than a surrender. Afterward, Hitler played a kind of word game, preaching to his followers that a timeout implies the right to resume the fight.

Yet having insisted on total surrender, the United States didn't lord it over defeated opponents. The United States got Germany and Japan on their feet again.

It is a tradition that goes back to the Civil War. That bloody conflict ended in a famed scene at Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant read the surrender terms to Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Confederate leader noted that his men were being forced to give up the horses they had ridden to battle and that they would need to replant their fields.

Grant replied that he couldn't alter the written surrender document. But he would tell his officers to wink when their Confederate counterparts departed from the surrender ceremonies - on horseback.

"This will have the best possible effect upon the men," Lee said. "It will be very gratifying and will do much towards conciliating our people."

Ron Grossman is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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