The Killer Watch

If you are the fan of a sports team, in some moment of reflection you have probably realized that your bias has led you to be overly generous in your interpretations of the rules of the game and of fair play to your own team’s advantage. A behavior that looks like a bit of mild, endearing larrikinism on the part of your own star player is pure thuggery when your rivals do it; proof of their moral as well as sporting inferiority. Most of us know we do it; the rest of us are liars. It is natural. Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. However this mental bias is a lot more dangerous when applied to nationalism and that ghastly theatre for which sports often provides a metaphor: war.

In 1915 Charles Algernon Fryatt, the commander of an unarmed British merchant ship, decided that his lack of guns was no barrier to participating in the British war effort and attempted to ram a German submarine that had surfaced to demand that he stop and surrender his vessel. The submarine, U-33, was obliged to crash dive, barely avoiding being torn apart by Fryatt’s ship, the SS Brussels.

Fryatt returned home a hero. At the time the British public and government regarded U-Boat warfare – presenting as it did a previously unknown risk to the foundations of the British economy – as unsporting and contrary to all laws of war and decency. Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord, had issued orders to the effect that merchant captains were to try to ram German submarines (more disturbingly, these orders also suggested that if it were inconvenient to take prisoners, German submariners could be executed). Fryatt, who believed that he had succeeded in sinking U-33, was celebrated in parliament, newspapers and Whitehall, receiving an engraved gold watch as a prize from the Admiralty.

To the Germans, however, this action was a breach of the laws of war in itself because civilians were not supposed to fight – even, as in this case, in self-defense. Throughout the war, the German Army engaged in licensed violence against civilians on the grounds that the civilians were breaching such rules. This practice had a precedent in European wars of the late-nineteenth century, when professional armies started to crack down on the age-old practice of ‘free shooters’, or civilian militias, engaging in guerilla warfare. A similar legal rationale based on the idea that civilians should who resist occupying armies are unprotected by prisoner-of-war laws supports American detention practices in the present day.

In 1916, Fryatt was captured by another German vessel, which destroyed the Brussels. On the basis of the inscription on his watch, he was tried by the German army for engaging in violence against their navy, and summarily executed (even though they knew that he hadn’t actually succeeded in killing any Germans). This was one of many German actions, especially related to the war on the Atlantic, that cumulatively built up a perception among the Americans that further intervention was necessary to prevent German atrocities.

Indeed, the death sentence was both disingenuous (because they knew he had not sunk U-33) and punitive. But the language of the time that divided the world into villainous Germans (and Austrians and Turks) and victimized Allies obfuscated a continuum of violence against civilians and against truth. After all, the Allies pursued an economic warfare strategy that had the same effect as that intended by U-boat warfare. Submarine warfare became one of those things like one’s support of sports teams: an atrocity when performed by someone else, and a necessity when you do it (its most successful execution in the twentieth century was by the United States against Japan in the Second World War). Civilians who resisted were heroes when they did it on your side, and either brainwashed or evil on the other.

Meanwhile, both governments were sending millions of soldiers to die far from their homes. The outrage on either side was a distraction from the industrial atrocity being perpetuated by both governments against their own people and the other side. In the end, too, the British were more successful than the Germans in an indirect form of violence against civilians through blockades, which led to millions of Germans starving to death in the last year of the war and the first of the peace. As Fryatt’s family joined the millions of others who were victims of the war, the moral high ground remained unoccupied in spite of the insistence of newspapers, governments and churches around Europe that they alone stood on its lofty slopes.

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