Kharma, According to Werner.
Gideon D. Asche
There was a time in my life that I wore a stranger’s clothes, and answered to a stranger’s name. In those days the lines between good and evil, west and east, Madison and Marx, were distinct and clear. But, my life was a complete lie. I’m lucky I can remember my own birth-name, and I am quite sure that I will someday be required to answer for my actions. I can only hope, “Because I loved my country” will be sufficient.
Professionally, I was often expected to make decisions that I had no business making. The rules were blurred, the deck was stacked and life was cheap. I won’t try to tell you I didn’t step across the line a time or three.
I was assigned to a multinational intelligence operation that included German, American, Canadian, and Israeli operators. I was a Team Commander with an 8-person HUMINT team as my responsibility, and I was about to step over a line I would never be able to justify to anyone, especially myself.
A soviet intelligence operator had infiltrated one of my operations. If left to his own devices my guys would be compromised and the local assets arrested. It required an immediate solution, but no acceptable solution existed. I was still required by my position to choose which bad decision would be the easiest to clean up and was the least likely to compromise our operation.
The most obvious solution was also the most effective and permanent, but it wasn’t something I would want my children to hear about. It wasn’t a decision most people would understand or be OK with as it involved civilian collateral damage.
As I said, the lines were blurred, and the rules were more of a set of suggestions.
I needed advice from a higher authority so I went to a legendary old Spook, I served under him before he retired and knew I could trust his advice. Werner was also an SS Paratrooper during the war and a secure grasp on the perils of combat command. Werner was my go-to guy when I was in a conundrum. He could always relate whatever issue we were discussing to some wartime experience and help me find an answer.
I shared my idea of a solution with Werner, and he agreed it was a sound solution and would effectively eliminate the issue. He also pointed out that it was one of those things I would never want to tell my mother about. It skirted the lines of morality and honor. He also agreed that it was pretty much the only solution sure to eliminate the problem albeit, with some collateral damage. Werner’s input was useless as far as helping me accept my own decision.
I was about to push it one more time in an effort to get something useful out of the old Warrior when he abruptly interrupted me with:
“It was the 3rd week of Advent, 1944, Ukraine.”
I learned early to listen when the Old Soldier drifted into storyteller mode. I always heard something that somehow made me a better person.
The Germans were in retreat. The war was lost, and the NAZIs were employing a scorched earth tactic on their retreat. Werner was part of the rearguard as the Wehrmacht evacuated Ukraine.
The order was given to search every farm and village for military-aged, or sized men, then summarily execute them so they couldn’t join the ranks of the Soviet Troops hot on the Wehrmacht’s tail. Most of the men were in hiding or gone. Werner hadn’t been in a situation where they needed to kill an innocent non-combatant up until that Advent eve.
Werner and his men barged into a farmhouse while the family was celebrating advent.
I knew Werner to be one of the best human beings I have ever met, and that Werner’s family helped hide local Jews from the Gestapo. Werner was conscripted into the Waffen SS because of his size and academic achievements, he had no choice. What he did have a choice about was what he did while he was in uniform, and that day he had a choice to do right or do wrong, to do something he could be proud of or hide from his own actions for the rest of his days. – it somehow sounded familiar to me.
Werner kicked the front door in and shouted, “HANDE HOCH,” then pushed the old woman at the door to the ground while two of his men charged into the room bearing down on the old women with their rifles. The family was celebrating advent. Rifle shots could be heard from the next house, followed by the wail of women in mourning.
Werner’s men ransacked the house looking in every nook and cranny for the telltale signs of a man’s presence in the home. The search completed; the trio exited through the front door, with Werner bringing up the rear.
Werner caught something odd out of the corner of his eye. Three of the old women were sitting on a couch like piece of furniture. Something didn’t look right, so Werner paused and, using the barrel of his Sturmgewehr, lifted the blanket to reveal a young man hiding under it as if he were part of the couch.
Werner’s orders were to shoot every male old enough to carry a rifle.
The pain in the eyes of one old woman told Werner it was her grandson. An audible silence overcame the room broken only by another officer poking his head in, asking if Werner had any luck, then bragging he exterminated 2 of the vermin in the next house.
Werner dropped the blanket concealing the boy just as the other officer entered. He looked over his shoulder and responded, “Hell no, these bitches don’t even have any jewelry worth keeping.” Before he left Werner kicked a chair over an exaggerated ruckus, then shouted obscenities at the women as he left.
Werner told me the one bright moment he had in Ukraine was the look of gratitude those old ladies expressed when they realized he was putting on a show and wasn’t going to take the boy out and shoot him. It made me proud to call Werner my friend… But that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Germans were facing heavy Soviet resistance as they tried to make their way back west, and Werner’s unit was overtaken by Soviet Cavalry. Running on foot in deep snow put the Germans in an “Every Man for Himself” situation, and that is exactly how they were acting. Werner was no different than anyone else – running for his life.
He came upon another German soldier, a man he knew. He was wounded in both legs and had been left behind. That wasn’t Werner’s way. He did his best to carry the wounded man to safety, but the Soviets were just too close.
As a last resort, Werner tried to bury both he and the wounded man in a tree-well. He climbed in and pulled snow in on top of the two then waited for the inevitable.
The sound of horse-hoofs and gear clinking told Werner the end was very near. Even without looking, he knew the Russian soldier had found them and was about to dispatch both of them to their God.
He looked up to see a lone soldier sitting horseback, facing Werner and looking directly at him. They made eye contact. Werner made peace with his God. Then a shout came from somewhere to the left, “Tovarich –Find anything?”
The soldier responded – “Just a dead one”
A response came – “Make sure!”
The Russian raised his rifle, Werner was looking directly into his eyes as he fired… into the tree above Werner’s head.
Never breaking eye contact with Werner, the boy made a gesture as if he was tipping his hat, turned his mount and rode away.
Werner realized he knew those eyes, he had seen them once before –scared shitless, hiding under a blanket.
Werner ended his story by addressing me in a raised voice parental tone that I knew well. “Gideon! – WE DO NOT HARM THE INNOCENT! It is the one thing that separates us from them.”
And I realized my old Colonel was scolding me for the order he knew I was about to give.
Werner refused to help me justify the decision to myself, and for that, I will always be in his debt, but as I look back, I have to wonder if he was right about there being anything, but the flag we served, that separated us from them.
I hope he was.
Cover image – The Scout in Winter, Crow, 1908, Edward S. Curtis