The Psychology of Surrender



A CIVILIAN (in the Army everything is so simple; for us there are only two kinds of people: soldiers and civilians) thinks that when a soldier caught in a trap wants to live, he has only to give up. Only! It is much more complicated. A man decides to give up when he has been reduced to utter hopelessness and helplessness and life is worthless, or when he has a last reserve of courage to take the final risk that surrender demands, or when he has enough battle experience to know how the trick is done with a minimum of danger. Far more is involved than the mere desire to get out the easy way.

One way to tell a new outfit is by the number of prisoners it takes. New outfits always take as many as they can get. The boys behave the way they would like the enemy to behave. They have not seen and heard enough men die; they have not fought enough to kill a man in cold blood.

The first two prisoners I ever saw were a young man of twenty-four and an older man of thirty-five. The older man was insensible; he didn’t care any more. The younger one was twitching, crying, crazed with fear. We looked at them with curiosity and loathing. We did not understand them. That comes later, when you yourself have to wonder how you might surrender.

They say our men get angry only after they see the boy they used to sleep next to, shoot crap with, swap troubles with, fall on his face with a piece of 88 in his head. They say the main motive of our men is revenge, personal revenge. You suddenly find this is a game you play for keeps; but somehow it is still a game, not a cause or a crusade or a conquest. This is part of the story. There are other things just as interesting about the game.

You are running or trotting or walking or pulling yourself with pain on a road. A burp misses you. The word “sniper” leaps into your head. You fall on your belly into the slot at the side of the road. So do the rest of your squad — ten men. A few more burps and you have a pretty good idea where the bastard is. A couple of men crawl out of the road into the field while you cover them. The sniper knows he hasn’t got a chance and doesn’t dare stick his head out of his hole to fire another shot. He has to jump out of his hole and surrender or wait for the kill. To surrender, he has to stick his head out, or at least his hands. Who knows whether he wants to surrender? If he crouches in his hole and waits, one of our men will reach him and riddle him full of holes or, more likely, fling a grenade ten yards away and cut him to pieces.

Now comes the moment when we know we have him. Should we give him a chance to surrender? Should the game stop for a moment to give him a chance to decide whether he wants to give up or to go down fighting? Obviously, that would be risky for us. He might choose to go down fighting — with one or more of us. You can not play the gentleman’s way unless you are sure he is a gentleman or a coward.

But even if somehow you knew he had had enough and wanted to give up, would you let him? Why should you? When he took a pop at you, he was playing for keeps with your life. If he won, it was your skin. If he has lost, why should he get away so cheaply? Why should he enjoy the luxury of playing for keeps when he thought he could plug you, but change the rules in the middle of the game because now you can plug him? Is it really so murderous and inhuman to put a few slugs into him just because you maneuvered him into a grave which he dug with his own hands? You have to feel a burp or a whistle or a whine or a thud miss you by an uncomfortably small margin to play this kind of game seriously.

The worst, the most extreme, version of this thing is pillbox warfare. A few determined men in a pillbox can cause a vast amount of trouble, hold up a battalion, — even a regiment, — lay down a fierce fire if the pillbox is well placed. At the cost of many casualties and much effort, you work around to the sides and button up the front, and at last the men in that pillbox know they are lost. The pillbox has become a prison. Every man in it has been sentenced to execution.

Some men in that spot will wait to die bravely. More will not. They will crack, and shake with fear. Instinctively, they want to run out, escape from the prison walls. Where can they run? That is sure suicide. Sometimes our men, instead of slipping the charges in the slots and blowing them up into a salad of cement and steel and invisible bones, walk in to take possession. A half-dozen cowering men wait an eternity inside. Our men walk out alone. That is when you really have to shoot men in cold blood, inside four small walls, and the noise of the execution rattles through the place.

Why not? Not so long ago, those six men thought they were pretty smart and well fixed in a cozy pillbox, nicely camouflaged as a haystack, with walls so thick the shells of your artillery bounced off like rubber balls. You managed to seize the upper hand, at some cost. If they won, it was your life. If you win, why not theirs? That is how a man thinks who has been scared to death but has not died.


A VETERAN will tell you other things on the practical side. Everything is so simple when you kill the enemy — which is, after all, what weapons were made for. Take prisoners and your troubles begin. Many prisoners have to be taken in open fields in the middle of an action. A machine-gun crew has been popping away at everything in sight and a lot more in their imagination. The game is up. They jump out of their hole. They look very awkward with their hands up and their heads bare, because they don’t know whether to step forward to meet you or to jump back again into their hole.

Suppose you let them live. What would you do with them? You cannot let them stay there. If you sent them back alone through the no man’s land of one or two thousand yards or more, they could pick up other weapons, jump into another hole, and go into operation again. Or, as soon as you moved out of sight, they could try to get back to their own lines. When the first troops advance over open country, everything is wideopen, pell-mell. So you have to send someone back with them. And if thirty or forty have been picked up, a platoon may have to lose three or four men to take them back under guard.

These prisoners have deprived you of three or four men as effectively as if they had killed them. Those three or four men, a few minutes later, might save a whole squad or turn the balance in favor of a whole platoon. If you had to make the decision, you would think twice if you had any sense or experience. You know you will need every man desperately before the action is over, and you could use twice as many as you have. How can you bring yourself to part with a single man when it may soon cost your life, and the lives of the men under you?

Suppose you are new at the game and you send your prisoners back under guard. In many circumstances, you have sentenced your own men to death. In the advance, it is very unlikely that you cleaned up everything on the way, especially if you jumped off in the dark, an hour or two before dawn. The enemy is lying behind you as well as in front of you. You don’t worry about those behind, because other friendly forces will take care of them. But that will take time. Meanwhile, a platoon of infantrymen may be sitting behind machine guns, burp guns, rifles, in a dozen holes which you cannot see before you are actually on them, and which you do not suspect until a shot gives you nervous warning.

If the small arms and automatic weapons don’t get your guards on the way back, the 88’s may have zeroed in on the route by then, because our follow-up forces are coming through the same way. Incidentally, when the shooting starts, the prisoners get panicky and run off in all directions. The guards are too busy trying to take cover; and even if they should fire at them, most of the prisoners will probably get away in any event.

What have you, the commander, gained by sending back your prisoners under guard? You should have known that the chances were only about even that they could get back. Meanwhile, you lost men whom you desperately need. Your men were lucky to get through in the first place. Why send them back with prisoners when they have nothing in their favor? The enemy has been alerted; anyone you have by-passed is tensely clutching a trigger, ready to let fly at the trembling of a leaf. And where, unless they do not know what it is all about, will you find men who will be willing to make the trip back with a gang of worthless Krauts who would have knocked them off a few minutes before? It is too much to ask of anyone.

The practical difficulties of taking prisoners are greatest for armored outfits. Such outfits are tightly organized and simply do not have the men to spare for the job. That is why, on both sides, a tanker’s life is cheapest. Knowing that tankers find it a nuisance to take prisoners, and do so rarely if at all, it is military policy never to take tankers alive. Once an outfit gets a reputation for not taking prisoners, it cannot expect any mercy. When the word went around that SS men, to show their toughness, never took prisoners, we stopped capturing SS men. Revenge feeds on itself, and an old outfit is willing to take almost no one alive. This is the secret of the absence of prisoners on the Russian front when the fighting was bitter.

There is one exception to all this. In a break-through, whether you like it or not, thousands of prisoners pile up. By slashing through for ten miles or more, inevitably thousands of enemy troops are by-passed or just passed. If you tried to stop to shoot them all, you would really miss the forest for the trees. In fact, you don’t fight at all unless you positively have to. You keep rolling, without firing a shot, as long as you can. In a break-through, you don’t take prisoners, but neither do you shoot them. You just ignore them or wave them down the road.


AN EXPERIENCED soldier — and the Germans became very experienced in this respect — obeys several rules about the art of surrender, whether he has ever bothered to codify them or not. Some of these rules are: —

1. Don’t try to surrender to an armored outfit. Wait for the infantry to come up. You have to be careful when you try to surrender to the infantry, too, but your chances are at least twice as good. When you see the enemy’s armor come up and you know you have to give up to live, find a dark hole — in the woods, a cellar, a church loft, a closet — and go to sleep or pretend you are dead, or do anything else more original to suggest you are not there, until the tanks have passed.

2. Don’t try to surrender to the first wave of infantry. They do most of the fighting and dying and feel it is unsportsmanlike to take prisoners. Wait them out, too, especially if your hide-out is not likely to draw attention. On the other hand, if you don’t have time to think of anything better than hiding under the bed, it may be better not to try to hide at all.

3. Make yourself as obscure as possible for as long as two or three days. By that time, the rear echelon will take over the town. It is well known that rear echelon men never die except of diarrhea and boredom. They would rather take you prisoner than kill you. You are the living proof they were really “in combat.” You might have been killed by anyone. Needless to say, the papers will report that the town was “flushed” out and several hundred prisoners were taken “who offered little resistance.” No one will know that you sweated it out for two days between two mattresses until you dared to make a personal appearance in the street.

4. Don’t try to surrender in the dark. To surrender successfully, you have to let the enemy know that you want to surrender. That is a very delicate operation. One of your thoughtless comrades — he did not think that one day you would want to surrender — made a false move. He came running out of the woods yelling at the top of his lungs. He threw his rifle and helmet to the ground with fervor. But when he saw only three of the enemy ahead of him, bunched up, he could not resist the temptation to toss a grenade — with which he had not parted — at them.

In the dark, the enemy has no way of reasonably assuring himself of your intentions, except possibly by your voice, which may be a decoy, and the sounds may be plain gibberish to him even if you are in dead earnest. Better wait unt il it is light and you can put on a good performance of helplessness and despair.

5. Don’t forget to take cover even if you are waiting to surrender inside a house. The first enemy troops to enter a hostile town start shooting the moment they sec the first house, and don’t stop until they pass the last one. They throw grenades into as many windows as they can. If you are hiding in a cellar, remember that no one wants to walk into a black space without a good assurance that it is empty or that you really want to give up — an assurance which unfortunately you are not in a position to give him. A desperate man, anxious to sell his life as dearly as possible, especially if he has found a cache of good food in the cellar, could plug him before he went down three steps. Anybody but a novice will send in a calling card before him in the form of a grenade, just to make sure. Therefore, it is not enough to hide out in a house. Try to find a place that will also protect you against a grenade if one is thrown, or a place where a grenade is not likely to be thrown.

6. Try to surrender in a group — the larger the better. Tt does not require too much of a psychological wrench for a hardened soldier to get rid of one, two, or three if he is not in a mood to take prisoners. But with the worst will in the world, most men will hesitate to stage a massacre even of the not so innocent. To knock off a crowd requires an SS mentality.

7. If there are many’of you who would surrender if only you knew how, try one and test the reaction. If you see that one of your crowd has given himself up without regret, you know the coast is clear. Better yet, let him explain that there arc a lot of friends where he came from and he can arrange to induce them to come out too.

(It is always amusing to see this scene. A doughboy goes into a house and comes out with a meek little individual who looks like a fellow caught trying to slip into the subway for nothing. This individual starts talking but he is understood only when he points to other houses. He walks into one and comes out with five friends, equally depressed. Soon the street seems to be filling up with prisoners equally relieved. This type of surrender has the stamp of safety and experience on the face of it.)

8. Surrender to your own prisoners. Admittedly the circumstances are special but it has been done. Often it happens that your side has had its own way for a while, but enemy reinforcements have come up and you know the end is near. In your better moments, you may have taken a few prisoners yourself and not shot them. If you give yourself up to your prisoners, they will probably be so giddy at the transformation of their own fortunes that they will haul you outside and march you down the road with all the pride of world conquerors. Since it will look as if you were their catch, no one else will interfere and waste any bullets on you. Your captors would not like the competition. This technique will almost always get you by the most terrible moment in any surrender — the first.

9. If nothing else will work and your chances of coming out alive seem so slim that only the most desperate measures can save you, try to wound yourself, the more seriously the better. If you obviously cannot walk or use a weapon, you cease to be a menace, and you can be left to rot where you are. Most men will not have the heart to finish the job. This method will almost always work if the enemy has been doing a lot of shooting and has to conserve ammunition.

10. In those awful moments when the first wave is shooting everything in sight, choose a nice, bloody corpse. Be careful to choose an enemy corpse. Lie down next to him, smear some of his blood on you, but don’t get so close that a running rifleman won’t be able to see at a glance that your dead companion is one of his own. You may benefit from a confusion of corpses. The man with the live rifle may get the idea that all the stiff bodies are corpses and were all on his side.

This last piece of advice, found in a German document captured in the Ardennes, shows that much thought and ingenuity have been devoted to the art of surrender by those who have learned from experience how hard it is.