Honor Thy Fiction

On December 20, 1943, a 22-year-old bomber pilot named Charlie Brown was in trouble over Germany. He and his newly formed unit were returning from their first mission, a successful one that took out a munitions factory in the heart of enemy territory. But before they got away, German planes strafed Brown’s B-17, tearing it up and wounding several of the crew.
Brown himself was knocked out and recovered only at the last moment to prevent a fatal nose dive.
Now desperate to get his limping plane back to England, Brown looked to his right and, to his horror, saw a German Messerschmitt tracking right with him.
What Brown didn’t know at the time was that the German pilot was Franz Stigler, an ace, who was one kill short of number 23. That would have garnered him the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II.
Here’s something else Brown did not know. Stigler had been schooled in the old warrior code that you fight with honor. He was told by his commanding officer never to shoot at an enemy in distress, like a flyer going down with a parachute. The reason? “You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity.” (This was not Nazi doctrine, of course. But there were many soldiers who fought for the “Fatherland” more than for Hitler, and who had religious roots. Stigler himself was a Catholic).
Stigler had seen that the B-17 had no tail guns blinking, no stabilizer, and a blown away tail-gun compartment. He also saw a terrified tail gunner behind guns streaked with icicles of blood.
Charlie Brown thought the German would open fire, but instead saw the pilot vigorously pointing to the ground. Brown took that a signal to land in Germany. Brown shook his head. He and his crew all wanted to try for England.
Stigler yelled out “Sweden!” to Brown, but Brown didn’t understand. Now he was sure the German would open fire. So he ordered his gunner to take aim. When Stigler saw what was about to happen, he saluted Brown and said, “Good luck. You’re in God’s hands now.”
The stunned American pilot saw no more of the Messerschmitt. He and his crew barely made it back to England, but make it they did, with their incredible story. Only it was a story the American brass kept under wraps. They did not want to humanize the Germans!
Stigler kept quiet about it, too, because what he had done would have been considered an act of treason for the Nazis. He knew that if he’d been seen escorting the wounded Americans, and his plane number identified, he could have been executed.
After the war, Stigler emigrated to Vancouver. Brown continued his Air Force career for another twenty years.
In 1990, Brown decided to try and find out who that German pilot was. It was a long shot, of course. They were almost half a century removed from the events. But Brown gambled with an ad in a newsletter for veteran fighter pilots, stating that he was looking for the one who “saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He held back a key piece of information to test whoever answered the ad.
Stigler saw the ad in Vancouver. He yelled to his wife. “This is him!” He wrote a letter to Brown. Brown called Stigler on the phone and without even being asked, Stigler gave Brown the secret information.
The two men, both in tears, arranged to meet. They became “special brothers” for the rest of their lives and died six months apart in 2008. Stigler was 92, Brown was 87.
Their story is told in a new book, A Higher Call. You can read more about the men here.
Honor is a thread that runs deep through the human spirit. It is what has built civilizations. It is what prevents us from being a mere sub-section of the animal kingdom. And it takes a special kind of cynicism or pathology to snuff that out.
In my view, it is the storytellers who have the power to keep honor and nobility and sacrifice (and thus civilization itself) alive. It has always been so, from the ancient myths to Greek drama to the morality plays to world literature. I often deliver a keynote address to conferences called “Storytellers Save the World,” because in this sense, they do.
Think of the honor shown by characters as diverse as Atticus Finch and Harry Potter. It is a character of surpassing honor that keeps the Hunger Games trilogy from finishing up in a nihilistic, dystopian darkness.
Honor is the missing ingredient in much current, and ultimately forgettable, fiction. As the noted novelist and writing teacher, John Gardner, once put it, “The good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.”
Honor may be the very lifeline that keeps us from falling into that dark abyss. We are a people in need of honor, for our collective soul. And if we don’t keep that we won’t just be reading about dystopian worlds. We’ll be living in one. 
Honor thy fiction. Champion the sentiments that hold us together. This is especially important now, two days removed from the awful events in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many of you, I spent much of the day Friday in tears. I would hear more reports, think of the children, and weep again.
My wife told me about one little boy. He was with about fourteen other classmates and a teacher, holed up in a bathroom. He said he knew karate. “It’s OK,” he told the teacher. “I’ll lead the way out.”
That’s honor and self-sacrifice in seedling form. That is the hope for our future.
A future we can also affect with the stories we choose to tell. 
Choose well. 

27 thoughts on “Honor Thy Fiction

  1. Very interesting that this should come up as today’s post. I was thinking about the fact that I read far more non-fiction then fiction, and asking myself what seemed often to be missing from stuff I read–and for me one of the answers was the absence of a very distinct honor code.

    Being a product of the western era, I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that that aspect figures so strongly into what I enjoy reading. Indeed, that is why to me most of the modern western films have failed–not much honor, and a lot less hope.

    Perhaps it’s reflecting a general hopelessness among the population.

    I like reading for pure entertainment purposes, but I want to be challenged too. Challenged to be a better me.

  2. James

    Great story – had not heard that one.

    Your post – which I really enjoyed – reminded me of The Power of Myth (Bill Moyes interviewing Joseph Campbell).

    Moyes and Campbell were talking about myth and society’s need for it and Moyes said something like: So every society needs myths? And Campbell replied in the affirmative. And said something like: to see what happens when a society is stripped of its myths, just watch the news every night.

    After yesterday’s tragic events, it seems to me that Campbell is more right than ever.

    • JJ, as it so happens I was listening to the audio of those interviews last week, and you’re right about that quote. Myths are intended to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something greater. Because we need that.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve been shrugging with my first draft. The structure always holds up until half way through the book. By that time everything has drastically changed from when I first started and I feel lost.

    The writing hasn’t been easy. I want to tell an entertaining story, but underneath all that are the deeper questions about death and how to move on from people you’ve lost. But when I read similar books most of them are not asking their characters the hard questions.

    Personally, I don’t like to write easy, safe books, even if it seems like it would be easier sometimes, and there seems to be a lot of them out there. Yesterday I asked myself why I was so determined to write these sorts of books.

    Today I have the answer. Thank you.

    • Elizabeth, good on you. It’s a variation on what Steve Jobs said to John Sculley, to get him to move from Pepsi to Apple. “Do you want to make sugar water the rest of your life? Or do you want a chance to change the world?”

      Personally, I have not qualm about entertainment value. But one can also bring value to entertainment.

    • That’s an excellent quote.

      For me, the best books marry entertainment with a deeper meaning. I’ve read a lot of books that just entertained me, or just challenged me, but the books I still remember are the ones that did both.

  4. That’s a lovely story about the WWII vets and how they reunited so many years later. There are many tales like that of sacrifice and courage. Too bad the newspapers don’t report more on the good in the world instead of the bad. We all need inspiration that mankind still possesses a shred of honor.

  5. Fabulous story. Wars may be fought by the armies, but life and death is often an individual decision.

    And as the saying goes:

    “Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” G.K. Chesterton

    That’s why we need stories and heroes. Thank you for another powerful Sunday post Mr. Bell!

  6. Excellent post. It puts a finger on why I am so often disappointed by much of the fiction I read, especially the offerings in our genre in particular. There seems to be a deep and depressing thread of cynicism in much of crime fiction of late. It’s as if some writers are afraid that dealing with honor or goodness sissifies their stories. You can write gritty realistic fiction. It can be grim, dark and relentless. But without humanity, well, to me it is just crime porn.

  7. This post gave me shivers because I’ve just read Brian McDonald’s great book “The Golden Theme”, which also deals with how artists should be trying to portray humanity, and nobility in fiction is one of those ways art can set great standards for ordinary people to follow.

    I’ve spent a year working almost exclusively on technique and it’s really intriguing to move to another level and think about what I really want to be saying in my work.

  8. Back in the 80’s the Marines put out some pretty awe inspiring commercials to reach out to the kind of young men they wanted to recruit. They did not offer any benefits, made no mention of a career or college money and gave no guarantee of success. Instead they showed a man climbing a cliff to fight a dragon, or a red hot steel blade being pounded on an anvil. And made a simple challenge, “If you think you have what it takes, maybe you can be one of us.”

    Some folks think that kind of stuff is corny, but the fact is that the kind of men who are needed to fill the warrior ranks, see life in that kind of imagery as boys. I was one of them. In the Mairnes, unlike the others services as I understand, a significant amount of time is spent on military history studies which is basically just the retelling of the tales of mighty men of valour throughout the Marines tradition. Men like Smedley Butler, Dan Daly, Chesty Puller, Presley O’Bannon, who won wars by putting their lives in a secondary position to those of their men and the people they were sent to protect. And places like Tripoli, Chapultapec, Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Chosin Resevoir, Khe Sahn and others where men threw themselves against steel in the name of duty and honor.
    The stories of those warriors and others like them in other services and generations through all millenia around the world teach us what it is to have purpose, to fight for right, to sacrifice for a greater good. While the stories may well be embellished as time goes on, they serve to show that there is more than the comfortable world we long for, and the pain of service reaps greater rewards.
    To this end I think there must always those who carry on the tale of the warrior, the hero, the defender and protector. And there will always be an audience hungering for such tales. History shows us that any society that discards the tales of bravery and the concept of the hero will fall in on itself, until such a corps of heroes as those they disdained rises unbidden to rescue them from the dragon’s teeth into which they have slouched and builds a new legend of might for right.

  9. I will also add that “dark” stories (e.g., crime, noir, horror) can have, ultimately, something moral to say about life. My new short story, “Autumnal”, would be described as “dark” — but if you look close, you’ll see there’s a message implanted there. At least that’s how I intend it.

  10. Fantastic post. I’ve heard several war stories from WWII that ended with opponents becoming life-long friends, and it always impressed me. It’s easy when looking back on history from a distance to generalize and see an entire people as if it were a single being, good or evil, but that’s never the case in reality. Countries, societies, humanity is made of individuals, and it’s individuals who dictate the course of history. Even “small” people, if they do great deeds, send ripples through other people’s lives and affect the course of things.

    I love the John Gardner quote! He’s perfectly right, and having protagonists who are capable of doing honorable things, who are willing to make sacrifices, even in the darkest dystopia can not only redeem a story, they can carry it, whereas spineless protagonists are only a momentary curiosity.

    Thank you very much for this terrific post, Jim.

  11. Thought-provoking post. As a journalist, I find that readers are drawn to stories about crime and tragedy. The only thing that outdraws those dark stories are stories of heroism, persistence and generosity. It’s just hard to get people to share their stories of personal heroism, because those who do it don’t seek glory.

    • FL, that’s an honored old value, that one does not talk about one’s own heroic acts. My Dad was a WWII vet, and he was that way. He was all about the present and the future of his family and clients (he was an L.A. lawyer)

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