February 28, 2024

Encore: What Hogan's Heroes (and other WWII television series) can teach us about wartime military ethics

Every time I check on the most-read articles here at It's About TV, the Hogan's Heroes ones are always near the top. Therefore, since I've been writing about my Top Ten favorite series, it seems appropriate to honor the #2 show on the list with this piece from—can it be?—five years ago. And in case you think I'm reading too much into a mere sitcom, I counter that the best way to respect a series is to take it—and the issues it raisesseriously.

Xhen you’ve seen every episode of Hogan’s Heroes as many times as I have, you’re allowed to let your mind wander a bit. By now, I can identify each episode within the first ten seconds, can quote an alarming amount of dialog, know all of Hogan’s scams and how Klink reacts to them, and rest secure in the knowledge that through it all, Schultz never sees anything. It’s all as comforting as a warm blanket in the middle of winter.

So when you’ve seen, say, "Information Please" for the tenth time, you start to pay more attention to the little things, like when Hogan decides the only way to get rid of the German officer threatening their operations is to frame him as a traitor, and Newkirk, after listening to the plan, comments that "We really are a nasty lot, we are." And "The Assassin," when, after discovering that a Nazi scientist is in camp working on atomic research, Hogan declares, "We got to kill him," to which a startled Carter remarks that it "Just doesn’t sound like us, Colonel." And "Hot Money," which involves the Nazis setting up a counterfeiting operation, in which the lead scientist of the operation voices concern over the morality of counterfeiting even during wartime.

These represent some of the rare moments of genuine self-reflection in the series, when, even amid the absurdist humor, the characters dwell on the implications of their actions with an acute awareness of the consequences involved. Setting aside the fact that we’re talking about fictional people in a very improbable setting, you have to ask—what does it all really mean? The storylines in Hogan’s Heroes encompass a wide range of acts, including deception, misinformation, lying, and killing. How does one assess their morality during wartime? After all, just because we’re talking about a comedy, that doesn’t mean truth can’t be found somewhere in the midst. And not just Hogan's Heroes, of course, but other wartime television series as well.

To find the answers to these questions, I decided what I needed was an expert. So I went out and got one.

Dr. Robert G. Kennedy is a Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his area of expertise includes St. Thomas Aquinas, who did quite a lot of writing about the Catholic theory on Just War. Among other things, he’s presented on topics such as "A Catholic Analysis of Modern Problems for the Just War Tradition," "Is the Just War Theory Obsolete?" and "Is the Doctrine of Preemption a Legitimate Element of the Just War Tradition?" With credentials like this, I figured he was just the person I was looking for. He also knows something about military ethics as portrayed in television and the movies, which made it less likely he'd think I was completely around the bend. "It’s interesting, the questions that a 50-year-old sitcom can prompt," he said after I’d described what was on my mind; then, as a true scholar and gentleman, he gave serious consideration to my questions and rose to the challenge.

"The Catholic tradition since Augustine has held that lying—deliberately asserting to someone as true something that you know to be false—is always wrong. The key word here is asserting." For example, things such as acting in a theatrical performance, telling a joke, and so on, are in many cases not assertions; consequently, false statements on those cases are not lies. (Philosophers often debate where to draw lines, but that’s a question for another day.)

Addressing the question in "Information, Please," in which the boys frame a German officer, Major Kohler, by falsely implicating him as a traitor, Dr. Kennedy continued. "If Hogan makes a false assertion, he is lying and acting wrongly, even if the end to be achieved is worthwhile. On the other hand, if memory serves, the story line in these matters often involved deception (lying is a species of deception, but not all deception is wrong). Suppose Hogan 'carelessly' leaves a forged document someplace where Klink will find it, and Klink immediately draws a conclusion, as he was meant to do, that some officer or another is a traitor"—a fairly common occurrence in the show. "Or suppose Hogan, in conversation with Klink, asks a number of insinuating questions, planting the idea in Klink’s mind that the officer is a suspicious character.

"In neither of these cases does Hogan assert anything, even though he certainly means Klink (and others) to draw conclusions that are false but helpful to Hogan’s aims. In cases like this he has certainly engaged in deception, but he has not lied. Not all deception is morally sound, but in some of these cases it might be." He added, however, that deception intended to cause an innocent person to be harmed, even if it might not be lying, may still very well be immoral, a concern which Newkirk seems to be alluding to in his comments.

By now, I was beginning to understand why I’d wanted an expert.

In the episode "How to Win Friends and Influence Nazis," Hogan’s assignment is to convince Dr. Karl Svenson, a world-famous Swedish chemist working on a formula for a new steel alloy, not to give the formula to the Nazis. Failing that, his mission is to assassinate Svenson, which he’s prepared to do with a small bomb implanted in a pen. To understand the morality of such an action, it’s important to make a distinction—not between military and civilian personnel, as is sometimes supposed, but between combatants and non-combatants. "Some persons in uniform are generally held to be non-combatants, such as chaplains, medics, and perhaps even the JAG corps. But even here, the instant a medic or chaplain picks up a weapon, he becomes a combatant—which is why we generally have very strict rules against these people ever engaging in actual combat. The moment they do so, they contaminate the immunity of all other medics and chaplains. They can say a prayer but they can’t pass the ammunition.

"Strictly speaking, combatants are liable to attack, even lethal attack, even when they are not actually engaged, at that moment, in combat operations. The argument would be that they are still ongoing participants in the wrongful project of the enemy and therefore may be subject to the force necessary to impede their project. An air base, for example, is a legitimate military target, even at night when the personnel are asleep. But there are limits. Injured soldiers in a hospital are likely not combatants, soldiers on leave back home, even when wearing a uniform, are likely not combatants, and so on. In all this, by the way, there is the assumption that it is the enemy who is engaged in a wrongful project, not our own side. We also assume, while acknowledging that this is hard to measure, that the level of force applied should not exceed what is necessary to impede the wrongful project. So, we should not kill enemy soldiers if we can disable them; we should not disable them, if we can persuade them to surrender."

In the case of Dr. Svenson, "though a civilian, [he] is likely a combatant, even if a reluctant one. Even though he is not in uniform, he is engaged critically, if at some remove, in developing weapon components that could be strategically effective against his nation’s opponents"—such action means "he is directly participating in the wrongful project of the Germans and therefore enabling in a proximate way their combat operations.* Is he a legitimate target? Again, there are extremes but here we can talk about the distinction between pre-emptive action and preventive action. Pre-emptive action, which is often justified, seeks to neutralize an imminent threat. Preventive action seeks to neutralize a threat that one can imagine becoming real at some point in the future, but which poses no imminent danger. It is hard to imagine a situation in which preventive action can be justified.

*An analysis that could apply to “The Assassin” as well.

"So, what is the situation with [Svenson]? Is he on his way to deliver the formula for the new alloy to the Nazis or is he merely making progress on developing the formula, and might reasonably succeed, in a month, or a year or two? I would say that if he has the formula and is about to give it to the Nazis, then he probably poses an imminent threat and could be a legitimate target. But probably not if he is merely making progress. We would also want to know how important his formula really is and what other means might be available to prevent the exchange. The answers would address the issue of proportionality." In this case, Svenson tells Hogan that work on the formula will require "two or three month’s more work," to which Hogan replies, "I’ve now got time to convince you to come over to my side." The implication is that Hogan is prepared to do whatever it takes to make killing Svenson a last resort; it’s a wise—and moral—judgment.

Then there’s an episode like "The Swing Shift," in which the men infiltrate industrialist Hans Speer’s cannon-making factory, so they can sabotage the plant with explosives? Assessing this situation requires "sound judgment and attention to details and context," according to Dr. Kennedy; while extreme situations are often easy to resolve, "the closer they are, in fact, to the middle, the less clear they become." Given that factory workers are not automatically considered combatants, any attack, if possible, should be staged when the workers are not working. In "The Swing Shift," however, the plan is for the factory to operate around the clock. What then?

Dr. Kennedy compares this example to the bombing of the famous ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt* "Ball-bearing manufacture was a choke point in the German war industry, as so many pieces of equipment required ball bearings. Destroy the plant and war production would be crippled. It had very high strategic value, not merely a tactical value. A strong argument can be made that harm to the workers was justified by that strategic value."

*Ironically, in this episode, Hogan’s request to London for an air strike is tabled due to higher-priority targets, among which is—the real-life ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. It’s not the first time the writers got little details like this correct, and quite possibly the mention of Schweinfurt was designed specifically to justify the sabotage to Herr Speer’s factory (whose name, of course, is an indirect reference to Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer). 

Overall, these kinds of actions call for careful consideration. Examples of non-uniformed combatants could include “a civilian truck driver delivering ammunition to troops in battle or of a technical advisor helping combat troops to operate complex equipment, and so on.” However, Dr. Kennedy adds, "I am less inclined to say [that factory workers are combatants] in general. One issue here would have to do with what it is they are making? Is it bullets and cannon shells or army boots? Are they building ships or canning vegetables? We usually draw some lines with respect to the proximity of the support provided—the mother knitting socks for her soldier son is not a combatant—and whether the support itself is neutral (that is, not combat specific). In the latter case, we would likely say that the truck driver delivering groceries to a military base is not a combatant since this would be done without regard to war or peace.

"A second issue has to do with timing. Factories don’t move and in principle, therefore, they could be attacked when the workers are not working. In the Second World War, the British bombed Germany at night, when they could not see the target. Their reasoning was that it didn’t matter whether they hit the factory or the workers’ homes: production would stop either way. But Catholics would think that there is a very important difference here.

"A principle of proportionality has to be introduced: is the military objective sufficiently important to justify a certain level of genuinely unintended casualties? One test question is to ask whether we would proceed with an operation if we were bombing (let’s say) one of our own cities that had been occupied by the enemy, and the unintended casualties would be our own citizens. We are on more solid grounds if we could answer affirmatively, as the French did with respect to the bombing of their own railyards immediately before D-Day. At the other extreme, was the bombing of Japanese and German cities in the latter days of the war, when our objective was clearly to use the deaths of non-combatants as leverage to force surrender."

In summary, says Dr. Kennedy, "war is a very messy business. It always involves unintended casualties and collateral damage. Cases like these, and there are a great many, irritate people who want formal rules for all occasions. There are no such rules, which is why prudence is the preeminent practical virtue. And in the difficult cases, the decision maker often lacks some vital piece of information, so in the end we often do the best we can. Here again, the genuinely virtuous person, who will be less swayed by bias or emotion, is more likely to judge well."

By this time I was thoroughly exhausted, but also exhilarated and intellectually stimulated. I thanked Dr. Kennedy not only for his time, but his patience in answering what some people might consider silly questions that read far too much into light entertainment. Looking back on the discussion, it seemed to have justified my decades-long fandom of Hogan’s Heroes (which I think does very well when it comes to ethical choices). More important, it provides us something to think about whenever we watch depictions of war on television (or in the movies)—not to the exclusion of the program’s entertainment value, but rather in amplification of it, complimenting and enhancing our understanding of what we watch. Furthermore, the same questions can be asked of other kinds of shows: police procedurals, for example, or mysteries. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the most searing drama or the silliest comedy—they all play using the same set of moral rules, even if they don’t abide by them.

War forces terrible choices on everyone: not just the combatants, but those who issue the orders sending them into battle, the politicians responsible for making policy, the civilians providing support to their armed forces. We live with the consequences of our choices, and someday we answer for them. How right Robert E. Lee was, when he observed that "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." TV  

A special thanks to my friend Dr. David Deavel for providing the introduction to Dr. Robert Kennedy.


  1. I tend to be more Libertarian in my views on war and the military industrial complex. The horrors of war are never depicted in fiction as it really is. Crooner Tony Bennett, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, said war films should never be seen as an "adventure", but closer to a horror story. People who experienced that horror refuse to watch war themed tv shows or movies. And I understand that.
    So why do I watch Hogan's Heroes? To me its an alternate reality. The Nazis were the bad guys and needed to be defeated. I've never looked at the show as 'realistic' at all. Although there are moments that are truer to life than people realize. There were Sgts like Shultz. There were gullible officers like Klink.
    The British sitcom Allo Allo goes even further in showing that many Nazis were outright thieves and cowards. Many in the French resistance confirmed it was closer to reality than many realize.
    Even as "alternate reality", we still can't dodge the moral implications of it. Maybe that's why we call it 'fiction'.

  2. One more thought Mitchell.
    MASH always touted themselves as anti-war. But I remember one episode in the later years (when it switched from comedy to drama) in which Hawkeye, in a moment of reflection, had this to say (paraphrasing from memory): 'We're basically in weapons repair. We patch kids up so they go back out and kill or get killed themselves'.
    That moment of honesty (IMO) displayed the basic hypocrisy of the series. They couldn't dodge the moral dilemma staring them in the face. Can you be truly antiwar if you are part of the war machine?

    1. Ah, there's the rub, James. I could be wrong on this, but I think your distinction points to the difference between being a conscientious objector and a pacifist. A C.O. is basing his decision on his conscience, rather than a moral objection to war; thus, while a C.O. could serve -- as a medic, for example, or a non-combatant -- a pacifist could not. Again, I could be all wet about this, but that's how I'd understand it.

      And I think you raise a very interesting question. I don't consider myself a pacifist, but many's the time I've watched a war drama and wondered about the morality of training men to become, essentially, killing machines. You can't fight a war without soldiers, but geez, it's a helluva price to pay.

    2. Perhaps that's why the strongest anti-war films or TV show the price that is paid when you train men to be killing machines. As national memories fade, the true horror of conflict becomes re-invented in the ‘glorious adventurism’ of war for the next generation.
      There's a scene in the Britcom Only Fools in Horses that has the grandfather's reflections on WW1, stronger if you can hear it with his Cockney accent:
      “My brother George was at Passchendaele. Half a million allied troops died there, all for five miles of mud!
      I was at Kings Cross Station when his regiment come home after the Armistice. Most of them was carried off the train. I saw men with limbs missing, blind men, men who couldn't breathe properly because their lungs had been shot to bits by mustard gas.
      While the nation celebrated, they was hidden away in big, grey buildings— far from the public gaze! (chokes back tears).
      I mean, courage like that could put you right off your victory tea, couldn't it? (silence)
      They promised us homes fit for heroes.
      They give us heroes fit for homes.”
      That final phrase became a bitter line often repeated in post-war Britain.
      Oddly enough (or not) I once heard a guest on Fox "news" brag about a new housing program for vets called "homes for heroes".
      We never learn, do we?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!