There are many ways to acknowledge defeat. Besides simply putting your hands in the air, probably the most universally recognized symbol is the white flag – which can also indicate a desire to parlay. You may remember a true episode in the movie Battleground, in which a representative from the Germans comes, under a white flag of truce, to demand that the Americans besieged in the Belgian town of Bastogne surrender. He is sent back, under the same protecting flag, with a one-word reply from the American general: “NUTS.”
That wasn’t quite the word the besiegers were hoping to hear. Other words, in various languages, have been more clearly indicative of submission. One was the Germans’ own surrender-word, “KAMERAD,” (meaning “friend”). But, to American ears, the clearest way of saying that you give up has long been to cry “UNCLE” – although the origin of that expression remains uncertain.
At sea, the crucial act of lowering your flag (“striking the colors”) has been the traditional means of indicating your wish to surrender. Hence, we hear about defiant captains who have ordered that the flag be “nailed to the mast” – indicating a determination never to surrender.
In chess, you can acknowledge defeat by knocking your own King over, indicating that you “resign.” In boxing, you “throw in the towel.” In cricket – at least in big matches between England and Australia – the losing side forfeits a mythical prize called “The Ashes.” This tradition goes back to 1882, when, after a major Australian victory, an English journalist wrote a mock obituary reporting that English cricket had died, and that “The body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to Australia.”
There has also been the gentlemanly gesture, usually between opposing generals, of handing over your sword. Unfortunately, and despite an appealing legend, though Lee wore his sword when surrendering at Appomattox, he never offered it to Grant, so Grant never had a chance to refuse it. But it was Grant – the conveniently initialed Ulysses S. Grant – who, through his stern termination of some previous engagements in the War, had already become known as “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
But what about cultures, such as the Japanese, in which the whole idea of surrender has been considered a disgrace? In World War II, U.S. experts on psychological warfare were called in to deal with this problem. They first tried printing special “permits,” which, with texts in both Japanese and English, said, “I Surrender” and promised humane treatment. But this widely distributed offer had few takers. Then they realized that the very word “surrender” in Japanese carried deep shame. The wording was therefore changed to say “I cease resistance” – and we’re told that this brought a much better response.
Even after capitulation has taken place, however, we must acknowledge that there are sometimes sore losers. A classic example of this occurred in 1919 – the year after World War I officially ended – in a sheltered body of water known as Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. Under the terms of the Armistice, the whole German surface fleet – some 74 ships, a magnificent prize of war – had been sailed, with skeleton crews, to Scapa Flow, where they were “interned,” pending a final decision on their fate. It was unlikely that any of those ships would ever be returned to Germany.
On July 21, 1919, on the command of their own senior officers, the entire fleet was scuttled – i.e., deliberately sunk. (Actually, this was just partly successful, and only 52 of the ships completely sank.) But what a gesture! Sore losers indeed!
But Adolf Hitler, who’d been a German soldier in that war, had his own way of settling scores. The 1918 Armistice had been signed in a railway car near the French town of Compiégne. That car had been preserved as a kind of victory trophy and lodged in a museum. But when war came again, and the Germans quickly rolled over northern France in 1940, Hitler sealed his own triumph by having that same car moved back to the same spot where that humiliating peace had been signed, and making the French representatives sign their own surrender there.
That war went on for another five years. If the Allies hadn’t insisted on “Unconditional surrender,” (which was actually Roosevelt’s idea, remembering Grant), it might not have lasted so long. Why didn’t they realize this would only stiffen the enemies’ resistance? Don’t ask me – I give up.