Battlefields are multihued with the red of blood, the black of sleepless nights. But in the end, they are marked by little patches of white. Bedsheets hang from civilians' windows. Laying down their weapons, beaten and exhausted soldiers wave flags of surrender. After the Battle of Yorktown, a British officer tied a handkerchief on a pole, an admission that his American opponents had won the War of Independence.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit using a flag of truce as a ruse to get the other side to drop its guard. The conventions marked just one in a long line of efforts to bring order to the most disorderly of human activities--to establish rules for how wars are fought, and especially for how they should end.
The link between white and a cry for peace seems to be intuitive. During the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces would wave a white flag as a signal to stop firing while fallen comrades were removed from a battlefield. The Greek historian Zenophon reports that the Spartans similarly raised a flag of truce to remove their dead after a battle 2,374 years ago.
In ancient times, the white flag's equivalent was the caduceus, a winged staff entwined with twin snakes. Perhaps it carried respect on a field of battle for being the symbol of doctors, those who minister to human suffering.
Soldiers forced to raise a white flag as a sign of surrender often can't forget the humiliation. In the dark days after Pearl Harbor, an outnumbered American detachment put up a losing battle for Corregidor in the Philippines. When they could fight no longer, their commander ordered that the U.S flag be taken down and a white flag raised, signaling their Japanese opponents that the battle was over.
Decades later, those who survived the Japanese prison camps gathered to honor those who didn't make it. The old soldiers insisted that the ceremony begin by lowering a white flag, then raising Old Glory.
That impulse can be experienced even by those otherwise devoid of a moral sense. When he defeated France in 1940, Adolf Hitler insisted that the French sign their capitulation in the same railroad car where the Allies had forced Germany to surrender at the end of World War I.
The Romans' word for surrender was dedito. Its meaning was clear: unconditional capitulation. The opposite term is peace with honor. History witnesses a continuing debate over which is the better way for wars to end.
Even the stern Romans could see the other side of the argument. When their Germanic opponents imposed harsh terms after a rare defeat, the Romans protested: "Woe to the vanquished!"
In those days, surrender often was accompanied by slavery. Ancient generals celebrated their victories with triumphal parades of their captives.
By comparison, Americans generally are modest and thoughtful winners.
Army field manuals contain strict orders governing an enemy's surrender. In military jargon, it is called a "capitulation." U.S. guidelines say that it "must take into account the rules of military honor." In plain English, Americans think a defeated soldier is still a soldier, a vanquished human is still human.
That doesn't mean the U.S. can't be demanding in laying down terms. In the middle of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Casablanca to set terms for the peace to come. They made it clear to Japan and Germany that there was only one alternative: complete and unconditional surrender.
They were anxious to avoid a rerun of World War I, which ended with the Germans asking for an "armistice," a timeout rather than a surrender. Afterward, Hitler played a kind of word game, preaching to his followers that a timeout implies the right to resume the fight.
Yet having insisted on total surrender, the U.S. didn't lord it over defeated opponents. The U.S. got Germany and Japan on their feet again.
It is a tradition that goes back to the Civil War. That bloody conflict ended in a famed scene at Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant read the surrender terms to Gen. Robert E. Lee. The Confederate leader noted that his men were being forced to give up the horses they had ridden to battle and that they would need to get their farm fields planted again.
Grant replied that he couldn't alter the written surrender document. But he would tell his officers to wink when their Confederate counterparts departed from the surrender ceremonies, on horseback.
"This will have the best possible effect upon the men," Lee said. "It will be very gratifying and will do much towards conciliating our people."