Thursday, December 23, 2004
Sixty years ago today, Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the death sentence of Private Eddie Slovik, making him the only American executed for desertion during World War 2, and the first since the American Civil War for same. There have been none since.
Eddie Slovik was a ne'er-do-well. He was involved in petty-theft, breaking and entering and disturbing the peace. He spent time in reform school for stealing candy, cigarettes and some cash from the drug-store he worked at. After reform school, he went back to prison for auto-theft.
In 1942 he got a job, got married and appeared to be settling down. 4-F in the draft due to his prison record, it looked like maybe the settled life would continue for Eddie Slovik.
His luck didn't last. Due to manpower shortages and the need for replacements, his draft status was re-classified 1-A at the end of 1943 and he was inducted into the US Army. Bad timing for a guy who had trouble following society's rules. Two things worked against Slovik - he was familiar with prison life and running afoul of the law...and he didn't want to fight.
He reportedly didn't want anything to do with guns and had to be walked through grenade training by his instructors.
When he got to France, he "became separated" from his replacement group making their way to join the 28th Division at the front and spent about six weeks with a Canadian Rifle Company before being turned over by them to officers of the 28th. He was gone again within hours, turning himself in to the authorities in Belgium.
A lot of guys would have been afraid to desert. They would have feared the label of dishonor and the possible jail consequences. But not Eddie Slovik. A guy who'd been in and out of jail as he had wasn't afraid of consequences, and certainly not of being labeled by society as "dishonorable." During training, he had written to his wife:
During the war, 21,049 soldiers were sentenced for desertion, 49 of them to death. Only Slovik was executed. He was the wrong guy, making the wrong choices at the wrong time.
He signed a confession in which he insisted that he would leave again if forced to go back. He was offered, to the last moment, the chance to avoid trial if he'd just re-join his unit. He opted for trial, assuming he'd be sent to prison. He assumed wrong.
At the time of his final desertion, the problem of men leaving their posts, or suffering from self-inflicted wounds to avoid combat was a growing one in Europe. The 28th was about to engage in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest - a meat-grinder of a debacle in which many, many boys who did not do as Slovik did found their end. The quantity of mercy for a guy brazenly looking for the "easy" way out was becoming decidedly thin.
He was sentenced to death by a military court. The trial took an hour and forty minutes. The sentence was decided by secret ballot and voted on three times. It was a unanimous decision at each vote.
More bad timing for Slovik. By the time his final appeal came before Eisenhower, sixty years ago today, the Battle of the Bulge was in full swing, and thousands of young men who had stayed to fight were being overrun and mowed-down. According to Stephen Ambrose, "Eisenhower never backed away from his decision. He thought the case about as clear-cut as one could get."
As it was. At first they thought they might have trouble finding a firing-squad. They need not have worried. According to two of the soldiers who performed the duty:
He was executed on January 31 and buried, along with 94 other American Soldiers in a special, secret cemetery in France set aside for those shot for rape and murder. Graves were marked only with numbers - no names. His wife spent the rest of her life trying to clear his name, but to no avail. Not until 1987 did an interested party finally succeed in having his remains removed and placed next to Slovik's wife in their final resting place in a Michigan cemetery.
The reason I bring this up, though, is to point out the basic decency of America when compared to our enemies - even an America at war. Ambrose points out:
Imagine the difference in character between an army that 's cold enough to reward failure and human frailty routinely with death, and one that agonizes over the fate of one trooper. Why would men, treated mercilessly themselves, treat occupied people any better? It's no wonder that the Germans who looked to surrender ran west instead of east - Stalin treating his men hardly better than Hitler treated his.
After all, how could an army that fails to recognize the humanity in its own, be expected to recognize it in anyone else? And that is, in the end, another of democracy's strengths, a source of democratic nations' basic goodness - each individual and their family is recognized as possessing value - an individual that serves by consent of himself in cooperation with his fellows. No dictator could ever hope to have as strong a fighting force...or one that fights as humanely.
Today our armed forces agonize over whether every single soldier has the proper body-armor and safe vehicles. Our own forces investigate their own abuses, worry over whether a hood over a dangerous prisoner is a violation of their rights, an enlisted man can publicly question the Secretary of Defense and not fear retribution and it takes them over a year to bring a soldier accused of murdering his fellows to trial.
Our enemies recruit children, care nothing of whether they slaughter their fellow Arabs and Muslims nor how many innocents they murder and aspire to suicide as the only sure way of meeting God.
To whom will nations turn?
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