Yesterday was the date in 1945 General Eisenhower authorized the execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik the only American GI ever shot for desertion in World War Two. Tonight’s Christmas Eve also marks the famous 1914 “Christmas truce” when British and German soldiers crossed No Man’s Land to shake hands, play soccer, exchange souvenirs and sing carols to each other. The High Commands and politicians on both sides swiftly put an end to that foolishness. Where would such handshakes end? Peace? Unthinkable. The war went on killing many millions.
Just before being strapped to the firing squad post at Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines an unrepentant Eddie Slovik told his killers, “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”
Eddie had an acute sense of class justice. He was also scared of dying in the Hurtgen Forest battle which military historians call an “Allied defeat of the first magnitude” because the commanding generals, Eisenhower, Bradley and Courtney Hodges, foolishly insisted on the fatal World War One tactic of hurling American soldiers again and again into what became a butcher’s shop of terrain held, and zeroed in by, the Germans. No general was ever court martialled let alone shot for his stupidity. Only poor Eddie had to pay the price.
His widow petitioned seven U.S. presidents to posthumously pardon Eddie; all refused.
Eddie was very clear that he refused to die in a battle that soon would produce, unnecessarily, 33,000 dead and wounded Americans. Call it a one man mutiny…or cowardice, depending on your bias.
Front line mutiny is the anti-Christ, a curse word, to rear echelon generals and politicians who send men and now women to their deaths. Half the French combat divisions mutinied in 19l7 after the bloody failure of the so-called Nivelle Offensive. Many of the mutineers were veterans of trench warfare who didn’t see any more sense in “going over the top” into storms of deadly German machinegun fire. The mutinies were kept secret from the public although many mutineers were courtmartialled and shot. (See Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick’s amazing ‘Paths of Glory’.)
In Staffordshire, England there’s a WW1 ‘Shot At Dawn’ monument honoring the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for desertion or “cowardice” under fire. The monument was funded by relatives of the dead soldiers seeking to remove the stigma of coward. Then-prime minister John Major refused by saying that pardoning the ‘deserters’ would be an insult to those who died honourably on the battlefield. Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, has a lot to say about this business of dying “honorably”. His World War One hero, Lt Henry, deserts at the height of a fierce battle.
We know about Vietnam where army, navy and Marine Corps mutinies probably did more to end the war than our peace movement. Since then the Pentagon wised up and ended the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army which in Bush and Obama’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen nothing like Vietnam’s impressive “GI resistance”. (Back then, in one year alone, the equivalent of three full combat divisions went “over the hill”.)
There won’t be a Christmas Truce in Syria or Sudan or Central African Republic nor will the Taliban or Sunni-Shiites pause for Yuletide mercy. Still, I can’t help fantasizing how fewer people would be killed if there were more desertions and more army mutinies whose basic aim always is to remind authorities of the reality of who dies for whom.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.