Going AWOL

“Some day they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”

— Carl Sandburg

Military desertion is shameful and illegal.  It also depends on who you’re deserting from and when.

Last week, the Austrians, who had voted overwhelmingly to join Nazi Germany, and whose women hysterically saluted Hitler’s triumphant entry into Vienna and whose men enthusiastically joined the Wehrmacht and SS killers, did the right thing.  Its government officially opened a monument to thousands of Austrian men who DESERTED Hitler’s army during WW2.

The monument is out there in plain sight next to the President’s office.

It’s a massive three-level form in the shape of an “X” and two lines from a German poem, “All Alone”.

During the war the Nazis executed 15,000 military deserters, leaving them to hang from gallows at crossroads “pour encourager les autres”.   In contrast, only 18 German deserters were shot in WW1.   In 1941 Stalin issued Order 270 demanding all deserters be shot on the spot…and their families arrested; the Soviets executed 158,00 soldiers as cowards and traitors.

In Staffordshire, England  there’s a “Shot At Dawn” memorial to the 306 WW1 British  soldiers, most of them young and shellshocked, executed for desertion.  Australia and the USA refused to kill its deserters, unlike the French who shot over 600.  (See Kubrick and Kirk Douglas’s Paths of Glory.)

What makes Austria’s recent apology even more poignant is that for decades the country skated on a false reputation as a victim  not a beneficiary of Hitler aggression.  One of its former presidents, Kurt Waldheim, was accused of war crimes, against Jews and civilians, and lied his way out of it.

With less fanfare, today’s Germans also have “rehabilitated” its deserters, but so far I’ve found only one monument to them in Ulm on the Danube.  Must be a lovely city since it also celebrates Sophie and Hans Scholl, the brave German schoolkids who had their heads chopped off for handing out anti-Hitler leaflets.

There are at least two or three former U.S. military deserters, as well as some former service people, who read this column.

It’s no secret, since it’s on my web site (clancysigal.com), that during Vietnam I “aided and abetted” our deserters.   It was one of the richest and most complicated experiences of my life.

What the Austrian apology has done is not only to make amends but to open a whole can of worms.

For example, in the USA, desertion has a long honorable/dishonorable tradition going back to the French Indian wars, 1776, 1812, 1848 (when whole units, like the Irish-born Los Patricios, went over to the Mexicans), huge number of runaways north and south in the Civil War, the Philippines campaign, and wars One and Two.  Masses went over the hill in the “Good War” but only one poor schmuck,  the 28th Division’s Eddie Slovik, terrified of the Hurtgen Forest bloodbath, was shot on Gen. Eisenhower’s order.

Vietnam was the high point of GI antiwar defiance taking the form of desertion and RITA – resistance inside the army.  At one stage the equivalent of three full combat divisions plus supply units went AWOL.  Whole colonies of U.S. deserters grew up in south Vietnam especially in Saigon’s Cholon district where the U.S. military dared enter only in tanks.

Today’s military is different.  Long after 9/11 and war fever abated, you enlist in an all-volunteer force for career reasons, for an education or a fast track to legal citizenship.    The Pentagon issues various desertion figures, adding up to about 40,000 desertions since Iraq/Afghanistan, mostly from within the USA; there’s only one recorded desertion in combat.

Since Vietnam, when GI resistance (fragging, doping, combat refusals) wrecked the Green Machine and probably did more than the domestic peace movement to end the war, the government has been at pains to defang the act of desertion.

The Pentagon insists that AWOLs are troubled kids  who take off for personal reasons.  It’s true in a lot of cases.   Sometimes there’s a limit to how much chickenshit you’ll take especially if you hate your sergeant or just got a Dear John letter.  The interesting thing is what happens to these “troubled” deserters AFTER they stepped over the 30-day line into criminal limbo and find themselves, often for the first time in their lives, responsible for their actions.

The mother of the U.S. ranger Pat Tillman, former linebacker of the Arizona Cardinals, said that her son was moving to an antiwar position when friendly fire killed him in Afghanistan.  He was due to meet the war critic Noam Chomsky.  What would have happened, say, if Tillman, after leaving the combat zone, decided not to fulfill his army contract and had gone to Canada as a principled deserter?

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset