Ethics Quiz: Plot E

The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial is an American military cemetery in northern France consisting of four main burial plots, labeled A, B, C and D, containing the remains of 6,012 service personnel who died during World War II.

There is also a secret Plot E. It lies about a hundred yards away from the cemetery, and  contains the remains of 96 American soldiers who were executed by hanging or firing squad for serious crimes committed during or shortly after World War II. Collectively, they were responsible for the murders of 26 American soldiers and the murder or rapes of 71 British, French, German, Italian, Polish and Algerian civilians.

Plot E was established in 1949 to contain the remains of what the Graves Registration call “the dishonored dead.” It was deliberately hidden from view,  surrounded by hedges and located in a forest. Officially, Plot E does not exist. The plot  is not mentioned on the cemetery’s website or in any maps brochures.

The dead have small flat stone markers the size of index cards: no names, just sequential numbers engraved in black. Individual graves are supposed to be impossible to identify. It was not until 2009 that a Freedom of Information request obtained the full list of those buried in Plot E, and the names can now be found on-line, most notably on Wikipedia. One name of note is Louis Till (that’s his marker above) , the father of the 14 year old Chicago teen lynched for “looking at a white woman” while visiting Mississippi.

Darren Smith, Jonathan Turley’s weekend blogger on Res Ipsa Loquitur, argues regarding the strange and cruel burial ground:

[I]n addition to what is at least in my view a human right to a proper and named burial, a historical aspect is sacrificed in the anonymous enumeration of the dead whose history becomes lost to oblivion…[A]t what point does the punishment end? In the case of death of a convicted person is the sentencing extended to eternity through the erasure of the convicted from the human consciousness? Must they fall into oblivion? We would be rather callous to think that these men did not have children, parents, or siblings and were erasable…

[Former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War Robert] McNamara lamented how [ General ] Curtis LeMay proposed that if their side lost the war, they would be tried as war criminals. “And we were”, according to McNamara “acting like war criminals” in area bombing Japanese cities. The justification to this is of course based on one’s perspective and certainly which side of the pond they were born upon. Yet there was a great amount of evil done at that time, but it was often the leaders and policy makers who justified such actions who are honored with their own large memorials. Yet these ninety-six Dishonored Dead are ordinary soldiers, [have] no right to be named, it seems. Or perhaps these Dishonored Dead present a topic of a perpetual embarrassment to the American Military or government, one that is best forgotten. It is a hard pill to swallow that among the millions who served honorably, there were at least a hundred who acted with evil intent and greatly unbecoming a professional soldier. Yet given the aging population of those serving, I very much doubt that any living military personnel of WWII today can truly argue they suffer any affront resultant from the naming of these men. Seventy years ago, yes–today I think time has healed that wound.

We would not pardon these men’s crimes by granting them a proper burial, with name and epitaph afforded all other soldiers. But they at least deserve to be known.

Do they?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…

Is there a valid and persuasive ethical reason to provide marked graves and accessible burial sites for the executed residents of Plot E?

If your answer is yes, I hope you can come up with better reasons than Smith provides:

  • No, there is not a “human right” to a “proper and named burial.”
  • “The lost to oblivion” lament is valid, but also a relatively trivial factor that is easily outweighed on the utilitarian scale.
  • “At what point does the punishment end?” is another way of saying, “He’s suffered enough,” which is a particularly silly argument when one is talking about someone who is dead. (This the second time this ahs come up this week, and I realize that it belongs on the Rationalizations List. It goes on today.)
  • Smith’s contrived equivalence of alleged war crimes by U.S. military and civilian leaders with soldiers gratuitously murdering and raping during wartime is another rationalization, #2, Ethics Estoppel, or “They’re Just as Bad,” stupidly applied. No, Darrell, the architects of the Vietnam War were tragically wrong, but they were not the ethical and moral equivilents of these dishonored soldiers.
  • No harm, no foul? Really?
  • Time has healed what wounds? Have the families of the victims of the executed men been queried about that?
  • Why do these men who disgraced their uniforms and dishonored their country deserve anything, now or ever?

I know what Major Jack A. Marshall, Sr. would have said.

25 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Plot E

  1. It sounds like these 96 have their names known, and their final resting place is known. I think that’s all that is necessary. But if a family member / descendent wanted the remains and returned them to the U.S. for a burial, I would hope no one would stand in their way.

  2. ‘Grabbing around the waist and grinding against’ =/= ‘looking at’. Apple don’t fall far from the tree. Good thing he was stopped before he followed further in daddy’s footsteps.

      • Well, let’s make some lemonade out of those ridiculous lemons.

        Whenever I read through the ethics alarms heroes hall of fame (which I do when I’m having a bad day from time to time), the first name that always strikes me as missing is Emmit Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

        From making the extremely difficult, ultimately important, choice to having an open casket funeral from her son, to the years of dedicated activism after, to writing a book about that terrible experience near the end of her life, I think she’s a deserving candidate.

        I don’t know if you take nominations for the Hall, but I nominate her, if you do.

  3. Captured American flyers who had been bombing Chichi Jima (which was an island close to Iwo Jima that had a radar station on it) were summarily executed by order of Japanese Commander and had their liver removed so it could be eaten. After the island was captured by Marines, the commander and some of his staff were charged with “Improper Burial” and eventually executed.

    • George H. W. Bush was one of the aviators shot down during that raid and the only one not captured. His crew was killed but he was able to bail out and was rescued by a submarine.

  4. This is one of the posts which kept me on the Internet for some time doing research. Plot E was new to me.
    No problem on the ethical question; those remains are fine right where they are, absent a successful legal petition for removal to another cemetery.
    But, a couple of thoughts.
    The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for maintaining cemeteries such as Oise-Aisne. I searched on their site for a few names from the Wikipedia article; no results. Presumably, next of kin were notified at the time, but shouldn’t the ABMC make public the information on those executed?
    The Wikipedia article says (accurately, I believe) that those executed were dishonorably discharged the day before they were executed. That made them civilians. By what right does the military execute civilians? Well, I read far enough to answer my own question. The Uniform Code of Military Justice at the time granted military jurisdiction over those convicted of serious crimes even after discharge.
    There are a couple of interesting links (#s 12 & 13) at the end of the Wikipedia article, about the crimes, the executions, and one other set of remains that were returned to the U.S.

  5. Simple Golden Rule. The grave marker is for the survivors as much as (more so) for the deceased. The nature of the injury is apparent in its very act. The Government left them unmarked in order to cause injury. That is the flip-side of saying he has suffered enough; the Government provides ongoing punishment. It has been used for millenia. But who is injured by that? The survivors. (Caveat: where the grave will become a place to stoke violence or be a target of violence, an anonymous burial (like OBL’s burial at sea) might be warranted.

    This is a lesson as old as the encounter between Achilles and Priam. Priam went to Achilles to beg for the body of his son, Hector. He asked Achilles to remember his father, Pileus, who hoped one day to see Achilles again. Achilles knows that he never will. He takes pity on Priam and releases Hector’s body to him for proper burial. That is what Achilles would want for himself and his father. Yet, thousand of years later, that lesson still has not stuck.

    If I were kind, I would mark every grave, along with the reason for their execution. I would advertise why it is a separate plot. Separate from those who fought and died honorably. But, every one of those individuals served their country, my country. Bad apples though they were, I have tacit respect for those professions whose members put themselves at risk for the safety of other (police, fire and military). Some of these people may not have even volunteered. Regardless, they served their country; they should be acknowledged even if it is with ultimate dishonor.

    -Jut

      • Thank you, Jack.

        For what it is worth, it should read, “If I were KING,” not “kind,” a thought that is hardly plausible.

        -Jut

        • My favorite kind of typo! When she was typing my thesis, my mom, who was a wonderful typist, make mistakes that were impossible to pick up, because they were always word substitutions that made grammatical and logical sense, but weren’t what I intended. I read the thing out loud, and even then a few slipped through.

      • She said exactly what I was gathering thoughts for. No, they don’t deserve fancy burial on the dime of the people they harmed. But it is a kindness to their relatives, who are not guilty of those crimes. How can we remember and train the next generation what not to do if everything about previous generations’ errors is erased?

        I do not approve of the slave-holding common in early America, but forgetting the darker actions is both a dishonor of those hurt by it and removing the teaching point. Bad examples teach more than good.

        How many things people do today will be abhorrent crimes in a hundred years? Mercy in burial is for heirs, not the executed.

    • I think you could easily argue that marking graves along with the reason for the execution would also be a lasting punishment. I think using a numbered plate is a near perfect balance, a purgatory if you will. I think that, along with the ability of family to relocate the family member if so petitioned and then mark the grave as desired left the DOD out of an ethical bind. Executed deserter Eddie Slovik’s stateside marker states for example “Honor and Justice Prevailed”

      As far as bad apples serving and sacrificing, I think it’s one thing for your service to function as a redemption to bad behavior but wholly another to be a bad apple in spite of your service. It’s one of the reasons for being dishonorably discharged prior to execution.

      • “I think you could easily argue that marking graves along with the reason for the execution would also be a lasting punishment. I think using a numbered plate is a near perfect balance, a purgatory if you will.”

        I disagree. Speaking the truth is not a punishment. Marking the graves is the perfect balance. They are not buried the honored place, but, if the goal is to not honor them, they still deserve to be named. If explaining why they are not being honored is the way to balance those two things, great.

        -Jut

  6. “…every one of those individuals served their country…”
    Really?? Au contraire, they did great DISSERVICE to their country. They dishonored not only themselves, but the service and nation that they represented. No doubt their families stateside were advised of their charges and their fate. If they are truly “forgotten,” it is by their families who chose to forget them along with the shame of their criminal acts.
    Proverbs 10:7: “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.”

    • Well put. It could well be that many were not “good men” back at home. The families may be content to have them interred far away.

    • Yes they served their country. How on earth do you think they got there? How many of them arrived on D-Day? I am not going to commit the Ruddigore Fallacy, or even the reverse Ruddigore, but a single bad act does not wipe out 10 good ones either.

      And, to suggest that the families forgot them is ridiculous. First off, that same line of reasoning could be applied to all of the graves over in Europe. The families may be content to have them interred far away? It is a baseless assertion.

      Add to that, you have Louis Till. A black man accused of rape and murder. Serving in a segregated army. On its face, questions might be raised about the fairness of his trial. How many of the other 96 were black men? I don’t know, and, knowing nothing more about that, I will say nothing more.

      Add to that, from Wikipedia, “The circumstances of his [Till’s] death were little known even to his family until they were revealed after the trial of his son’s murderers ten years later, which affected subsequent discourse on the death of Emmett Till.” Yet, you say, “No doubt their families stateside were advised of their charges and their fate.” I have doubts. I also have doubts that a black family in the 40’s or 50’s would have the financial wherewithal to return his body to the states. It would probably be difficult enough for your average white family

      Add to that, you have a government that deliberately hid them away and appears to discourage visitors. They became a number. Why a number? Why not a mass grave? Why keep a record at all if you want to hide them away?

      I do not know, but I have a theory. They are given a number so that the Government knows who they are. They are not Unknown Soldiers. They are known. Our reverence for the Unknown Soldier is that there is a sacrifice for which no recognition can be made. The Unknown Soldier can’t be named; it can’t be identified; all that can be acknowledged is the anonymous sacrifice.

      If I am right in my theory, it is indicative of a petty and vindictive government. The government wanted to hide them away, much in the way Stalin airbrushed history. There is no good reason for that in a free and open society.

      -Jut

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