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.
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.