Last year, when I noted this story in the December 23 warm-up, I was asked if there would be more on the topic. Here is more. It deserves it.
During World War II, U.S. Army Pvt. Eddie Slovik was tried for desertion. On this date in 1944 he was found guilty in his court martial and condemned to death by firing squad. It was the first such sentence against a U.S. Army soldier since the Civil War, and Slovik was the only soldier executed for desertion in World War II. In the intervening years between then and now, his death has become a point of ethical controversy, never resolved, and generally debated before the public from an emotional rather than an ethical, legal or even a military perspective.
I was first told the story of Eddie Slovik by my father, a decorated army veteran and officer during the war. A fervent admirer of General Eisenhower, he still disagreed with Ike’s much criticized decision to allow Slovik’s execution by firing squad to go forward. Dad was not supportive of the command principle of using a particularly blatant example of a crime to send a message to others considering similar conduct, and having had several Eddie Sloviks to contend with under his command, he did not like the resolution of the Slovik dilemma.
I argued the point with him many times over the years. “The question isn’t whether it was fair for Slovik to have been shot,” I told him. “It was. The question is whether many more deserters should have been shot as well.”
Private Eddie Slovik was a draftee, and not a good bet to be a good soldier. He had been classified 4-F because he had spend time in prison for a felony (grand theft auto), but was deemed draftable as the Allied war effort required quantity even more than quality as the conflict dragged on. He was trained to be a rifleman, though Slovik claimed that he hated guns.
In August of 1944, the Army shipped Slovik to France to fight with the 28th Infantry Division, which had suffered massive casualties. When he experienced being under heavy fire for the first time, Slovik concluded that he would not make it in combat. Though the current trend is to say that he and a friend “got lost,” it seems more likely that they were hiding before they turned themselves in to the Canadian military police. The Canadians returned the two to the Americans after about a month and a half.
Slovik asked the company commander if “getting lost” again would be considered desertion. Despite being warned that it would be, he went AWOL, then the next day turned himself in at a nearby field kitchen. He handed the cook this statement:
“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I come to Albuff as a replacement. They were shilling [sic.]the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The flowing [sic.] morning they were shilling [sic.] us again. I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other replacements moved out I couldn’t move. I stayed their in my fox hole till it was quite [sic.] and I was able to move. I then walked in town. Not seeing any of our troops so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.R They turned me lose [sic.]. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their [sic.] again Id run away. He said their [sic.] was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR[sic.]
This was considered a confession of desertion (Slovik signed it). He was given a chance to retract the statement after being warned that the consequences would be dire if he did not. When the private refused, Slovik was confined in the stockade. The 28th Division already had many cases of soldiers deserting, and did not want another, so Slovik was offered a deal: he could still avoid a court-martial by agreeing to fight. When he rejected the offer, he was tried for desertion.
At his court martial, Slovik would not testify or even speak. His defense counsel pleaded “not guilty” for him. Witnesses testified to the dates and places of his desertions, and the signed confession was placed in evidence without any objections from Slovik or his lawyer. A member of the court again gave Slovik the opportunity to withdraw his statement and have all charges dismissed. Again he refused the deal, as he directed his defense counsel to answer, “Let it stand.” His defense counsel made no closing argument. The verdict of the nine member panel was unanimous and almost instantaneous. Eddie Slovik was found guilty of all charges, and sentenced to death.
Slovik’s appeals failed. It was ruled that he “directly challenged the authority” of the United States and that “future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge.” His final appeal was to Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. The Battle of the Bulge had begun, and the last ditch effort by Germany to salvage the war was causing thousands of American casualties, as well as resulting in the second largest surrender of an American Army unit during the war. Eisenhower upheld the sentence, never reading Slovik’s apologetic letter that ended with “To my knowledge I have a good record since my marriage and as a soldier. I’d like to continue to be a good soldier….”
The execution was carried out on January 31, 1945, with Slovik shot by a 12-man firing squad in eastern France. In death, Slovik became better known than most Second World War heroes. A book about his case sold millions of copies; there was a television special based on the book (starring a very young Martin Sheen as Slovik), a Broadway play, and many more articles, scholarly papers and more books. One particularly striking essay was authored by Benedict Kimmelman, one of the judges on the panel, who had an epiphany after being involved in the Battle of the Bulge following the trial. His experience caused him to conclude that Slovik’s execution was unjust. Though he did not deny that Slovik had assumed that his execution would not be carried out and that as a previous prisoner as a civilian, incarceration was something he could handle (while combat was not), the former judge wrote in part,
I railed against the injustice of executing one offender while closing eyes, as a matter of practical or political prudence, to the raft of new offenses committed in the Battle of the Bulge. Assign me to that court now, I maintained, and I would not vote the death penalty, knowing that among the thousands of soldiers engaged there had to be dozens or even hundreds who would fail. At the trial in November I simply had not had sufficient experience or understanding of that fact…
Since reading the transcript of the court records and the review process in 1979, I do not believe that any plea by me on Slovik’s behalf would have met with sympathy at any point in the chain of command. Minds were apparently closed from division upward after the conviction and sentencing. Going beyond my legitimate power would have meant rebellion of some kind. In addition to strong conviction, this would have required moral courage rarer by far than the physical courage called bravery, which the military rewards with medals. I am not now sure I would have had the moral courage to pursue the Slovik case.
Was it ethical to use a single, weak, vulnerable U.S. soldier as an example to make other soldiers more wary of defying their superiors and refusing to do their duty? The former judge (who was not a lawyer) found the execution unconscionable on reciprocity grounds. Kantian ethics, which declares it always wrong to use a human life as a means to an end, obviously condemns Slovik’s treatment, but Kantian ethics are never compatible with war. If it can be ethically justified at all, his execution must be found ethical by balancing both sides of a difficult ethical conflict. Warfare will always sacrifice the single soldier for the more important success of the war effort itself. With that perspective, Eisenhower’s decision to allow the execution to go forward can be justified. My father may have agreed, but he still disagreed with the decision.
Kimmelman had no doubts, writing at the end of his article,
An official comment, undated, from C. Robert Bard, a colonel in the judge advocate general’s office, provides the following: “During the period 1 January 1942 through 30 June 1948, 2,864 Army personnel were tried for desertion….Of these, forty-nine were sentenced to death. Only one was executed.” Over a six-and-a-half-year period, then, reasons were found by those in higher authority to void the death sentences of forty-eight men found guilty of desertion. Only in Slovik’s case was no reason found. SIovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example—the sole example, as it turned out. An example is a victim. His execution was a historic injustice.