‘Making An Example’ Ethics: The Condemnation Of Eddie Slovik

Eddie Slovik

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.


5 thoughts on “‘Making An Example’ Ethics: The Condemnation Of Eddie Slovik

  1. What a choice: Roll the dice and see if you are killed in combat, or desert and see if you’re killed by firing squad or sent to Fort Leavenworth. Rock meet hard place.

    • Just one of the many reasons that conscription is unethical, not to mention a great way to virtually guarantee a suboptimal, low-morale fighting force.

  2. As the resident anti-pacifist, I have to say that I have even less respect for guys like Eddie Slovik than I do for pacifists. That’s saying something, since, like CS Lewis, I believe that very often pacifism is a cover for cowardice. At best, pacifism is unworkable idealism that’s going to lead to those who beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks plowing and pruning for those who do not. More often than not, it’s a cover for the coward and the shirker, who does not understand or does not want to understand that with being a citizen come not only rights, but duties and obligations. At its very worst, it’s a cover for would be cult leaders and opportunists who just want to get into some idealistic coeds’ panties. I remember when I was in college, in the local pacifist groups, the women outnumbered the men by 3 to 1, and I’m aware of two or three incidents of rapes by male members who talked the talk but really didn’t give two dove coos about peace, they just wanted an opportunity to get near young women, and get them into their confidence, so they could get them alone and have their way with them, then have the college authorities look the other way.

    Eddie Slovik was really not much better than these latter folks. He was only out for himself and getting home and out of this war as quickly as possible and with minimal injury. As you point out, all these events take place as the allies are facing the last great German offensive, which, but for the lifting of foggy weather (so that the Allies could exert their significant superiority in aircraft) could have gone much worse. While this is going on, the war in the Pacific is still not a sure thing. Although the Imperial Japanese Navy has already lost the majority of its competent pilots in the Philippine Sea, had its surface force smashed at Leyte Gulf, and is done as an independent fighting force, the possibility, even the probability, still looms that Japan is going to fight to the end, and by this time in a year all these soldiers fighting in Europe will find themselves invading the Japanese home islands battling the remnants of an army and a fanatical civilian population who have nothing to lose. There still remain half a year of hard fighting before Germany is going to be defeated, and the Allies still don’t know what they’re going to find when they liberate the camps, which we don’t need to talk about. A good chunk if not all of the regulars who started the war are gone, buying time for the American production machine to ramp up to full capability with their lives. By this time, everyone back home knows the stories of all the heroes who have gone above and beyond the call to move the war to this stage. Even principled pacifists have joined the war effort, some in non-combat capacities that still expose them to the front, like medic Desmond Doss, others in capacities that do not take them to the battlefield, but are no less dangerous, like the first American smokejumpers. In case you didn’t know, a lot of the first American forest and wilderness firefighters who jumped out of planes into raging fires were members of the so-called historic peace churches who sought to contribute, but not actually go into battle.

    Into the midst of all this comes a not-so-great citizen who already has a black mark on his record, and who, admittedly, doesn’t want to be there. Tough luck, Uncle Sam is not taking “no” for an answer at this point. If I was writing a story or a screenplay, this citizen would be made to see the light and grasp the idea that he has been given a second chance at making his life mean something and to go down in history as something other than a petty auto thief. Unfortunately, the fact is that people rarely do a complete 180 turn with their lives. Men like Alvin York, who went from drunk slacker, to religious pacifist, to one of the most badass battlefield heroes ever to pick up a rifle, and John “Jack” McCain (not the senator, but his father), who graduated almost at the bottom of his class at the naval academy and almost at the bottom of his class in submarine school, but turned out to be pretty damn competent when it came to actual submarine combat, are few and far between, and mostly known about because they stand out. Most people continue to act in accordance with their established natures, and eventually have to take the consequences of those natures.

    Eddie Slovik only stands out because he paid the ultimate price for acting in accordance with that nature.

    In peacetime, he might have been given the choice of army, navy, or prison that Jake Holman got in the movie The Sand Pebbles, and grabbed hold of one of the first two choices to avoid being thrown into prison. However, most likely the training would not have taken, and eventually he would have found himself out on the streets with a less than honorable discharge. In those days no one wanted anything to do with someone with a criminal record or someone who had been kicked out of the military dishonorably, so he would have found himself right back in his old ways, associating with other criminals. Eventually, he would have been shot dead during a robbery, or killed someone during a robbery and been sentenced to meet his end in the gas chamber or the electric chair, or at the end of a rope. And you know what? No one would give a damn that he had lived or died. Good riddance to bad rubbish, they would have said. Society has no time for those who won’t follow its rules, there are too many people to support who do follow the rules.

    We are seeing the results of different policy now. If society chooses not to imprison those who break its laws while they await adjudication, if society chooses not to even bother enforcing low-level llawsif society ignores and in fact lionizes bad behavior, then you get a breakdown in ssociety. Eddie Slovikj just happened to run up against society at a time when it had zero patience for acting like a piece of ggarbage. Your father was absolutely right when he said that the question is not whether he should have been executed, but weather many more like him should have paid the ultimate penalty. I have no use for those who desert or act like cowards, either when the country is involved in an existential struggle or when none of them have to be where they are as in today’s military. If you betray your oath, then you betray this whole country, and you deserve whatever penalty they choose to visit on you, including death. r

  3. There’s a couple of blank quote squares at the end of the post. Are they missing something?

    As for execution for desertion, I don’t agree with that in the case of draftees. I do think the book should be thrown to some degree, but it shouldn’t be “go out and risk your life or we’ll kill you.”

  4. The unethical conduct is in not executing the other 48 deserters who were sentenced to death. Had there been a consistent policy of carrying out executions, Eddie Slovik may very well have decided to stay and fight.

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