Jan 31, 2012

War is a glorious thing, isn't it, Private Slovik?

They've taken off his buttons off an' cut his stripes away,
An' they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.

On this day, 1945, The United States Army shot one of its own. In eastern France, twelve soldiers, combat veterans,  aimed M1 Garands at the heart of coward Eddie Slovik of Detroit. All eleven rounds found a mark on the slight body. Officers had humanely loaded one of the rifles with a blank in deference to the polite fiction that  each of the soldiers could believe that he, personally, did  not kill the deserter.

"What are the bugles blowin' for?" said Files-on-Parade.

No bugles sounded for the execution of Private Slovik who had run from his comrades as they  readied themselves for further blood-letting in the Hurtgen  Forest. The regiment was not massed,  no flags flew proudly in a hollow square. No national nor military honor was proclaimed as the  saddest of Sad Sacks was lashed to a six-by-six timber in a dreary courtyard. One can fairly read the accounts of that morning near Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines as memoirs of a sordid act by the citizens of the United States of America, perhaps necessary, perhaps not.

Private Slovik was not the stuff of which memorable characters are made. His letters to his wife reveal one of those genetic mishaps, a personhood barely fitted for survival even in circumstances more benign than military combat.

HIs youth was a mosaic of weakness, thievery, drunkenness, jail, and general failure. It  extended even to being declared unfit for military service. His final misfortune began when he was scraped from the bottom in the last troll for cannon fodder, reclassified as suitable to be shot at, drafted, trained after a fashion, and shipped out to slay the Hun in the final allied drives of World War Two.

His bad luck accelerated when SHAEF -- Eisenhower and his staff -- added fear of mass desertions to their other worries at about the time when Eddie turned tail, wrote a confession, and hoped he would spend the rest of the war safely in a warm stockade alongside all the others who did what he did. The court-martial and the chain of command, apparently expecting the Supreme Commander to commute, ordered the firing squad. But Eisenhower said "shoot him." Not because he murdered, like Danny Deever, but:

Pour encourager les autres.

To valor.

It is written that Private Slovik died well and with courage in the minutes before he was buried in a hidden grave, marked only by code number. As to les autres?

...The regiment's in column, an' they're marchin' us away; 
Ho! the young recruits are shakin', an' they'll want their beer to-day, 

After hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.

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