The Execution of Eddie Slovik

Every child learns in school that Dwight D. Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth president of the United States. Some Americans also know that Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. “I Like Ike” was not just a campaign slogan. Many Americans genuinely liked Eisenhower — many Americans except Private Eddie Slovik. And no doubt many Europeans liberated by the Allies also liked Ike — many Europeans except those Russian prisoners of war sent back to the Soviet Union.

Jeffrey Tucker has written about all modern armies being essentially totalitarian enterprises. “Once you sign up for them, or are drafted, you are a slave. The penalty for becoming a fugitive is death. Even now, the enforcements against mutiny, desertion, going AWOL, or what have you, are never questioned.”

One notable example of a man who paid the ultimate price for wanting to change his job, a job that he never asked for in the first place, was Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik (1920—1945). Slovik was a private in the U.S. Army during World War II. Today, January 31, marks the 60th anniversary of his execution by firing squad for desertion. There were 21,049 soldiers sentenced for desertion during WWII, with 49 of them receiving death sentences. However, only Slovik’s death sentence was carried out. He was the first U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. He was also the last, but that may soon change when Rumsfeld and Company decide to make an example of U.S. soldiers who choose to no longer participate in the war in Iraq.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Slovik was a small-time thief and ex-convict who was originally classified as unfit for military service. But shortly after his first wedding anniversary, in November of 1943, he was drafted anyway. Then, after training for a few months at Camp Wolters in Texas, he was sent to France in August of 1944. Slovik faced impending death in The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, where the American army suffered 24,000 casualties during the battle and an additional 9,000 casualties due to fatigue, illness, or friendly fire. After Slovik’s request to be reassigned from the front lines to the rear was refused, he deserted, voluntarily surrendered, and wrote that he would run away again if sent into combat. Confined in the division stockade and facing a court-martial, Slovik refused to return to his unit. On November 11 (Armistice Day), 1944, he was tried and pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of desertion. He wrote a letter to General Eisenhower on December 9 pleading for clemency, but on December 23, during the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower confirmed the death sentence.

Slovik’s life and death were recounted in the 1954 book The Execution of Private Slovik, by William Bradford Huie. The award-winning 1974 NBC-TV movie of the same name, staring Martin Sheen, Ned Beatty, and Gary Busey, is available on video. The trailer can be viewed here.

Captain Benedict Kimmelman, a member of the court martial board, wrote in 1987 that “Slovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example, the sole example, it turned out.” He considered the execution a “historic injustice.” Colonel Guy Williams, another officer on the panel, said that he didn’t think “a single member of that court actually believed that Slovik would ever be shot. I know I didn’t believe it.”

According to Bernard Calka, the man responsible for bringing Slovik’s remains home in 1987 from an army cemetery in France reserved for criminals to Woodmere cemetery in Michigan, “The man didn’t refuse to serve, he refused to kill.” Calka, a Polish-American WWII veteran who served as an MP during the war and a commander of a VFW post afterward, and later became a commissioner of Macomb County (one of the three counties in Detroit’s “tri-county” metro area), spent more than ten years and $8,000 of his own money to have Slovik’s remains re-interred next to his wife. Stephen Osinski, a retired judge who filed a formal petition for a Slovik pardon, said that he found “a virtual plethora of significant deprivations of Pvt. Slovik’s constitutional rights.”

Like Private Slovik, there are others who owe their deaths to Eisenhower. The repatriation of Russian prisoners of war under Operation Keelhaul was another shameful event of World War II. Russian prisoners liberated from German prison camps were to be returned to the Soviet Union — even though they did not want to go back to life under Stalin (our ally in World War II).

One historian with the courage to report this atrocity is Thomas Woods. In his important new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Professor Woods describes how Operation Keelhaul was also carried out on American soil: “At Fort Dix, New Jersey, hundreds of Soviet POWs, who fought with all their strength when they learned that the American government was reneging on its promise not to send them back to the USSR, were drugged in order to calm them down enough for them to be shipped back.”

The execution of Eddie Slovik, Operation Keelhaul, and much worse state-sponsored acts of terror during World War II, like the firebombing of cities and the dropping of the atomic bombs, are often dismissed even by opponents of all the U.S. wars and interventions since World War II because it was “defensive” and important that we “stop Hitler.” But was it defensive when U.S. forces (the Flying Tigers) attacked Japanese forces before Pearl Harbor? That Japan attacked the United States without provocation is another of the great myths of World War II. And was it so important that 292,131 American soldiers had to die so that the Communists could control Eastern Europe for forty-five years while the United States wasted billions of dollars fighting the Cold War? Our alliance with Stalin and the USSR during World War II was unconscionable, another point made by Professor Woods.

This brings up another question: Who really won World War II? Tragically, the winner was theory and practice of perpetual war for perpetual peace and the rise of the collectivist state, all at the price of true peace and individual liberty.

Does anyone ever “win” a war anyway? Many have thought not:

  • “War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.” ~ Georges Clemenceau
  • “One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.” ~ Agatha Christie
  • “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” ~ Jeannette Rankin
  • “For the people wars do not pay. The only cause of armed conflict is the greed of autocrats.” ~ Ludwig von Mises
  • “The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky.” ~ Solomon Short

Randolph Bourne’s (1886—1918) dictum that “War is the health of the State” has been quoted many times before, and I am sure that it will be quoted many times hence. But when people will heed the truth of this powerful statement is one of life’s great unanswered questions.