"From 1939 to 1945 about 30,000 (German) soldiers were condemned to death because of desertion, war-treason and other offences. Around 20,000 of them were executed. The survivors, after the war, were often considered still as deserters." ("Der Spiegel" magazine, June 25, ’07)
The question why a person deserts is quite intriguing (and instructive). Is the deserter a coward? Does he or she desert to avoid being killed in battle? Could the act of desertion be highly moral? What does history "tells" us about this?
The feeling that to kill a human is an immoral act is probably part of the human nature. The only case that a human is justified to kill (or incapacitate) a fellow-human is in self-defense. This seems to be a truism. But, what happens with nations? Are nations justified to go to war in self-defense?
This is not the place to analyze the (general) problem of human wars; here we are interested mainly in the morality of desertion. However, we can examine briefly the case of self-defense for nations. Does a nation has to defend itself when another nation attacks it through aggressive non-provoked war? We shall restrict ourselves to accessible recent history. Hitler’s war was the epitome of aggressive war. Was Hitler entirely responsible for his war? Can we ignore the fact that the British, the Americans, the Soviets, and a great part of the European nations were admirers or (indirect) upholders of Hitler?
[Parenthesis: For example, in my native country, Greece, since 1936 there was a dictatorship that was a hybrid of Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's Nazism! The dictator was a rabidly pro-German military officer of the Corps of Engineers, educated in Germany, by the name of Metaxas. Elementary school kids, high school kids, and older youths had to wear uniforms of the Italian fascists, but they had to give the Nazi salute when greeting or obeying. Also they were trained to carry wooden replica rifles.
Then, in 1940 and 1941, first the Italians and then the Germans attacked and finally occupied Greece; their ideological relative! A comical outcome? Not exactly. Metaxas had turned torture into a...science. Of course, his methods were not as advanced as the US "waterboarding" of today, as they were more expensive, because he had to turn the water into ice and make the resister to the dictatorship sit on the ice, which resulted in necrosis ( local death) of the victim's tissues. It should be noted that Metaxas was a Greek Orthodox Christian, that is, again, not as advanced, theologically, as Bush the Second; a Protestant Christian.]
So, could Hitler have been stopped? At this point I should be permitted to refer to the following passage in a previous Commentary of mine ["UK & US Culture", March 07, '08]:
"On the basis of my personal experience I have concluded that, in very general terms, in any given population the ‘distribution’ of socio-political ideology is approximately as follows: about 30%, for a strange biological [?] reason, are rightists (that is crypto-fascists or even crypto-Nazis, but are called, simply, ‘conservatives’), about 40% consider themselves ‘moderate’ or even ‘progressive’ (but in reality they are scared people striving to make a living), about 15% are politically indifferent to the point of cynicism, about 10% are leftists (honest people with integrity and dignity), and finally there is the 5% of economic elite with their servant personnel ( the latter are called, also, politicians, military, etc)."
Now, suppose that the 65% of the Germans ("moderates", cynics, and the left), after excluding the rightists and the elites, were honest and courageous enough to actively resist Hitler, as they very well knew who Hitler was and what he was about to do. It is reasonable to expect that they could stop Hitler. The 65% of the Germans did not have neither the honesty nor the courage. Or, suppose that the 65% of the Americans did, actively, resist the US elites before Vietnam, Iraq I, and Iraq II.
[Note: The adverb "actively" does not imply violence. A visible and persistent dissent of 65% of the population scares the daylights out of the elites.]
Thus, we reach at the crucial conclusion, that it is the people of the attacking nation that are responsible for the need for self-defense of the attacked nation.
Yet, there are cases that self-defense for the attacked nation is justified and the decision for that rests with the attacked. Take, Iraq II of W. Bush II. We cannot surmise what the Iraqi people could have decided at the moment of the attack by Bush. It was Saddam who decided how to deal with Bush. However, they were the Iraqi people that decided to resist the US occupier. The result from that decision is before our eyes and it is possible that the outcome is not going to be in the "interest" of the US attackers.
Now, let us return to the deserter; the individual as a deserter. Did Hitler’s German soldiers desert to avoid been killed in battle? The chances to be killed in battle were in favor of the German soldier. Under Hitler the choice to desert was certain death. According to the Hitler dictum:"The soldier can die, the deserter must die". [There was no way to avoid either been caught by the Nazi party pigs, or turned in by ordinary citizens]. So, those 20,000 German individuals chose certain death. By deserting they refused to participate in Hitler’s barbarity, so they chose death. Which is the uppermost level of a highly moral act.
Now how about those soldiers that follow orders and go to battle. Are they the fearless, courageous, patriotic members of society?
"I went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do, but no more. I was scared shitless just about all the time." James Jones, infantry private, World War II "If blood was brown, we’d all have medals." Canadian sergeant, northwest Europe, 1944-45 [Both statements from: Gwynne Dyer, "War", Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985, p. 141]
In the case of the Germans, they chose to follow Hitler’s orders to avoid certain death if they deserted. They knew that most of them will be alive after the battles of the war were over. And that is what actually happened. (For example, in the First World War (the worst ever) the British side mobilized 42 million humans, of which 5 million died. The German side mobilized 23 million, of which 3.4 million died.) That decision was not a fearless, courageous, and patriotic one. It was a calculated act of self-interest. It was not even "self-preservation"; a soldier is a murderer, nothing less. But, seriously, can one suggest that a mass desertion (a mutiny) is conceivable? Let us search the historical record:
* Robert Nivelle, a French artillery General, is (or should be), probably, one of the most detestable military men in human history. During the First World War (WW I) on April 16, 1917 at 6:00 a.m. he ordered an attack against the Germans. Within minutes thousands of French soldiers were killed. By the end of the day there were 40,000 [!!] French casualties. [Compare that to the 4,000 US soldiers that Bush II managed to kill in more than 5 years in Iraq, of course excluding the 1 million-plus of Iraqis]. Nivelle "obstinately refused" to call off the attack. He continued the attack, with the same intensity for the next 4 days. By April 25, nine days after the beginning of the attack, the casualties "had risen to 96,125".
The French soldiers mutinied and they refused to attack any more. Out of the hundred thousands of soldiers taking part in the attack, "3,426 were found guilty of mutinous conduct, 554 death sentences handed down by the Military Courts [and] only 45 were actually carried out." [www.webmaster.net/france/ww1_chemin_5.htm]
The mutiny generated a song that became famous throughout the entire French Army. Part of it went as follows:
"But it’s all over, we had enough, Nobody will march anymore." ……………………………….. "It is all over, it is for ever For this infamous war."
One month after Nivelle initiated the attack, he was "reassigned" to North Africa. He retired in 1921 and died, in peace, in 1924. Nivelle had boasted that he would have advanced 6 miles by his attack. The real advance was 600 yards, with unbelievable waste of human life. This prompted writers analyzing war to write: "[W]hat distinguishes this particular war [WW I]… is futility. Most of the victims died for nothing more than a few feet of rat-infested mud." [Robert L. O'Connell, "Of Arms and Men", Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 242]
[Note: Nivelle's father was French but his mother was English. I do not know if there is a study on Nivelle's contribution to European civilization. However, it would be interesting to analyze the influence of his mother in relation to this contribution. The same holds for Barbara Bush and her son W. Bush.]
* On October 29, 1918, again during WW I, on the other side, the German side, the German sailors mutinied in Kiel and refused to go out into the North Sea. Also, there were disturbances in Hamburg and in Bremen where councils of soldiers and workers were formed. Two weeks later, WW I came to an end.
The above incidents and numbers are undeniable historical facts. Yet, not widely known, if at all. A reasonable conclusion (actually a truism) from the Nivelle and the Kiel cases could be that humans, when pushed to their limits, react. They resist and mutiny. The hundreds of thousands of French soldiers survived the mutiny. The crucial factor, however, is to resist and mutiny before the elites of the world push us to our limits. We think that the above 65% of both the attacking and the attacked populations can do that, if they act morally. After all, who says people cannot stop a war! One of the very few German deserters that survived Hitler’s benevolence, was Ludwig Baumann not long ago he said: "The time has come to abolish war".
The "Spiegel" article closes with the conclusion of a study by the German historian Wolfram Wette: "Most of the cases of [WW II German] desertions were politically or ethically motivated".
It seems that this moral stance of the deserters little by little has started to spread in the German society of today. Germany is the only country in the world where there are monuments to the deserters of WW II! Baumann was present at the dedication of such a monument in Potsdam. The deserters’ monument in the German city of Ulm is a stunning statement of the significance of desertion by an individual. It consists of nine stone slabs of various heights, the taller one being around 12 feet and the smaller one around one foot. They are positioned in the form of a domino in progress. The smaller slab, which started the domino, represents the individual and is almost horizontal. The two bigger slabs are still vertical and represent the thousands of soldiers that are apt to follow the example of the individual. At the foot of the monument there is a sign that reads: "Here lived a man who refused to shoot his fellow men. Honored be his memory".
The history of the desertion of US soldiers in Iraq is still being written. The result could well be a measure of the morality of the US population.