The Tomb of the Unknown Deserter

by Henry on October 24, 2014

Last year, I wrote a post building on James Scott’s argument that we should memorialize deserters. Today, I see a piece at Deutsche Welle saying that Austria is doing just that.

A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.

{ 24 comments }

1

NM 10.24.14 at 11:29 pm

In Darmstadt (region of Frankfurt/Main) there has for many years (at least since mid-1990s) been a plaque honouring the Unknown Deserter. I’ve never managed to find out, though, whether this was a private or a public placement.

2

Rich Puchalsky 10.25.14 at 3:04 am

I found the description of this monument to be quite affecting. Here’s an image of the concrete poem that it was based on.

3

Meredith 10.25.14 at 5:58 am

Doing some research on my great grandmother’s father (well, one in this category — that far back, there are lots of progenitors), I discovered that a military record keeper had declared him (or maybe it was someone with the same name? probably not) a deserter from a Baltimore hospital (Union) during the Civil War. Weird thing when you explore military records, how many “deserters” there were who thereafter turned up in rosters as “mustered in” or who enlisted in another regiment a year or two later. (Don’t worry: my great grandmother’s mother got her widow’s pension in the end.)

When the mind isn’t thinking “standing army,” the notion of “desertion” is a bit different, I think, more flexible. But now we think standing army automatically. I recommend roving around in that pre-standing-army world a bit, to get insight into the mind of “the deserter,” and how readily the deserter might have been forgiven. (Not to mention the impossibility of keeping records straight: SNAFU!)

4

bad Jim 10.25.14 at 7:48 am

Obligatory quote from The Americanization of Emily:

Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us, it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.

5

David 10.25.14 at 12:27 pm

Yes, well, for a start there’s an enormous difference between desertion and conscientious objection. The latter is a moral stand where you are prepared to suffer for your beliefs, the former can be anything from a general disinclination to risk your life, to giving way to stress in battle.
Is desertion a good thing? Always? Would we honour British or French soldiers who deserted in 1940, or Red Army soldiers who deserted at Stalingrad? I presume not, because they were fighting against a cause we dislike. So desertion by the enemy is OK, but desertion by our side is not. What’s the general theory of desertion then, and is there one?
I think part of the problem is the tendency these days to treat anyone who ever fought in a war, or lived through a war, as a victim, whatever they did. This means that we put up memorials to those who deserted, rather than to those who fought. Odd, that.

6

tsts 10.25.14 at 6:51 pm

David: “So desertion by the enemy is OK, but desertion by our side is not.”

Uh, no, nobody claimed that. Desertion from the wrong side is right, and from the right side it wrong (though in some cases understandable and maybe even justified, see * below). Desertion from the Wehrmacht was right.

The point is, there is no way around judging right from wrong here. (But there rarely is.) Desertion from the Confederacy was right, from the Union, not so much. Now, desertion from the Vietnam War, or from the Spanish-American War (and the subsequent fighting/massacres in the Philippines) — that is where things get complicated.

(*: as people pointed out, there are many less noble but maybe understandable reasons people might desert. Also, what if the “right” side commits atrocities and you disagree — can you desert to save your life or freedom after refusing to follow such orders? Would Lew Kopelew have been justified to desert in 1945 to avoid the gulag?)

7

gianni 10.25.14 at 7:48 pm

When the state claims that your life and activity is now its own resource, its instrument to be deployed as it sees fit, I cannot blame anyone for wanting to drop out of that political community right then and there. Even if you adhere to an ethical position that demands you be willing to sacrifice your life in the service to a greater good, the battlefield is not about dying, it is about killing. Utilitarian trolley-car-murderers aside, few ethical theories will go so far as to demand you be ready and willing to kill others to satisfy the appetites of your local ruling elite, however noble they may be. The choice, in most societies, has rarely been between conscientious objection and service, but instead is usually between the kill-or-be-killed of the battlefield and the coercive violence of the military courts at home. Desertion is the model instead of objection because the state is rarely reasonable in this regard, and the pretense that it will be reasonable already concedes too much.

There was once a time when Nazis and fascists stalked the land, and thus there might have been something honorable in war. But in my lifetime, I have not witnessed a comparable situation – only butchery and violence bound to beget more violence. Rather than standing witness to the heroics of the soldier charging the enemy, I would rather live in a society that stands witness to the difficult, and itself dangerous, decision to refuse the rush to war. Even if it is just via a ‘Bartleby’ – I would prefer not to sir – this is already a heroic feat in and of itself. The psychology behind mass violence, (something discussed here quite often) , teaches us that this refusal is not easy, not once the modern war machine starts to rev its engines.

Thinking about this as a matter of the past is, in my view, the wrong framing. Honoring the deserters, and the dodgers and the objectors as well, is not about what should/should not have been done in the past. Instead, the concern is with the present and the future – what sort of response do we, as citizens of this earth, honor when the battle lines are drawn? In my perfect world, that response will be objection, recalcitrance, and, when the numbers are called, desertion. The ethical obligation to common humanity is prior to any obligation to fellow nationals or the state, and if one is put into a position where one is forced to choose between them, I think the proper choice is obvious. Those of you thinking in the model of WWII, starting with the premise that there exists somewhere out there radical evil that must be fought, would be mindful to reflect on WWI first.

Off the top of my head, I can think of few times when popular refusal was able to stop the war machine from continuing down its bloody path. But Vietnam comes to mind: who knows how many more bombing runs and body-counts would have occurred if it were not for the refusal to serve, by dodgers at home and by soldiers in the field. Regardless of their motivation, whether it was out of cowardice or out of conviction, the simple act of refusing to participate introduces a break with the state logic of people as standing reserve. In the streets or just in your head; done loudly by burning your draft card on the statehouse lawn, or done quietly under cover of night as you trek over the border, they are both deserving of our celebration. If one takes seriously the notion that the human psyche is easily caught up in the enthusiasm and ‘force that gives us meaning’ of group violence, then we must place a large ethical value on denying the seductions of that violence.

The soldiers and the ‘___-ican(/-ian/-ish) heroes’ have had their parades and time in the sun. A famous butcher once marveled at how men are willing to kill and die for little scraps of ribbon – an observation that holds true to this day. Can you imagine a world where people received a ribbon for refusing to participate, for preferring not to? In a time when the Nobel Peace Prize is handed to the likes of Kissinger and Obama, I think it would be a fitting time to start.

8

JanieM 10.25.14 at 8:00 pm

gianni — thank you.

9

js. 10.25.14 at 8:34 pm

Seconding JanieM—gianni’s @7 is superb.

10

David 10.25.14 at 9:01 pm

“There was once a time when Nazis and fascists stalked the land, and thus there might have been something honorable in war.”
I don’t think the argument requires fighting in a war war to be honorable, but simply necessary. Nor does it require the exploits of those who fought in the wars to be unduly romanticized. It’s simply a question of whether, if we are to commemorate those who deserted, how we are then to commemorate those who fought and died.
Your argument is, essentially a statement of pacifism, and it requires that everyone always and under every circumstance should refuse to fight for any cause whatever. Nothing else makes any moral sense. You cannot choose your wars; or rather, everyone will choose their own, and the argument becomes relative, and therefore meaningless.
I agree that it”s a mistake to wheel out WWII every time this kind of question is raised, but it’s also true that an absolute moral duty (in that case not to fight) has to be able to cope even under the most extreme circumstances, or it’s not an absolute moral duty. On the other hand, in these sorts of discussions it’s also too easy to fall into a western-centric “wars of choice” mode of thinking, where all wars are imperial adventures conducted by ruthless politicians. So wars are certainly like that, but many, indeed most, are not. And what about the victims of our own wars? Did Vietcong fighters have a moral duty to desert also? Should Egyptian soldiers have run away when the British and French invaded in 1956? Should the Zimbabwean guerrillas deserted rather than fight the Rhodesians?
It’s possible to construct an imaginary idealized world where all political differences are resolvable by peaceful means, and everyone therefore agrees that war is silly. This is, indeed, what many educated people thought about a hundred years ago. The First World War broke out, and lasted as long as it did, not because evil statesmen planned it, but because there was an unresolvable series of tensions and contradictions in European politics at the time, to which there was no solution that did not involve unacceptable losses for the people of one country or another. The Second World War followed from the fact that the slaughter of 1914-18 had actually not solved any of the underlying problems at all, but only exacerbated them with newer and more bitter memories and disputes. The same is true of many modern crises: the same land cannot be part both of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Someone has to lose and someone has to win.
It’s worth recalling, in this context, Clausewitz’s famous dictum that it takes two sides to make a war: one, after all, can simply surrender; This observation impressed Lenin so much that he underlined it in his copy of “On War” and scribbled in the margin, ‘”Ah, the clever German!”

11

Lynne 10.25.14 at 9:57 pm

thirding Janie and js. Thank you for that very thoughtful comment.

12

William Berry 10.25.14 at 10:43 pm

Emphatically fourthing gianni @7.

13

gianni 10.25.14 at 11:43 pm

JanieM , js. , Lynne , and William Berry – thanks for the kind words :)

14

Joshua W. Burton 10.26.14 at 1:56 am

One of my favorite short stories of all time is James Morrow’s “Known But to God and Wilbur Hines,” anthologized in his splendid Bible Stories for Adults and also available in full-text samizdat if you search on the title and “My keeper faces east,” the memorable first line. (But buy the book; you won’t regret it.) The story concerns what — if the narrator is to be believed — is surely the most famous deserter’s monument in the world.

15

Michael Connolly 10.26.14 at 1:56 pm

Thank you, Gianni

16

Rich Puchalsky 10.27.14 at 3:43 pm

“Your argument is, essentially a statement of pacifism, and it requires that everyone always and under every circumstance should refuse to fight for any cause whatever. Nothing else makes any moral sense.”

If you don’t like gianni’s statement, we discussed this at length in the previous thread that Henry lists to in the original post. I just wanted to reiterate that I find the all-or-nothing sentiment expressed above to be a simple false dilemma. There is no reason why people can not oppose 99% of all wars, and I think that it makes perfect moral sense to do so.

In the last thread, as soon as we could get people to stop thinking that “But what about the Nazis?” was the perfect answer to all opposition to war, we began to talk about the Falklands War. And then it transpired that the people who thought that war was generally justifiable weren’t really waiting for the second coming of the Nazis: they thought that the war over the Malvinas Islands / Falklands was perfectly justifiable from one or both sides.

17

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 5:03 pm

#16 Rich Puchalski

“Your argument is, essentially a statement of pacifism, and it requires that everyone always and under every circumstance should refuse to fight for any cause whatever. Nothing else makes any moral sense.”

If you don’t like gianni’s statement, we discussed this at length in the previous thread that Henry lists to in the original post. I just wanted to reiterate that I find the all-or-nothing sentiment expressed above to be a simple false dilemma. There is no reason why people can not oppose 99% of all wars, and I think that it makes perfect moral sense to do so.

The all-or-nothing approach at least avoids some dilemmas.

If you’re in a war for with bad goals and predictably bad outcomes, when the other side are the good guys, it makes sense you ought to lose. Of course there may be personal costs. When the Russian army raped all the women in East Germany, they didn’t care whether any particular woman had been against the war. And of course Allied Bomber Command rained on the just and the unjust.

But when it’s a war that has some good purposes and predictably some good outcomes, then it’s harder. If you oppose a war when you think the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, when we lose then it’s all costs and no benefits. It’s worse than winning. That isn’t a good outcome.

So many people think that once we are in a war, then it’s best to give total support to the war as long as it lasts, and think about mistakes we may have made that got us into it later. Of course that creates a moral hazard for our leaders. But if it looks like we will half-fight a war, that creates a moral hazard for enemy leaders.

I think US southerners take this position more than others, because they lost a war. To some small extent it’s written into their genes. They didn’t announce to the world that their women got raped by the Union army. It did no good, and their culture assigned a lot of shame for that. Similarly, Iraqis and Palestinians seldom admit to rapes.

18

Rich Puchalsky 10.27.14 at 5:32 pm

“If you oppose a war when you think the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, when we lose then it’s all costs and no benefits. It’s worse than winning.”

If we were allowed to talk further about CBA on that other thread, I would have asked about costs for whom and benefits for whom — another thing that CBA is notoriously bad about is treating all costs and benefits as universal and ignoring distributional effects. So I question “when we lose, it’s all costs and no benefits.” I’m writing from the U.S., a country in which every war that we’ve fought since WW II did not involve our country being invaded. Our losses since then therefore pretty much directly correspond to a quicker end to the war and therefore to fewer deaths, both of our own soldiers and of enemy soldiers and civilians. Theories that by going to war we prevent more deaths from non-war causes then we cause by going to war have fared badly.

19

Matt 10.27.14 at 6:59 pm

I don’t think that a person is ever obliged to attempt to kill other people and risk being killed in return, even when the enemy is as noxious as Nazis or Confederates. Nor do I think it is wrong to go to war against Nazis or Confederates. I just don’t think that compulsory service is justifiable. This is not the same as pacifism. I have no problem with volunteer soldiers fighting Nazis.

When I read about the American Civil War I don’t have any sympathies for the goals of the slaveholders. I am glad the Union won. But I feel sympathy for people on both sides who resisted and dodged the draft. I feel the same way about Soviet conscripts who were made to fight the Nazis against their will, even though they undoubtedly helped to destroy a great evil.

20

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 7:24 pm

So I question “when we lose, it’s all costs and no benefits.” I’m writing from the U.S., a country in which every war that we’ve fought since WW II did not involve our country being invaded. Our losses since then therefore pretty much directly correspond to a quicker end to the war and therefore to fewer deaths, both of our own soldiers and of enemy soldiers and civilians.

I’m also writing from the USA. My argument — which I don’t fully stand behind but which I think deserves some thought — is made from the viewpoint of one side. So add up costs versus benefits:

Benefit 1: We stop the bad guys on the other side from doing the bad things we want them to stop doing.
Benefit 2: After the war we invest in the defeated nation and build up their economy which is good for them, and we make great profits which is good for our investors.
Benefit 3: Over the years we influence their culture to be more like ours, which is good for them because our culture is good.
Benefit 4: Our bases in their country provide a check on expansionist, colonial, or otherwise interventionist efforts by their neighbors and make it easier for us to wage preventive actions.
Benefit 5: Other nations that see how efficient we are at war get intimidated and are less likely to challenge us.
Etc.

On the other side we have costs.
1. The war costs US money and US lives.
2. The war also costs foreign lives.
3. The less efficient we are at enforcing our will the more our prospective enemies are emboldened.
4. International trade may be somewhat disrupted, stuff gets blown up, etc.

My point is that even if a war is lost quickly and so the cost in lives and money is less, none of the benefits are there at all, but all the losses are there even if they are somewhat less. By this approach to cost and benefits, we are guaranteed a loss. But if we fight as hard as we can until we win, we might get a victory, or if not a full victory still more benefits than costs, or if it’s a net loss we might lose less than the guaranteed loss we get from a defeat.

Plus Southerners have a fading memory of what it means to really lose a war. Yankees have never ever lost a war that way.

It makes sense that people who have truly lost a war might learn from the experience. Like, the US South, and all of europe except Britain, and pretty much all of eurasia except Russia. Maybe the lesson ought to be “Don’t get into wars.”.

Or maybe the lesser lesson “Don’t get into wars you might possibly lose.”.

But it seems like the lesson everybody learns in their bones is “Don’t get into a war and then bicker among yourselves whether to keep fighting.”. The Germans and the Russians both learned that lesson painfully in WWI. When they tried to quit fighting, their enemies showed them no mercy.

21

Rich Puchalsky 10.27.14 at 8:24 pm

“Plus Southerners have a fading memory of what it means to really lose a war. Yankees have never ever lost a war that way.

It makes sense that people who have truly lost a war might learn from the experience. “

They haven’t learned what you claim they did from the experience. I don’t think that, in general, people do learn from losing a war that it’s better to avoid them. Look at Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo of 1389. It seems just as common that, as with the South, the loss becomes romanticized and the source of future conflict.

At any rate, to get back to desertion. I think it’s a great idea to congratulate all deserters from all wars. You can make an exception to the rule for people who deserted from fighting against the Nazis if you really want to. But note that for the monument in the original post, it’s a monument honoring people who deserted from fighting *for* the Nazis.

22

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 10:11 pm

#21 Rich Puchalsky

“It makes sense that people who have truly lost a war might learn from the experience. “

They haven’t learned what you claim they did from the experience. I don’t think that, in general, people do learn from losing a war that it’s better to avoid them. Look at Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo of 1389. It seems just as common that, as with the South, the loss becomes romanticized and the source of future conflict.

I said they *ought* to.

What I think they especially learn from the experience is to fight really hard when they do get in a way, and do their best for victory.

Because defeat sucks.

23

The Heretic 10.28.14 at 5:08 pm

This was a really rich post and debate. My thanks to all of you from both the pro and anti-deserters. There are so many good reasons to not participate in war… But there are also some justified reason, even if you are on the bad side … I.e. A German who knows of the holocaust in the death camps, but agrees to fight the Russians because he does not want to see his mother and sisters raped nor to accept the destructive of his community.

I don’t know if I would support a memorial to the army deserter. However I would strongly support a memorial to all the conscientious objectors and all the men and women who tried to Oppose the of war based on facts and morality Or those who exposed the lies and intentions of the elite classes. They should also be celebrated as the heroes of history.

We really need a good media industry that seeks to expose the truth and not peddle convenient elite supporting narratives.

24

gianni 10.29.14 at 8:58 pm

Just a remark on this notion of ‘pacifism’ above. Pacifism isn’t really an ideological position, some sort of first principle you reason from. I guess you could interpret it that way, but you have already lost some of the meaning. Pacifism is a practice, something one is never fully true to, but you aspire towards. It is this aspiration-al element which harmonizes with ideas behind memorializing the deserter – honoring those who were successful in the hopes that others will be inspired to follow.

Thinking that war is a waste of human lives and the social surplus just scratches the surface of pacifism in practice. Truly radical pacifists, or those practicing ahimsa, recognize that their very existence exercises a quiet violence against the world, and they go to lengthy measures to minimize that violence. As a member of the developed world, with all of the harm your lifestyle alone imposes upon other beings, abstaining, or even detracting, from your state’s rush to war is the least you can do to mitigate this.

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