Mr Slovik and my father never heard of each other, and lived in different parts of the world, but they had a very fair bit in common.
Dad was older, by a dozen years. He also lived longer; for eighty-two years, against Mr Slovik’s twenty-five. But their life histories intersected, kind of, against the backdrop of the Second World War. For a short time in 1944 the both lived in the same country — England — so it’s not impossible that they may have passed each other in the street.
Neither of them started that war, nor did either want to participate. Dad did so with less reluctance, perhaps, than Slovik, but they were both propelled, it seems, by forces outside their control. Both could have refused to serve in the Army, but neither chose to do so; conscientious objectors were despised in that ridiculously patriotic era and each would have lived the rest of his life as an outcast, had he chosen that option. Yet neither of them had any personal animosity toward any German, whom both were employed to help kill. Compromise like that was a mistake they both made, under pressure of conformity.
Dad had an advantage over Slovik in terms of upbringing. His parents were hard working; my grandfather was a skilled artisan, a tailor. He made custom suits and dresses for the smart set and the wannabees in the English city of Stoke on Trent, from which came — and comes — the world’s finest china. Dad went to the local fee-paying High School, and in the late twenties got an entry-level job with a well-known insurance company, which he never left and in which he wound up, forty years later, managing a branch office and prospering well.
Slovik’s parents were citizens not so solid; he was abandoned, and fostered, and in his teens did some time for petty theft. However in 1941 he married a “good girl” and got a “steady job” as a sales clerk and looked all set to settle down to a modest career and raise a family. That’s what would have happened, if the government had not intervened.
But in 1941 and 1942 it did intervene, both for Slovik and my father. Each of them, at that time, was summoned to do his duty for country and, in Dad’s case, for King. Neither was pleased; Slovik was particularly displeased, since he was a gentle person who loved people and birds (he could talk to wild birds and have them settle on his arm; in another age, in Assisi, he might have been called a saint) into whose mind the idea of becoming a contract killer had never entered and who hoped that his peccable past would exclude him from the Army.
But drafted they both were, and both survived boot camp. And each of them, from the get-go, tried to persuade the Army to put their particular skills to the best and most sensible use. Neither of them was athletic and neither wanted to play a combat role; Slovik was a competent cook and my father, by that time, had gained the skill of judging insurance claims — distinguishing the genuine accident from the fraudulent claim. Dad succeeded, Slovik failed.
Slovik used what persuasive powers he had, by trying repeatedly to fail the shooting course. Whether or not he would have made a decent marksman had he been well motivated, we shall never know; but time after time he shot wild and was clearly not going to kill any Germans even had they stood in line and waited for him to pull the trigger. But the drill sergeant eventually wore him down and caused him to sign off on a fabricated marksman certificate, and with the elegant logic of Army selection, Slovik was picked for a rifle brigade and shipped over to France in 1944.
My father did better. He had sold some insurance as well as evaluating claims before the War, so he’d found out a bit about persuasion. That skill served him very well. He made it first into the Royal Army Service Corps, a unit stationed in London to make sure the King’s other soldiers were well served with supplies and logistics, and survived the bombing of that city. He rose fast through the ranks, got commissioned, and ended the War as a Captain evaluating claims made against the US Army stationed in England, whose truck drivers persisted in driving on the right hand side of the road, with dreadful consequences for persons and property. He was appropriately equipped with three crowns, a swagger stick, and a chauffeur-driven (albeit khaki) limousine. Without doubt, he delivered more useful work for the War Effort than he could have performed in any other capacity.
Private Slovik, alas, was less lucky. In my opinion, his biggest mistake was to agree to that training sergeant’s falsified marksman certificate; had he gone on shooting wild, he might have been with us still and given his daughter the pleasure of having a father, as I had; you read these words as a result.
On arrival in France his platoon was at once subjected to heavy enemy fire and scattered. He and a buddy separated, hid among some trees until the shells stopped exploding, and lost their unit for several weeks. Slovik was totally terrified by the experience and knew then for certain that he was not cut out either to kill or be killed. When eventually reunited with his proper brigade, he asked to be transferred out of the front line and into a support role such as canteen orderly. He had shown clearly (apart from that wretched certificate of competence) that he could neither shoot, nor be shot at.
His commanding officer denied the request, and when he laid down his rifle, Slovik was arrested and charged with desertion.
He was subsequently tried and found guilty and condemned to death by firing squad.
There were forty-nine other US Army deserters in the Second World War, who were likewise condemned to death, but in every other case the sentence was commuted to a few years’ imprisonment. Slovik, perhaps because he lacked the fibre to resist and protest and retain a good lawyer — because he was gentle and principled and trusting and (after that unhappy start in life) honest — did not escape. His series of appeals, even to General Eisenhower, was rejected. The first to be so treated since the Civil War, he was shot dead, in 1945, by a dozen US Army riflemen . . . who had been trained to shoot straight.
It could be said that my father was a “winner” and that Slovik was a “loser”, and to some extent that’s true. Slovik would probably never have pursued a career as successful as my father’s; he was a follower, not a leader, he had small ambition, little “drive”. Our culture leaves such folk behind, assigns them only a modest role in society.
But the wild birds never settled on my father’s forearm, nor on mine; and perhaps, not on yours. Miss Slovik never did grow up with a father to love her, and be loved, and the town where Slovik wanted to live and work had to manage without his gentle presence for half a century. All because governments decided to give a war; and because so many young men, alas, decided to come.