Thursday, July 12, 2018

Operation Mincemeat

On April 30th, 1943, the corpse of Major William Martin washed up on a beach in Spain. When the body was examined, the Nazi authorities discovered not only the typical wallet litter (license, receipts, bills, pictures, etc.) but a letter from a General to the now-deceased Major Martin alluding, with subtle undertones, to an Allied invasion of Greece. The Nazis, justifiably suspicious of being punked, launched an extensive investigation, employing pathologists and document specialists, seeking to authenticate the body and the letter.

While this research unfolded, the Allied forces did something truly remarkable; something that appeared to validate the intelligence in the letter. They began troop movements, seemingly staging for an invasion of Greece.

For the Nazi authorities, this confirmed the veracity of Major Martin’s letter.

Now convinced that the Allies planned an invasion, they redistributed their forces to fortify the Balkan peninsula, pulling troops away from Sicily…just as the Allies had hoped.

The whole thing was a ruse.

The Nazi army had been duped, the unwitting victims of an elaborate web of disinformation known as “Operation Mincemeat.” The military build-up near Greece had been a tactical ploy, complete with fake troops and inflatable plastic tanks. “Major Martin” was a real corpse, but the letter and identity were all fake, planted on the body as a diversion. And how did the Allies fool the Nazi experts? Well, they created a backstory for “Major Martin” that was so thorough and complete that it included running his obituary in a London newspaper.

The Allied invasion site was actually Sicily, five hundred miles away from Greece and the very place the Germans had withdrawn their troops to fortify Greece. This seduction of the Nazi’s away from Sicily to Greece has been called “the most spectacular single episode in the history of deception.”

By staging for Greece but landing in Sicily, the Allies pulled off an amazing head fake, completely outwitting the enemy.


Is it permissible to use the body of the deceased in this manner? Does it dishonor the dead? Is this wrong? I don't think so if he or perhaps his family gave permission to use his body this way after his death. It doesn't seem different in principle from organ donation. Just that it's full body donation. (Maybe there's a distinction to be made between donating for medical research or other medical purposes and donating for war. But I am assuming it's arguable that both share the common cause of intending to save lives. Maybe doing so in war is not as directly saving lives like in medicine, but it indirectly does save lives by preventing more from dying.)

However, if no permission was given by him or his family, then would it be unethical to use his body this way? I'm inclined to say it might be unethical if he wasn't a soldier but a civilian. Minimally I would expect using the body of a soldier would take priority over using the body of a civilian.

If he was a soldier, then it seems more debatable. Presumably a volunteer soldier is willingly serving in order to protect his family and people back home. His way of life. His freedoms and liberties. These would be under threat if the enemy won. What's more, the soldier knows the risks of war, yet is willing to sacrifice his life for these ends. Hence I would think a reasonable presumption to make is, if the soldier is willing to die for his people and country, then he would be willing to allow his body to be used in this fashion if he has died, if doing so aids his people in winning the war against a terrible enemy, which would have been his ultimate goal as well.


  1. What if it was the body of an enemy soldier they collected on a battlefield?

    1. "What if it was the body of an enemy soldier they collected on a battlefield?"

      Thanks, Michael, that's a good question! Also, you may have a good point!

      My thinking is it depends on a few different factors. In the case of WWII, however, I think we can more or less safely assume a few things:

      1. A just war was waged by the Allies against the Axis.
      2. The enemy combatants were voluntarily fighting rather than there being forced conscription (though toward the end of the war there was forced conscription in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, I think; I think only the Soviets forced soldiers to fight among the Allies).
      3. The Allies during WWII treated the Axis enemy combatants far better than the Axis treated Allied combatants (with the exception of Stalin's Soviet Union which the other Allies knew to be duplicitous so I'll leave the Soviets out of the picture). Take the Bataan death march, the Burmese Railway (aka Death Railway), what the Imperial Japanese would do to captured soldiers, etc.
      4. Indeed, the Allies treated civilians far better than the Axis treated civilians. I think Victor Davis Hanson put it something like (paraphrasing): If we look at the sheer number of casualties suffered, WWII could be summed up as the Allies mostly killing Axis soldiers and the Axis mostly killing civilians. Take the terrible atrocities inflicted by the Axis against civilians like the Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, "comfort" women, etc.
      5. The Axis conducted horrific human experimentation, tortures, and other cruelties. The Allies did as well, but my understanding is the main differnce was that when this happened among the Allies, the soldier or group of soldiers was punished, whereas the Axis actively promoted it. For the Allies it was an aberration, while for the Axis it was the norm (e.g. Nazi medical experiments, Unit 731).

      If Axis treat others like this, then any "rights" enemy combatants have or expected ethical treatment of enemy combatants would arguably have been forfeited, at least to a degree.

      That doesn't mean the Allies can do whatever they like without ethical restrictions. After all, the Allies are not like the Axis. The Allies should not stoop to their levels of evil.

      However, it may very well mean it's warranted to take certain actions one wouldn't normally be justified to take. It may mean wading into murkier ethical waters than under more "normal" circumstances (if there are ever any "normal" circumstances in war). In this respect, I could see it being justified that we use the body of an enemy soldier as you pointed out.

      (By the way, I think much of this is similar in principle to how the Israelites had to deal with such an evil and implaccable foe as the various Canaanites.)