The Filthy Thirteen

The 1965 novel, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ by E.M. Nathanson opens with an aloof, factual report in military-speak that details the execution by hanging of one Enos Gardiner at Marston-Tyne prison in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) during WW2, before the author re-examines the same event through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist, Major John Reisman.

Classic movie

E.M. Nathanson wrote the novel after hearing whispers about a famously raucous unit from WW2, although he was never able to confirm anything more than rumour.


Loose lips sink ships and all that; it was different time and philosophy where in the service of the war, secrets were more willingly kept by that generation.


Subsequently, the story came to light of a notorious outfit that was named the ‘Filthy Thirteen’, a particularly rambunctious unit in the 506th PIR in the 101st Airborne.


Although the Filthy Thirteen were not composed of condemned men or military prisoners, they were kind of rough.


In the novel, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, the army devises a scheme that seems unlikely to work, specifically, to yank a dozen guys off death row, or from long sentences, the most disagreeable, rebellious malcontents and form a functional military unit to conduct a brazen assault of a Nazi chateau in France just prior to the D-Day landings, thereby inspiring confusion in the Wermacht officer class.


When I read Romans 5 and think about this novel (I’m reading both simultaneously), I get yet another picture of Christ saving the helpless, hopeless, and otherwise irredeemable.


We were yet sinners at the point just before we were saved. Not unlike the Dirty Dozen awaiting punishment for horrible crimes, destined for the hangman’s noose like Enos Gardiner, but at the last second when all seems lost, we got a reprieve.


I’m trying to conceptualise what it must be like to be a condemned man on death row and then to suddenly, without expectation, be told that the hanging is no longer happening. It would be simultaneously real and unreal the next morning on waking up.


Real, as in I expected to be dead but I’m waking up alive.


Unreal, as in, how can this be? And will pinching myself actually convince me that it’s true?


It’s in a state of abject hopelessness that we have suddenly been presented with hope. I glimpse a picture of this scene through the lyrics to ‘Come to the table’ by Sidewalk Prophets:


“Just when all hope seems lost

Love opened the door for us…”


The kingdom available to those formerly considered unclean, ruffians and vagabonds. We are invited to the table.


A quote I read recently by John MacArthur: ‘God is more willing to save sinners than sinners are to be saved.’ The imperative is that the banquet must be full.


Paul writes: ‘Very rarely will someone die for a righteous person, although for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.’ (Verse 7).


I’ve never been a member of the military, although I have great admiration for those who have served in the finest units with valorous distinction. I wouldn’t have ever been any good at it: I prefer to not be cannon fodder for what could possibly some nameless battle in a pointless war that is predicated on the exercise of politics instead of a righteous cause of defeating a moral evil.


Politics and power? Not worth dying for.

A man who serves a cause that is right? It’s rare that someone would give up their lives for such a person.

A good man? A benevolent man? Some people might.


Scripture contrasts this with what He did for us. In the logical economy, were we even worth a drop of sweat? Worth even a thought?


And yet He considered it worth His life.


It’s a profound thought to get one’s head around. Paul then argues that if God saved us when we were his enemies, how much more will He love us now that we are His children.


God’s grace is incredibly extravagant, going beyond the dirty dozen.


The filthy thirteen.

The sinful several billion.

The grace greater than gold.

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