A groundbreaking history of ordinary soldiers struggling on the front lines, "The Deserters" offers a completely new perspective on the Second World War. Read more...
A groundbreaking history of ordinary soldiers struggling on the front lines, "The Deserters" offers a completely new perspective on the Second World War. Charles Glass--renowned journalist and author of the critically acclaimed "Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation"--delves deep into army archives, personal diaries, court-martial records, and self-published memoirs to produce this dramatic and heartbreaking portrait of men overlooked by their commanders and ignored by history.
Surveying the 150,000 American and British soldiers known to have deserted in the European Theater, "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" tells the life stories of three soldiers who abandoned their posts in France, Italy, and Africa. Their deeds form the backbone of Glass's arresting portrait of soldiers pushed to the breaking point, a sweeping reexamination of the conditions for ordinary soldiers.
With the grace and pace of a novel, "The Deserters" moves beyond the false extremes of courage and cowardice to reveal the true experience of the frontline soldier. Glass shares the story of men like Private Alfred Whitehead, a Tennessee farm boy who earned Silver and Bronze Stars for bravery in Normandy--yet became a gangster in liberated Paris, robbing Allied supply depots along with ordinary citizens. Here also is the story of British men like Private John Bain, who deserted three times but never fled from combat--and who endured battles in North Africa and northern France before German machine guns cut his legs from under him. The heart of "The Deserters" resides with men like Private Steve Weiss, an idealistic teenage volunteer from Brooklyn who forced his father--a disillusioned First World War veteran--to sign his enlistment papers because he was not yet eighteen. On the Anzio beachhead and in the Ardennes forest, as an infantryman with the 36th Division and as an accidental partisan in the French Resistance, Weiss lost his illusions about the nobility of conflict and the infallibility of American commanders.
Far from the bright picture found in propaganda and nostalgia, the Second World War was a grim and brutal affair, a long and lonely effort that has never been fully reported--to the detriment of those who served and the danger of those nurtured on false tales today. Revealing the true costs of conflict on those forced to fight, "The Deserters" is an elegant and unforgettable story of ordinary men desperately struggling in extraordinary times.
The men who ran from WWII
Given that only one American soldier—the statistically unfortunate Private Eddie Slovik—was executed for desertion in World War II, one might conclude that it was rare for a soldier to prematurely leave the battlefield during that protracted conflict. Not so, says Charles Glass, the former chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News, in his new book, The Deserters. By official estimates, around 50,000 American and 100,000 British combatants deserted for various reasons and stretches of time. A great number of these fought bravely before and/or after their unsanctioned absences—and many deserted more than once.
The common denominator of these desertions, as Glass sifts through them, was battle fatigue, not cowardice. Indeed, he heads each of his chapters with a quotation from Psychology for the Fighting Man, Prepared for the Fighting Man Himself, a guide to understanding behavior caused by wartime stress, published in 1943 at the height of the war. (The insights conveyed in these quotations apply just as well to the flood of mentally damaged soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today.)
To convey the chaos and horror that so frequently led to desertion, Glass examines the individual histories of three soldiers—Americans Stephen Weiss and Alfred Whitehead and Englishman John Bain—who fought in campaigns throughout North Africa and Europe from the start of the war until Germany surrendered. All three men (hardly more than boys at the time) volunteered for service, and all gradually became disillusioned and embittered with the way the war played out. They witnessed friends dying under the most gruesome circumstances, suffered incompetent and indecisive leadership, lived like burrowing vermin on the front lines and endured the around-the-clock terror of imminent death or injury.
The tide of desertions was a double problem for the Allied Command. To begin with, it was a public relations embarrassment since it carried the message that not all soldiers were eager and heroic warriors, as the prevailing propaganda suggested. Moreover, it depleted the supply of men desperately needed at the front. Consequently, the definition of what constituted desertion became fairly elastic, and deserters were routinely forgiven if they agreed to return to battle.
Weiss, Whitehead and Bain were convicted of desertion and sentenced to long periods of hard labor. Ultimately, though, their sentences were reduced. Weiss became a psychologist, Whitehead a professional barber; Bain changed his name to Vernon Scannell and lived out the remainder of his life as a respected poet. None repudiated his actions or lost his distaste for war.