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Book review: The Deserters, by Charles Glass

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 5:33pm

The Deserters:
A Hidden History of World War II
by Charles Glass
Penguin

Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted from the armed forces during the second world war. Some fell into the arms of French or Italian women. Some became black-market pirates. Many more simply broke under the strain of battle.

These men's stories have rarely been told. During the war, newspapers largely abstained from writing about desertions. The topic was bad for morale and could be exploited by the enemy.

Historian and former ABC News foreign correspondent Charles Glass thus performs a service: his is the first book to examine at length the sensitive topic of desertions during this war, and the facts it presents are revealing and heartbreaking.

US General George Patton wanted to shoot the men, whom he considered "cowards". Other commanders were more humane. "They recognised that the mind - subject to the daily threat of death, the concussion of aerial bombardment and high-velocity artillery, the fear of land mines and booby traps, malnutrition, appalling hygiene and lack of sleep - suffered wounds as real as the body's," Glass writes.

Thousands of US soldiers were convicted of desertion during the war, and 49 were sentenced to death. (Most were given years of hard labour.) Only one soldier was actually executed, a private from Detroit named Eddie Slovik. This was early 1945, at the moment of the Battle of the Bulge. "It was not the moment for the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, to be seen to condone desertion," Glass writes.

There were far more desertions in Europe than in the Pacific theatre. In the Pacific, there was nowhere to disappear to. "In Europe, the total that fled from the front rarely exceeded 1 per cent of manpower," Glass writes. "However, it reached alarming proportions among the 10 per cent of the men in uniform who actually saw combat."

It is among this book's central contentions that "few deserters were cowards". Glass also observes: "Those who showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other front-line soldiers."

Too few men did too much of the fighting during the second world war, the author writes, and many of them simply cracked at the seams. Poor leadership was often a factor. "High desertion rates in any company, battalion or division pointed to failures of command and logistics for which blame pointed to leaders as much as to the men who deserted."

Glass adds: "Some soldiers deserted when all the other members of their units had been killed and their own deaths appeared inevitable."

Glass provides information about desertions in other US wars. During the civil war, more than 300,000 troops went AWOL from the Union and Confederate armies. "Mark Twain famously deserted from both sides," he writes.

Nearly all of the information about The Deserters thus far comes from its excellent introduction. The rest of the book is not nearly so provocative or rending.

Glass abandons his textured overview of his topic to focus almost exclusively on three soldiers, men who respectively abandoned their posts in France, Italy and Africa.

One was a young man from Brooklyn who fought valiantly with the 36th Infantry Division in Italy and France before coming unglued. Another is English poet Vernon Scannell, who suffered in Mustafa Barracks, the grim prison camp in Egypt. The third was a Tennessee farm boy who fought bravely with the 2nd Infantry Division before deserting and becoming a criminal in post-liberation Paris.

These men's stories are not uninteresting, but Glass tells them at numbing length in bare, reportorial prose so we lose sight of this book's larger topic for many pages at a time. From the author we long for more synthesis and sweep and argument and psychological depth.

The New York Times

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