Book Review – The Deserters by Charles Glass

  • The Deserters – A Hidden History of World War II
  • by Charles Glass
  • Publisher – The Penguin Press
  • Copyright 2013
  • 314 pages

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Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – Glass shines a light on the little-discussed aspect of World War II – deserters from Allied armies. The Deserters is interesting, but it is very uneven. While the book is great food for thought, but Glass is overly determined to press his main point  – that desertion is inevitable. Still, Glass deserves credit for examining one aspect of a complex, all-encompassing war.

Yesterday’s Heroes & Yesterday’s Dreams

Way back in summer 1983, my grandparents asked me if I wanted to attend my grandfather’s army reunion with them. My Paw had been an M.P. (Military Police Officer) in the 84th Infantry Division (The Railsplitters) during World War II and my grandparents attended the 84th’s reunion every year. I went with them to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, site of 1983’s reunion, and got to meet Paw’s buddies and their wives and hear all of their stories about those bygone days. As a result, I’ve always been interested in World War II.

A Novel Take on The Past

Charles Glass’ book The Deserters accomplishes something remarkable in evoking that long-lost time and the people who lived it. For too long, we in the Allied nations have seen World War II through rose-colored glasses. Studs Terkel alluded to this view in the title of his oral history of WWII – The Good War (1984). Journalist Charles Glass’ The Deserters is also a book that aims to bring a dose of realism to our understanding of WWII.

Through The Deserters, we learn that not every Allied solider was heroic, or even invested in the war effort. Desertion and crime (often committed by AWOL soldiers) were both common. Glass writes of the deserters –

Their plundering of Allied supply convoys, often at gunpoint, deprived General George Patton of petrol as his tanks were about to breach Germany’s Siegfried Line. Rampant thieving left their comrades at the front short of food, blankets, ammunition and other vital supplies. In Italy, deserters drove trucks of looted Allied equipment for the Italian-American Mafiosi Vito Genovese (who concealed his fascist past and made himself indispensable to Allied commanders in Naples) (pp. xvii – xviii).

You read such descriptions of far-than-perfect GIs and say to yourself, “Yes, that’s the way it must have been. People weren’t Angels back then.” And that’s the best thing about The Deserters – it provides a fresh perspective on WWII.

Three Deserters in “The Good War”

Glass focuses on three deserters:

  1. Steve Weiss, Brooklyn-born seventeen-year old,  who enlisted in the army after convincing his father to sign his enlistment papers.
  2. Alfred Whitehead, who grew up in the Tennessee hills and then won commendations for valor in combat before he deserted.
  3. John Bain, a Scottish boxer who deserted in both North Africa and in the United Kingdom.

The Focus – Steve Weiss

When Glass wrote The Deserters, Weiss was the only one of the three still living. Perhaps as a result, at times, The Deserters focuses so much on Weiss that it reads more as his biography with Bain and Whitehead’s stories thrown in to add length. Weiss is a terrific storyteller and he has some amazing stories about his involvement with the French resistance and his time in the stockade.

But Weiss “spins” his story and Glass doesn’t ever question whether Weiss told him “the whole truth.” Weiss presents the Army as so hopelessly inept that he could not help but desert. Seventy years after WWII, Weiss still has a litany of complaints, some of which are remarkably petty. (For instance, when he reported to headquarters to rejoin his unit, the clerk didn’t offer him a cup of coffee (p. 208)). The Allied Army that Weiss describes is so awful that it make you wonder how it won the war.

Almost Forgot – Those Other Two Guys

Even after reading the book, I found it hard to reach many conclusions regarding Bain and Whitehead.

Though Bain was raised in the slums, he became a poet after WWII. One senses that Bain was an artist who took to heart too many of the front’s horrors. Toward the end of the book, Glass includes some words that Bain wrote about one of his poems “Walking Wounded.” Bain says that poem came from images he remembered of wounded British soldiers trying to get through the North African desert –

And slowly I came to see that the Walking Wounded represented the common human condition: the dramatically heroic role is for the few. Most of us have to take the smaller wounds of living and we have to return again and again to the battlefield, and perhaps in the long run this is the more important, even the more heroic role (p. 310).

Readers probably will be most ambivalent about Whitehead. As someone descended from generations of working-class people in the Appalachian mountains, I found that his stories of his impoverished childhood in East Tennessee were similar to stories that my grandparents had told me about their lives during those years. However, Whitehead’s war years left me ambivalent. He was very brave in combat, but – away from the front – spent his time drinking, stealing, fighting, and visiting prostitutes (though he had a wife in the U.S.).

After the war, Whitehead stayed married, raised a family, became a barber, and self published a memoir about his experiences in WWII. However, Glass uses military records to show that Whitehead’s account is exaggerated.

Missed Opportunities

Glass’ main thesis, which he advances throughout the book, is that desertion is a natural occurrence when people are exposed to combat over prolonged periods. Therefore, Weiss and other GIs cannot be blamed for their desertion. I think that Glass’ basic idea is correct, any of us would break down at some point. However, he won’t mention another salient point – many GIs who were exposed to awful conditions didn’t desert. This is crucial, but Glass doesn’t want to go there.

Similarly, Glass doesn’t take up the still-bigger issue of what to do about desertion. In the cases of all three men, Glass details the military authorities’ inept, subjective discipline. If desertion is inevitable, deserters shouldn’t face harsh or, perhaps, any punishment. But if desertion is allowable, how can militaries fight tyrants such as Hitler? There are no easy answers, but Glass doesn’t even allude to these complexities.

Uneven, But Valuable

In The Kid Stays in The Picture, Hollywood producer Robert Evans said that there are three (true) sides to every story – your side, my side, and the Truth. If one keeps in mind that The Deserters provides just one side of the truth, it’s a valuable book because it explores a part of the truth that has been ignored for seventy years.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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