MHQ Reviews: When the Greatest Generation Went AWOL

The Deserters
A Hidden History of World War II
By Charles Glass. 400 pp. Penguin, 2013. $27.95.

Reviewed by David Lamb

MANY OF THE BOOKS ABOUT WORLD WAR II take the Tom Brokaw approach and salute the courage of “the Greatest Generation.” But what of the men who apparently lacked the courage to stand in battle, those who deserted?

Nearly 50,000 U.S. troops fled the field in Europe during the war, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of death. So many draft dodgers and men in service went into hiding in the United States that the army acknowledged it was impossible to put them all on trial. “We’ve dug them from bins under the coal and rooted them out of caves and tunnels dug under their barracks,” said one general.

British soldiers deserted so routinely—some 100,000 walked off the battlefield—that senior commanders in North Africa and Italy pleaded with the government to make the crime punishable by death, as it had been in World War I.

Charles Glass, a former ABC News correspondent who covered wars in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, examines this dark side of World War II in his new book, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, wrestling with the question: Are deserters cowards? Not always, he finds. Indeed, some men fought valiantly and were heralded for their bravery before breaking down and going over the hill. The lesson seems to be that the mind can suffer wounds as surely as the body.

Glass writes with the thoroughness of a historian and the style of a novelist. He profiles three soldiers who deserted—two Americans and a Brit. Although I am not sure how representative these men are, their stories fight the stereotype that deserters know neither valor nor decency. As Ernie Pyle, the beloved World War II correspondent, put it: “The mystery to me is how anybody at all, no matter how strong, can keep his spirit from breaking down in battle.”

Desertion was hardly unique to the Good War. More than 300,000 Union and Confederate men threw down their weapons during the American Civil War. (Mark Twain famously ran from both sides, Glass notes.) Twenty-four U.S. soldiers were condemned to death for desertion in World War I, though President Woodrow Wilson commuted each sentence.

In World War II, although the United States handed down the death penalty to 49 deserters, only one was executed—Eddie Slovik, who had been a petty thief as a Detroit teenager. Slovik’s final words: “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. Thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con….They are shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”

One of the soldiers Glass profiles is Stephen Weiss, an idealistic Brooklyn boy who enlisted in the army at 17. His father had been wounded and gassed in World War I. The young Weiss fought with distinction in Italy and France, even serving behind enemy lines with the French Resistance and the Office of Strategic Services. Glass builds a sympathetic portrait, detailing how the emotional toll of grinding, terrifying combat for months on end can drive men into a coma-like state in which flight is the sensible, instinctive reaction to what seems like certain death.

In October 1944, Weiss twice walked away from the 36th Infantry Division in France and sought the safety of the rear as his unit was pounded by German artillery. Asked at his court-martial why he had run, the 19-year-old said: “Because I broke down inside. The artillery shells were coming and I shook all over and just went to pieces.”

Weiss was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to life at hard labor. A psychologist at a military detention center interviewed him in 1945 and concluded, “Someone has made a horrible mistake.”

“How’s that, sir?” Weiss asked.

“You don’t belong here. You belong in a hospital.”

Weiss eventually gained his freedom. Years in therapy led him into a career as a psychologist, where he explored the effects of combat, military conformity, and prison on himself and others. Later, he moved to London to lecture at King’s College’s famed war studies department.

I found Glass’s book interesting and informative on a subject I knew little about. I still don’t understand why some men stand and fight while others desert and let their comrades down. But Glass clearly achieves his goal in this engrossing history: He portrays the deserters as human and understandably flawed.

 

David Lamb spent six years in Vietnam as a journalist. He is the author of Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns (2003).

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