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Murray Polner: Review of Charles Glass's "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" (Penguin 2013)

Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, edited When Can I Come Home: A Debate on Amnesty for Exiles, Antiwar Prisoners and Others.

In a nation where World War II is commonly celebrated in films and TV in an aura of triumphalism, Charles Glass’s book The Deserters” re-examines a phase of the war that has essentially been overlooked by extollers of the "Good War." (Glass was the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993 and also covered Africa and the Balkans.)

The unfortunate Eddie Slovik may have been the only GI executed for desertion during the Second World War, but his desertion in 1944 was hardly an anomaly (hence the executon, pour encourager les autres). In the Civil War, which took the lives of 750,000 soldiers, about 300,000 deserted from Union and Confederate armies, Mark Twain famously among them. During World War I, more than 300 British soldiers were executed, among them many deserters. Not until 2006, following a campaign organized by a citizen’s group “Shot at Dawn,” did the British government finally deign to pardon them. During World War II, the number of deserters executed by the German Wehrmachtnumberd in the thousands.

The Deserters is not a defense of desertion. It is a rational examination asking why so many chose to escape. Glass tells us is that during World War II, 100,000 British and 50,000 American soldiers deserted, several thousand Americans were punished and 49 received death sentences, though only Slovik's was carried out.

Glass focuses on three deserters: the Americans Stephen Weiss and Alfred Whitehead and John Vernon Bain, a British soldier.

At age seventeen, Brooklyn-born Stephen Weiss volunteered and fought in Italy and France. Stranded behind German lines he joined a group of French partisans. When he reconnected with his unit, his buddies asked him why he even bothered to return. Tried and found guilty of desertion he was imprisoned, eventually freed and is today a psychiatrist in California.

Alfred Whitehead was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars for heroism, but after experiencing periods of prolonged combat he deserted and joined other Americans to run criminal and black market gangs in newly-liberated Paris. In time, he was discovered, punished, discharged, and eventually self-published a memoir, which together with Weiss’s two memoirs, are cited in Glass’s bibliography. When he died, his son told Glass, "For years Dad just went through the emotions of being alive. He never laughed, rarely smiled and was always distant in mood,” adding that he believed his father died long before “in the fields and hedgerows of France.”

John Vernon Bain, who later called himself Vernon Scannell, had been a working-class boxer who volunteered in 1940 and grew to despise military life. He deserted in North Africa, but was captured and tortured in a British prison in Egypt,. He was returned to the army, but deserted again on V-E Day. In 1953 Winston Churchill declared a general amnesty for World War II deserters -- Scannell was releated married, taught, and became a celebrated and honored poet, seven of whose books are listed in the bibliography. The war never left him, and he revisited it in many of his poems.

Relying on extensive interviewing, diaries, courts-martial proceedings and self-published memoirs, Glass’s challenging and striking book points out that of the three million American troops shipped to Europe only some ten percent “were in combat at the same time” while infantrymen suffered the overwhelming number of the casualties. "Few deserters were cowards," Glass argues. “I was nothing more than a dog-faced slogging infantry soldier,” Weiss wrote while fighting in the Italian campaign. “For troops who were not killed or injured," commented Glass, "the only way out was surrender, a self-inflicted wound, insanity or desertion.” Many would crack under the strain of battle or simply desert.

How to cope with wartime deserters was a real problem for the Army given that an Army provost marshal report estimated that thousands of deserters were loose in France, probably protected by French civilians and soldiers who refused to turn them in. Initially, the Army tried the traditional approach: courts-martials, threatened executions, and stockades, but that never stopped the flow. Following the negative reaction after General Gorge Patton’s slapping of a soldier obviously suffering from combat fatigue, some field commanders changed their normally get-tough views.

Major General John E. Dahlquist, Weiss’ combat infantry commander, wrote to his superior that “the problem of war weary men in the Infantry of the old divisions which fought in Italy is one of the most serious we have” and he urged that they “should be removed from the Infantry because they have lost their ‘zip’ and tend to weaken the fighting spirit of the new men.” In effect, he was urging treatment rather than punishment. Dahlquist’s judgment was rejected by his rear echelon superiors.

Glass also cites an investigation by General Elliot D. Cooke, who set out to find out why so many Americans refused to serve. Unmentioned by Glass was the uproar over the October 1940 passage of a one-year draft law by just one congressional vote, which was followed the following October by the spontaneous “Over the Hill in October” movement led by draftees who wanted out.

Class and the right connections have always counted. Cooke learned that some draft boards had generously exempted the favored few. In one case, the local draft board had declared fourteen members of the Rice University football team ineligible for service. This favoritism, often by class or privileged occupation, continued well into Vietnam, when virtually no major league baseball player served on active duty during the war (nor did most congressional adult children), thanks to what may well have been a tacit arrangement between draft officials and ball clubs allowing otherwise eligible young players to enlist in previously hard-to-secure havens in the Reserves and National Guard, a subject the independent scholar Ron Briley has explored on this website and elsewhere.

I once overheard a World War II vet at a “Support Our Boys” pro-Vietnam War rally say, “Scratch a guy who wants war and you’ll find he never served in combat.” True or not, perhaps fewer wars might mean fewer desertions if combat vets made the call. I remember reading an op-ed in 2010 in the New York Times by Larry Pressler, a Vietnam vet and former Republican senator from South Dakota. In it, he recalled, the time he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Many of those who avoided the [Vietnam] war became advocates of a muscular foreign policy,” he wrote. “I encountered far too many Democrats and Republicans who did not serve in the war when they had a chance, and who overcompensated for their unease by sending others into harm’s way.”

As they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows, may do again in Syria and Iran. The alternative: No war, no deserters.