As a child of the fifties I grew up with the world―or more specifically, the war―of my father, World War II. I didn’t know it then, but that world and that war was to be the last great victory for the United States. In those early days I was immersed in the fiction of the great battle against Nazi tyranny. The struggle was portrayed in the movies, books, and comics as the good fight of light against darkness, a clearly defined good battling an easily identifiable evil. World War II was all I heard of or read about.
World War II seemed the only war that was openly discussed in popular media. The year before I was born a tenuous cease fire ended the Korean Conflict, but no one talked about Korea because it was neither technically a war nor a victory. In just a few years, the United States was about to become embroiled in Vietnam, another non-war and non-victory.
I bring this up by way of introduction to The Deserters, A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass. The Deserters is one of several books recently published that escape the routine retelling of battles and geopolitical histories, choosing instead to focus on the human cost of war.
Glass tells the story of three men― Americans Alfred Whitehead and Steve Weiss, and Englishman John Bain. Each of their stories is broken into two distinct parts. The first part is enlistment and the experience of combat. The second part is the aftermath of the decision to walk away from war. Like many deserters these men were not cowards, they were pushed to the edge of endurance by a military system that dehumanized them, mismanaged them, and finally judged them. What we now recognize as PTSD was labelled by the military establishment as cowardice or “battle fatigue”. War has come a long way since then, maybe.
Glass provides a thoroughly, not entirely sympathetic, highly readable tale that for me was revelatory. As reporter, he weaves the individual stories of these three men within the context of the times and follows them to their inevitable ends. And while their stories are both entertaining and touching, the greater import of this book is that desertion is not confined to that era. As surely as war continues, the stories of men and women pushed to the edge of their endurance in combat will continue. The incalculable complexity of their final decision to walk away from the fight will be a challenge to battle management, the military judicial system, and the American public to understand and accept or condemn.
Discover The Deserters, A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.