Deserters are almost universally despised but this true story of one British soldier in World War II suggests that readers may want to reconsider that stance.
Alan Juniper was a deserter. At the behest of Juniper’s daughter, Owen (East of Coker, 2016, etc.) agreed to attempt her father’s rehabilitation. Pvt. Juniper (1918-2016) was called up in December 1939 and, after rudimentary training, he wound up in the North Africa campaign as a truck driver. In the summer of 1942, he deserted and spent time in a military prison. He was released early, on the condition that he resume fighting. And then, during a horrendous campaign in Italy, he deserted again in 1944. The villagers of Lucagnano sheltered him until the military police finally found and arrested him. It needs noting right off that Owen has “walked the walk,” having seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the outset, he admits to some ambivalence about desertion. But as he begins to convince himself, he also starts to persuade his readers. Along the way, he explores the history of desertion and its punishments and the evolving attitudes toward it, touching on moral philosophy and modern psychology. One striking fact in the book is that the British army executed hundreds of deserters in World War I, including one boy who lied about his age, panicked in France, and was shot. But in World War II, between the Americans and the British, only one man, the hapless Eddie Slovik, was executed. The author also deftly discusses the modern case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and there are partisans on both sides of that incident. A surprising fact is that very often fellow soldiers in combat do not blame or scorn the deserter, knowing that “but for the grace of God...” Recognizing the reality of PTSD (“shell shock” back then), Owen suggests that many deserters were casualties, not cowards. The research is impressive and the volume provides a bibliography, notes, timelines, and so forth. While the author may not sway every reader, he has certainly delivered an illuminating work. Unfortunately, the book needs proofreading (“They could be completely silent in the future if their voices and experiences not captured in the coming years”).
An effective and thoughtful examination of a deserter.