THE DESERTERS by Charles Glass


A Hidden History of World War II
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Glass (Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under the Nazi Occupation, 2011, etc.) takes on the nearly taboo subject of Allied soldiers who deserted or were said to have displayed cowardice during World War II.

Tracking in detail the wartime biographies of three privates in the infantry—Tennessee farm boy Alfred Whitehead, Brooklyner Steve Weiss and Britisher John Bain—the author constructs a frame for his much broader, and quite provocative, discussion of military personnel policy. Each of his subjects was court martialed and sentenced to long-term incarceration. But each had also fought bravely, and continuously, through a series of campaigns in Africa and Europe, including the Anzio landings, the D-Day invasion and its aftermath, and the assault on Nazi Germany itself. Weiss, for example, won medals for bravery and, when separated from his unit, served with paratroops and the French Resistance. Glass situates the men's individual pathways within the context of a personnel policy that failed to fully assimilate lessons from World War I, when it was first acknowledged that there were limits to what combat soldiers could endure, both mentally and physically. Nevertheless, WWII military leaders prioritized combat experience, keeping veteran fighters in the field since raw replacement troops were not as effective; this led to increased pressure on long-serving soldiers that sometimes became intolerable. By the summer of 1944, the Allies' combat units were suffering in excess of 10 percent casualties per month. The command level was divided between supporters of treating desertion as a discipline problem and those who advocated a medical response. Glass shows how deserters established criminal networks in liberated cities like Naples, Marseilles and Paris, diverting military supplies on a significant scale. Using memoirs, correspondence and military records, the author works outward from his three individual protagonists, through their networks of friends and comrades, to their units and larger questions about the war's conduct.

A well-written, fast-moving treatment of an issue still relevant today.

Pub Date: June 17th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59420-428-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2013


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