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BOOK REVIEW: 'The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II'
Although the name of Pvt. Eddie Slovik quickly comes to mind, Glass does more; rather than recount the story of a single man, the only soldier executed for desertion in World War II, he selects three men from two armies and delves deeply into their lives and their experiences and lets the reader -- unconsciously or not -- determine whether they fit the label of deserter.
What Glass does in a very compassionate way is to invite the reader to see the fear and terror of staring death through the eyes of those who were there and asking them, ‘what would you do in this situation?’ It is always easy to read of war from afar and titles of greatest generations notwithstanding, realize that war for the infantry is frequently a vicious gang fight with better weapons and clothes.
In addition to describing the fate of three men whose reasons for deserting are minutely examined, Glass also destroys whatever is left of the myth of The Good War. Glass brings the reader down into the trenches, literally, and vividly and exhaustively exposes what the American and British soldier, the 10% who actually did the fighting, supposedly the most liberally equipped and feted of all the Allied armies. He peels back the big picture veneer of official government reports and describes in uncomfortable detail the bone numbing cold, wet, hungry, exhausted, terrified and therefore marginally effective fighting men.
What many may not know, and many post-war governments are reluctant to report, is that a number of deserters did not simply fade away and disappear, seeking some level of anonymity. A worrisome number became outlaws, thieves and gangsters; murdering, stealing food, fuel, weapons, ammunition and even vehicles from supply dumps, railroad trains and warehouses. In 1942 in North Africa after Tobruk fell to the German Afrika Korps General Erwin Rommel, the fear of a German advance to Alexandria and Cairo caused thousands of British soldiers and rear area staff to desert and flee to Palestine and hide in the slums of Cairo.
In places, Glass records in horrifying detail the types and numbers of punishment meted out to the prisoners in ‘the glasshouse’ prison in Egypt, hauntingly similar to Prisoner of War Louis Zamperini in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken.
The impact of the behind the lines lawlessness was affecting the pace of the Allied advance in France and Germany in the last months of 1944. Military (MP) units had their hands full in combating this significant problem. Glass quotes from Yank magazine and the Washington Post:
“ . . .[L]ast September when Patton’s tanks reached the Siegfried Line and ran dry while Army trucks were backed up the whole length of the Champs Elysees (Paris) with GI’s selling gas by the canful and cigarettes by the carton.”
With millions of men in the U.S. and British armies as well as ex French soldiers and local criminals, even a small percentage of these men; AWOL and deserters, made a significant lawless group. Of these deserters, as the armies moved beyond Paris and the German’s retreated, the bulk of the criminals and deserters stayed in Paris, where the market and wealth was located. The big profits were in stolen gasoline and trucking, which was surprising considering how scarce food was in the City of Light just a few short months ago, some military railroad supply trains lost as much as 95% of their cargo to thieves.
Although the selection of three men to portray deserters out of the many thousands may be a slip sample size, Glass does an exhausting job of research into the lives of these men to provide context for their actions and through them tell the story of the remaining thousands.
About the AuthorCHARLES GLASS was the chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993 and has covered wars in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He is the author of Americans in Paris, Tribes with Flags, The Tribes Triumphant, Money for Old Rope, and The Northern Front. His writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Independent, and The Spectator. Born in Los Angeles, Glass divides his time among Paris, Tuscany, and London.