Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book R & R: The Deserters

This Book Review and Recommendation is for "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" by Charles Glass.

The United States put approximately sixteen million men and women in uniform during WWII. Only about ten percent of them actually saw combat as front line soldiers, marines, and sailors. If you have ever read even one book on the combat history of a unit, you will come to realize that most combat units during the Second World War, once initial training was complete and sent to a theater of operations, saw combat over and over, for weeks at a time. Units would participate in a campaign, then be sent to a rear area to receive and train replacements, before heading into combat again for the next campaign. It was not uncommon, like in the case of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, to see at the end of the war only a handful of men still remaining who had been with the unit from the start.

Of course we all now know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the affect it has on military personnel in every echelon. However, during WWII, "combat fatigue" was commonly believed to be something you could more or less cure in a few days with a little rest, recreation, and a hot meal. About 50,000 men deserted from the battlefields of Europe during the war. (There were negligible desertions in the Pacific, as the soldiers and marines really had no place to desert to.) According to author Charles Glass, many of these soldiers left the line as a result of "shell shock" or "battle fatigue," or what we now call PTSD. Others became disillusioned with the war, wondering what they were going to die for. Over seventy percent of deserters were from front line units, and they were judged harshly and treated quite unfairly by their rear echelon peers and commanders.

Charles Glass is the former Chief Middle East Correspondent for ABC News, and has authored other highly praised narrative histories with a World War II theme like "Americans in Paris." In "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II" he examines the reality of what it cost in terms of human sacrifice to win the Second World War. To accomplish this Glass tells us the stories of three soldiers, one British and two American, who ran afoul of the system's treatment of those soldiers who deserted as a reaction to "battle fatigue" (PTSD). It is well researched and engagingly written. Along the way you will learn about the incompetence of the medical evaluation of these men and the cruelty of the military justice system. You will read how the military handled executions, (for crimes other than desertion, Private Eddie Slovak was the only soldier executed during WWII for that offense), and learn about criminal gangs of deserters in Paris and London who were actually slowing the war effort because of their theft of Allied military supplies for sale on the black market. If you are like me, "The Deserters" will expose a facet of the war in Europe that you have never considered.

Here's an anecdote for you: During my masters program, I took a class on the Civil War. On the first night of class the professor stated clearly that "in this class we will never read or discuss anything having to do with anyone pointing a gun at another person." He meant that the class was about the results and reactions to the war, not the tactics and strategy of it. We read and discussed books about the literature of the war, the medical and burial systems during the war, the home front during the war, and so on. We read, wrote a paper on, and passionately discussed (some might say argued) thirteen books in thirteen weeks and it was one of the best classes on military history I've ever had, a real eye-opener.

If you wish to have a well informed, thorough understanding of war, and particularly WWII, then I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this book. 

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