‘The Guns at Last Light,’’ the concluding volume of Rick Atkinson’s magnificent Liberation Trilogy, is conquering the bestseller lists and will surely be the most lauded World War II title of the year. But “The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II,’’ Charles Glass’s powerful and often startling new book, should not be overlooked. One of the best works of nonfiction I’ve reviewed this year, it offers a provokingly fresh angle on this most studied of conflicts.
Where Atkinson works on vast canvas, Glass, a former ABC Mideast correspondent, zeroes in on the stories of three infantrymen, two American and one British, who quit the ranks during their respective tours of duties as they fought in North Africa, Italy, and France. Fear, exhaustion, or outright disgust were the primary motivations for two; greed helped drive the third.
Some 150,000 British and American soldiers would desert over the course of the war. THOUGH tHE DESERTERS MADE UP BARELY 1 PERCENT OF THE COMBINED FORCES, 8 OUT OF EVERY 10 CAME FROM COMBAT UNITS, AN ALARMINGLY HIGH RATE given what was at stake as the Allies pushed toward Germany. HOWEVER, Glass puts a sympathetic gloss on the phenomena.
“Few deserters were cowards,” he writes. “Many broke under the strain of constant battle, having faced the Axis enemy without letup for months at a time. OWING to the Allies’ flawed system of replacing troops at the front, men were pushed beyond their limit. Poor leadership by undertrained junior officers, many OF WHOM stayed back from combat, left young soldiers without inspiration to endure daily artillery barrages along often-static front lines. High desertion rates in any company, battalion or division pointed to failures of command and logistics for which blame pointed to leaders as much as to the men who deserted.”
Though it offers a trenchant critique of the way the Allies mismanaged the desertion problem, “The Deserters” excels PRIMARILY in the way Glass tells the stories of how three individuals experienced war. This is a stripped down, unromanticized, intimate history of battle in all of its confusion, chaos, terror, and moral ambiguity. Intricately structured — the author DEFTLY JUGGLES THREE NARRATIVE STRANDS — and beautifully paced to build suspense, this tightly focused account, which draws on memoirs, archives, police files, psychiatric records, is neither reverent nor disapproving.
They came from far and wide. Brooklyn-born Stephen Weiss joined up at 17, much to the disapproval of his World War I veteran father, who told him, “War’s about killing, terrible suffering and broken spirit.” Tennessee native Alfred Whitehead became a soldier to escape hardscrabble poverty and an abusive stepfather, while Briton John Vernon Bain, who is remembered today as the poet Vernon Scannell, ended up in the army because COLORBLINDNESS AND A PUNCH-DAMAGED EYE HAD disqualified HIM from service in the Royal Air Force.
An amateur boxer in civilian life, Bain was a tough fellow; but, by his own admission, he was congenitally unsuited to military life, “impractical, unpunctual, and clumsy.” Serving in the 51st Highland Division, he fought at El Alamein, and then in Tunisia, where he deserted after watching British troops loot their own dead. For his actions, he was sent to the notorious Mustafa Detention Barracks, a place so grim smiling was a punishable offense. But his combat experience too valuable to be kept locked up, Bain, given the chance to fight again, came ashore at Normandy on D-day. Later wounded and sent home, he deserted again at the war’s end, fed up with the army and fearful he “would become a brown automaton, a thing without imagination, intelligence, ambition.”
Weiss’s story is even more remarkable. Determined to get himself into the Psychological Warfare Branch, he was instead sent to the bloodied and battered 36th Infantry Division as a replacement and served in Italy, and then France. A “dog-faced slogging infantry soldier,” he persevered despite grueling conditions — a scout, he was relentlessly shelled and sniped at. When his squad was cut off near Valence, in the Rhone Valley, he linked up and fought with distinction in the French Resistance, which gave him a warm bed and hot meals.
He later rejoined his company — to his dismay, several friends had been killed during his absence — and finally quit in 1944 during harsh late-autumn fighting in the Vosges Mountains, disturbed by his commanding officer’s lackluster leadership and fearful HE had become a threat to his fellow soldiers. (He fumbled with a grenade and nearly blew himself up). He was court-marshaled and sentenced to a life term of hard labor.
Glass suggests throughout that the army’s use of punitive measures against Weiss and other soldiers suffering from stress was a wrong-headed way to handle what was essentially a mental health crisis. Weiss’s strain was also aggravated by his sense that troops in the rear were not brought up to spell front-line soldiers. (The 36th Division had the highest rate of desertion in the European theater.)
To his credit, Glass does not try to fit his deserters into fixed categories; each faced the existential challenge of imminent death in different ways. For Whitehead, a boozer and brawler who endured savage fighting in the Normandy countryside — he won Silver and Bronze stars — this meant a crime spree in liberated Paris. He has served his country, and now he would serve himself by hijacking supply trucks in broad daylight. Glass does not moralize about the behavior of Whitehead, Weiss, or Bain; instead his outstanding book brings us closer to understanding such men and their motives.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.