June 23, 2013

The subtitle of “The Deserters” calls it “A Hidden History of World War II,” but like so many subtitles these days, it is misleading. Rather than a broad overview of the desertion rate among infantrymen in the European theater — a reality often overlooked in histories of the war, especially those that parrot the “Greatest Generation” mythology — it is about three men who left their units and had to face the consequences. Their stories are interesting, and Charles Glass tells them well enough, but it would be a mistake to read cosmic meaning into them.

Only in recent years have the human aspects of the war begun to receive serious consideration by historians such as Rick Atkinson, Antony Beevor and Max Hastings, who are as concerned with the daily struggles of ordinary soldiers as with the grand strategies that sent them into battle and the leaders who devised those strategies. What became variously known as “combat fatigue,” “shell shock” or “battle exhaustion” was a common phenomenon among front-line troops, one commonly ignored or misunderstood, the most notable example of the latter being Gen. George Patton’s vicious verbal and physical attacks on two hospitalized soldiers whom he loudly accused of cowardice. In the 1940s, serious psychological study of soldiers’ responses to the strain and horror of warfare was only beginning to develop, and in the American armed forces (though not the British), the penalty for desertion was still death.

As Glass notes at the outset, only one soldier was actually put to death for desertion, and after the war his story was told by William Bradford Huie in an influential book, “The Execution of Private Slovik.” Eddie Slovik told the truth when, moments before the firing squad killed him, he said: “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army; thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody, and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.” In fact some 150,000 American and British soldiers deserted in the war, a very small percentage of those who served but the most vivid and painful evidence that warfare was not exactly the noble and heroic undertaking that its apologists have portrayed.

The two men most admired and respected by ordinary soldiers were not famous generals but journalists Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin, the former because his dispatches for the Scripps-Howard newspapers described their lives accurately and sympathetically, and the latter because his cartoons for Stars and Stripes did the same. They knew that life in the lines was often hell and didn’t shy away from depicting it as such. They didn’t condone desertion, but they knew that fear, confusion and exhaustion were far more likely to cause it than cowardice. As Glass writes: “Those who showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other frontline soldiers. They had, at one time or another, felt the temptation to opt out of the war through desertion, shooting themselves in the foot or lagging behind when ordered forward. It was a rare infantryman who attempted to prevent his comrades from leaving the line. The astounding fact is not that so many men deserted but that the deserters were so few.”

The three men whose stories Glass tells, all teenagers when they entered the service, are John Vernon Bain of Scotland, Steve Weiss of New York and Alfred T. Whitehead of Tennessee. By no stretch of the imagination could any of them be called a coward. All participated in combat, and Whitehead in particular was an aggressive soldier who displayed more than a little zeal in going after Germans. He had undergone “a brutal childhood” and subsequently “stressed his role as victim in the saga he was making of his life.” When a lieutenant had a nervous breakdown after an especially hard battle, Whitehead told the company commander: “I’ve been doing this man’s job all day, and here he is crying and carrying on like a baby. I’m scared too, but I’m still fighting.” As Glass says, “Already tough when he entered the army, Whitehead was becoming merciless.” Yet after surgery for appendicitis in early 1945, he decided that if the choice was between going back to the front and being killed or deserting, he’d do the latter, “taking his place in one of many gangs of ex-soldiers terrorizing Paris.” Glass writes:


‘The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II’ by Charles Glass (Penguin)

“Inevitably, the large number of men without identification papers or food ration coupons gravitated toward the criminal underworld for sustenance and false papers. Many deserters stole military supplies that gangsters sold for them on the black market, while others lived by armed robbery. One teenage deserter, a small-time criminal named ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, later recalled, ‘The war was a criminal’s paradise. The most exciting and profitable time ever. It broke my heart when Hitler surrendered.’ ”

In other words, some men deserted simply because they saw a better opportunity on the wrong side of the law. Still, psychological breakdown was the principal cause, as the stories of Bain and Weiss make plain. The former, a sensitive young man assigned to the famous Gordon Highlanders, was shocked to the core when, in the aftermath of a battle in Northern Africa, he saw his fellow soldiers looting the bodies of their dead companions. “My own friends went around looting the corpses,” he said after the war, “taking watches and wallets and that sort of thing. Off their own people. Why that is so much worse than taking it off the Germans, I don’t know, but it was somehow.” Soon thereafter he went on the lam, but was captured and sentenced to hard labor in a brutal prison. Eventually he was allowed to return to the lines, where he tried mightily to prove himself as a soldier and was severely wounded in battle. Finally, after recuperating in England, he went on the lam once again, joining “a vast network of anarchists, conscientious objectors and deserters.” In time he changed his name to Vernon Scannell and wrote haunting poetry (much of which Glass quotes) that ranks him alongside Keith Douglas as the war’s finest poets.

As for Weiss, he was the only one of the three still living while Glass researched and wrote “The Deserters,” so it is not surprising that he receives the lion’s share of the author’s attention. As a youth he had a difficult relationship with his father, who had served in the lines during World War I and was both bitter and silent about his experiences. Weiss had hoped to serve in the Psychological Warfare office but found himself in the infantry, as what he called “nothing more than a dog-face slogging infantry soldier.” At one point he and several others were separated from their unit deep in France, and “by default, they joined the French Resistance.” There Weiss found leadership far more worthy of respect than what the U.S. Army had offered him, but then his squad was invited to join a unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS): “Without realizing it, Steve Weiss had indirectly achieved his goal of transferring to Psychological Warfare,” which had once belonged to the same organization as the OSS.

The infantry caught up with him, though, and he was sent back to the front. He “overheard a Southern soldier in a foxhole nearby” saying, “You never see any Jews up on the front.” Weiss himself was Jewish, and “for the first time, ‘The thought of clearing out entered my mind.’ ” Finally he “felt incapable of going back into the line” and asked to be sent to noncombat duty. His request was rejected. He deserted, was arrested and put on trial. In what amounted to a kangaroo court — Glass’s account of the proceedings is devastating — he was convicted and sentenced to hard labor for the rest of his life, but then, after examination by a sympathetic psychologist, was offered the option to fight in the Pacific theater. Weiss, who had fought in the Mediterranean and European theaters, knew that Dwight Eisenhower had ordered that no soldier could be required to fight in three theaters: “The last laugh was [Wiess’s].”

Though “The Deserters” is not the “hidden history” its publisher seems to wish it to be, it does provide an intimate look at the whys and wherefores of three men who opted out of the front lines. At a time when the ravages of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the general public more aware than ever of the price too many soldiers pay for their service, that helps.

THE DESERTERS

A Hidden History of World War II

By Charles Glass

Penguin Press. 380 pp. $27.95