The Deserters by Charles Glass

Posted by on Sep 1, 2001 in Book Notes

The Deserters by Charles Glass

The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, Charles Glass (Penguin Press, 2013, 380 pp.)

The DesertersIn The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, (Penguin Press, 2013, 380 pp.) Charles Glass tells about an aspect of that conflict that has not been much discussed elsewhere. About 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted their armed forces (the British were in combat for a much longer period of time).

More than 21,000 Americans were convicted of desertion, 49 were sentenced to death, and only one was actually executed. US desertion rates reached a peak of about 6% at the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and were always concentrated in the infantry and other front-line units. The figures for many other combatant nations, particularly Germany and the USSR, were reportedly much higher. Desertion has always been a problem for the US military, particularly in the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and has generally been higher in times of peace than during war.

Some WW II deserters left their units to take up with a local woman, some became black-market racketeers dealing in goods stolen from military supplies, but most simply broke under the strain of battle. Many of these had fought valiantly for long periods of time and had earned medals for valor, then reached a point where they could no longer function in conditions of extreme stress. The stress came from a variety of sources, including commanders’ decisions limiting rotation out of combat, and the contrast between conditions on the front-line and those further back in the chain of logistics and support. Those who were most sympathetic to deserters were other front-line soldiers.

After an excellent introduction and overview, most of the rest of the book focuses on three representative soldiers (two Americans and one Brit) who left their posts in North Africa, Italy, and France, and whose behavior illustrated the three major motivations for desertion: fear, disgust, and greed. Using detailed research on the psychology behind desertion, the conventions and military mores of the day and the punishment they faced, Glass claims that deserters were not cowards at all. Deserting was a natural human response to the extreme psychological stress of war.

Charles Glass also wrote Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under the Nazi Regime, (The Penguin Press, 2009), reviewed here in the fall of 2012.

The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the September, 2013 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.

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