Given that only one American soldier—the statistically unfortunate Private Eddie Slovik—was executed for desertion in World War II, one might conclude that it was rare for a soldier to prematurely leave the battlefield during that protracted conflict. Not so, says Charles Glass, the former chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News, in his new book, The Deserters. By official estimates, around 50,000 American and 100,000 British combatants deserted for various reasons and stretches of time. A great number of these fought bravely before and/or after their unsanctioned absences—and many deserted more than once.
The common denominator of these desertions, as Glass sifts through them, was battle fatigue, not cowardice. Indeed, he heads each of his chapters with a quotation from Psychology for the Fighting Man, Prepared for the Fighting Man Himself, a guide to understanding behavior caused by wartime stress, published in 1943 at the height of the war. (The insights conveyed in these quotations apply just as well to the flood of mentally damaged soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today.)
To convey the chaos and horror that so frequently led to desertion, Glass examines the individual histories of three soldiers—Americans Stephen Weiss and Alfred Whitehead and Englishman John Bain—who fought in campaigns throughout North Africa and Europe from the start of the war until Germany surrendered. All three men (hardly more than boys at the time) volunteered for service, and all gradually became disillusioned and embittered with the way the war played out. They witnessed friends dying under the most gruesome circumstances, suffered incompetent and indecisive leadership, lived like burrowing vermin on the front lines and endured the around-the-clock terror of imminent death or injury.
The tide of desertions was a double problem for the Allied Command. To begin with, it was a public relations embarrassment since it carried the message that not all soldiers were eager and heroic warriors, as the prevailing propaganda suggested. Moreover, it depleted the supply of men desperately needed at the front. Consequently, the definition of what constituted desertion became fairly elastic, and deserters were routinely forgiven if they agreed to return to battle.
Weiss, Whitehead and Bain were convicted of desertion and sentenced to long periods of hard labor. Ultimately, though, their sentences were reduced. Weiss became a psychologist, Whitehead a professional barber; Bain changed his name to Vernon Scannell and lived out the remainder of his life as a respected poet. None repudiated his actions or lost his distaste for war.