Thursday, February 20, 2014

Quit Listening: "Deserters" by Charles Glass

Quit Listening: Deserters: a hidden history of World War II by Charles Glass, 2013, download.

I was expecting something different.  I thought this would be more like What Soldiers Do with an academic and historical look at desertion and deserters.  Statistics on AWOL and desertion.  Statistics on conviction rates, standard sentences, pardons and releases.  Follow-ups with convicted soldiers and fellow unit members.

Nope.  This does covers some general information on the problem of desertion and the reasons for it.  Most of the focus is on three soldiers, two from the USA and one from the UK.  The three are fairly different guys and all deserted at one point or another. 

The problem I had with Glass is that he focuses so tightly on those three combat soldiers.  The book is more battle history than the title implies.  He follows there childhood, enlistment, training and fighting.  Glass works from documents and interviews.  One soldier's memoirs seem, well they seem to be liberally peppered with bullshit.

American soldier Weiss fights through Italy and France and only considers taking off late in the war.  Everyone else he knew is dead or wounded.  Weiss suffered under the replacement system with new guys shipped in piecemeal.  Officers and noncoms were sometimes lousy.  Replacements are under trained and inexperienced cannon fodder.  When I quit listening Weiss had finally had enough and took off after yet another artillery barrage.

One Brit first serves in Rommel's first North African campaign.  He writes that at the end of a hilltop battle he is appalled at the thievery of his fellow soldiers.  He is shocked by the battle as well, or course, and just wanders off.  He is caught and tried and sent to a North African prison with a three year sentence.  The camp is in the desert and no different than the camp in The Hill (I saw the movie, did not read the book).  Horrible conditions with sadistic guards and long days of work whose only purpose is punishment.  He is released when the British Army asks for volunteers to refill the ranks for the French invasions.

Glass explores the theme of stress and PTSD throughout the book.  He liberally quotes from a combat guide about stress and fear and fighting.  

There are as many reasons for desertion as deserters.  Many just can't take anymore combat stress. Some complain of the dehumanizing ways of the military.  Some are crooks working in the incredibly lucrative black market.  Some just get drunk and decide to stay on leave for a few months with their new English or Italian or French girlfriend.

1.  One reason for my dissatisfaction is the recent Greatest Generation mystique.  I have no arguement with that appreciation for sacrifice and hard work.  What annoys me is when the bullshit, corruption and stupidity are glossed over.  Desertion is a hidden history - like What Soldiers Do - that covers a distasteful topic.  I wish Glass took a different tack.
2.  Military justice.  I remember being surprised when I first learned during a college lecture that military justice is for discipline.  Justice is for the Army, not the soldier.  Many soldiers could not accept that.

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