Among the ‘Greatest Generation’, many of whom fought bravely in the Second World War, there were also shirkers, Charles Glass says in his new book, which focuses on three US soldiers who deserted, writes Steve Donoghue
Cowards among heroes
When Gandhi commented “fear has its use, but cowardice has none”, he was being high-principled but obtuse; as is amply demonstrated in the pages of Charles Glass’s absorbing new book The Deserters, cowardice has at least one use: it can work very well at keeping a person alive in dangerous circumstances. And perhaps a second use: cowardice is often the willing servant of opportunism. There is no calculation involved in walking shoulder to shoulder with your platoon-mates into enemy fire – there can’t be, or no sane person would do it. Calculation is what works in the background and around the edges of such bright heroism; calculation is all too often what kicks in the moment heroism begins to falter.
These are not terms in which today’s sons and grandsons of the men who fought in the Second World War have been raised and taught to think about the “Greatest Generation”. As the number of direct participants continues to dwindle with each passing year, the war increasingly fades from living memory to a sum of documents – a process famous for clarifying things but also infamous for allowing a romantic patina to glaze over.
Glass, a celebrated reporter and first-rate researcher, could easily have crafted his new book into something more in keeping with that encroaching hagiography, that reflexive ideology that’s so pervasive (especially in the United States) about “the last good war”. That he’s chosen instead to concentrate on the subject of desertion instead is a mark of some counter-culture curiosity – and a fair amount of courage. He focuses his narrative on three deserters – British Private John Bain, Sergeant Alfred Whitehead of Tennessee and Private Steve Weiss of Brooklyn, New York. He hopes to use their experiences as a prism through which the whole subject can be examined.
Readers familiar with Glass’s 1991 masterpiece combination travelogue and frontline reporting about the Middle East, Tribes with Flags, will know how skilfully the author can do this particular kind of narrative. Glass opens his account by reminding us that out of all the nearly 50,000 American soldiers who deserted during the Second world War, and the 100,000 British soldiers who deserted, only one was executed: the 25-year-old American Private Eddie Slovik was shot by a firing squad on January 31, 1945 (he had the bad luck to have his appeal come before the Allied high command at the height of the Battle of the Bulge).
According to Glass, 80 per cent of Slovik’s fellow deserters were “frontline infantrymen escaping after a long period of continuous combat”, and readers will be appalled by Glass’s accounts of how those frontline infantrymen were treated by their superiors. Whole companies of combat troops were kept at the front lines for months on end without reprieve, until even the most idealistic soldiers could ask along with First World War poet Wilfred Owen: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”
Glass’s main characters, Weiss, Whitehead and Bain, all saw the war well before they abandoned it, and they were all hardy young men. It’s difficult to call them simply cowardly – say rather that they’re complexly cowardly.
Weiss deserted his battalion during combat with the Germans and eventually joined the French Resistance; Whitehead came to something like Joseph Heller’s wry observation that “it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead”, joined a gang and turned to black marketeering (he later wrote a privately printed memoir titled Diary of a Soldier, on which Glass relies rather more heavily than is good for his book); Bain, arrested for desertion and categorised as an SUS – Soldier Under Suspicion – and confronted with close confinement in an isolation cell six feet by eight feet: “I’ve got to stay here for three days, seventy-two hours, with nothing to do nothing to read, nothing to look at. I shall go mad.”
All three survived the war and reached the old age denied to so many of their erstwhile comrades, and Glass follows them through the twists and turns of their postwar lives without censure or judgement. He returns throughout his book to the deep psychological poisoning of what was known at the time as “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” (what we know today as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
As Glass puts it, some commanders recognised that “the mind – subject to the daily threat of death, the concussion of aerial bombardment and high-velocity artillery, the fear of landmines and booby traps, malnutrition, appalling hygiene and lack of sleep – suffered wounds as real as the body’s”. He confirms that “providing shattered men with counselling, hot food, clean clothes and rest was more likely to restore them to duty than threatening them with a firing squad”. Indeed, a British army pamphlet pointed out: “Given sufficient stress and sufficient strain, any person may break down”.
The sympathetic angle here has been a prominent aesthetic response to Glass’s main subject at least since the famous incident when General George Patton slapped a soldier complaining of “shell shock” in an infirmary in Sicily. A study referenced by Glass records that 36 per cent of Allied soldiers facing battle for the first time were more afraid of being a coward than of being wounded, and he doesn’t shy away from the more sordid ramifications that arise from the fact that his three main characters defied those percentages.
Glass asserts that only a small minority of deserters turned to opportunism, to banditry, stealing military and medical supplies and selling them on a large and booming black market – a morally ambiguous world memorably summed up by a UPI correspondent commenting on what Allied “liberation” meant to Naples: “It meant to both the Italians and the invaders that an Allied military government got something for nothing: such as an Italian’s wife or a bottle of brandy he took from an intimidated bartender without paying for it.”
Cerebral Private Bain is by far the book’s most sympathetic character precisely because he seems to genuinely feel the doubt or remorse Whitehead and Weiss only feint at; Bain went on to become a poet and novelist writing under the name of Vernon Scannell, and the unease he felt since he witnessed his friends looting their comrades’ corpses at Wadi Akarit during the war is wonderfully portrayed by Glass. “In his mind,” our author writes, “he had not run away, because he was no longer there … A psychiatrist later told him he had suffered a ‘fugue’. From the Latin for flight, it meant a sudden escape from reality.”
Something very much like that escape from reality governs a good part of this book. The amazing powers of sympathy that make Glass’s writing so electrifying here too often obscure the fact that Bain, for example, did run away from his comrades and his cause, regardless of what the Latin translation is. However much combat Weiss and Whitehead might have withstood without flinching, they too ran away from their comrades and vigorously sought their own profit through larceny and extortion. Glass’s book represents an enormous enlargement in our understanding of the human dimensions of the Second World War, but he too often loses sight of the fact that his three main protagonists aren’t worthy of his sympathies, or his readers’ sympathies. They are complicated men, conflicted men, but they are also weak men, venal men, bad men.
Part of this is perhaps attributable to overreach. The subtitle of Glass’s book is A Hidden History of World War II, and the narrative is always at its strongest when broadening to give broad-stroke depictions of such things as the North Africa campaign or the conquest of Sicily. Glass has always specialised in small human stories, so this talent for sweeping historical overview is sometimes overlooked. But the two subject headings – the wide-angle looks at Second World War history and the close-focus looks at these three deserters – only very faintly overlap at any point during The Deserters. The book’s two storylines run parallel for the whole of its length and do little to reinforce each other, and it’s to the author’s credit that he manages to make both equally fascinating.
Glass quotes the great Second World War historian John Keegan: “What war can ever be wonderful, least of all one that killed 50 million people, destroyed swathes of Europe’s cultural heritage, depraved its politics, devalued the very moral basis of its civilisation?” The main strength of The Deserters, however unworthy its actors, is to remind readers always to ask the abbreviation of Keegan’s question: “What war can ever be wonderful?”
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.