Friday, June 6, 2014

The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass

'The Deserters' is an insightful foray into a subject that many historians and researchers of the Second World War gloss over or never even deem worthy enough to address.  The First World War has a more interesting history of desertion as most, if not all armies, witnessed droves of soldiers either desert en masse or attempt to 'strike' at one point or another.  But when workers strike businesses lose money and workers lose their pay, when soldiers strike (or desert) wars cannot be fought, less so won, thus presenting a serious challenge to governments and military institutions.

While there are numerous weaknesses in 'The Deserters', I felt focusing the reader's attention on deserters and deconstructing the usual representation of the Second World War in 'Good = allies' and 'Bad = axis' binaries, made this a worthwhile read.  Such a simplistic portray of the 'greatest generation' does little to better our understanding of the environment war breeds, including the inevitable bureaucracy that comes along with any large military institution.  Thus, a concentration on soldiers and the circumstances that led them to eventually desert - including the events that led to breaking points in their ability to cope with being on the front lines - helps the reader understand that not all 'deserters' are the same and shouldn't be lumped under the usual idea of someone who betrayed their comrades and simply walked, or ran, toward the rear.  Although such situations did occur, at other times the circumstances were much less dramatic as psychological breaks, rather than cowardice,  suddenly took away a soldier's ability to fight.

The above is really the best part of this volume.  The weaknesses, however, include a writing style that reads more journalistic than academic (and since the author is a journalist that shouldn't be a surprise).  Although such a writing style helps with readability, it is a reflection of the fact that this isn't an academic text and thus at times the analysis is rather superficial.  The author can point out instances of desertion, quote from memoirs and interviews, but such evidence is limited, anecdotal, and doesn't really advance any argument(s).  So, while, as mentioned above, this is a good starting point for a discussion about desertion, especially within the confines of the allies during the Second World War, this text raises more questions than it answers.

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