A Hidden History of World War II
“Powerful and often startling…The Deserters offers a provokingly fresh angle on this most studied of conflicts.” --The Boston Globe
A groundbreaking history of ordinary soldiers struggling on the front lines, The Deserters offers a completely new perspective on the Second World War. Charles Glass—renowned journalist and author of the critically acclaimed Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation—delves deep into army archives, personal diaries, court-martial records, and self-published memoirs to produce this dramatic and heartbreaking portrait of men overlooked by their commanders and ignored by history.
Surveying the 150,000 American and British soldiers known to have deserted in the European Theater, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II tells the life stories of three soldiers who abandoned their posts in France, Italy, and Africa. Their deeds form the backbone of Glass’s arresting portrait of soldiers pushed to the breaking point, a sweeping reexamination of the conditions for ordinary soldiers.
With the grace and pace of a novel, The Deserters moves beyond the false extremes of courage and cowardice to reveal the true experience of the frontline soldier. Glass shares the story of men like Private Alfred Whitehead, a Tennessee farm boy who earned Silver and Bronze Stars for bravery in Normandy—yet became a gangster in liberated Paris, robbing Allied supply depots along with ordinary citizens. Here also is the story of British men like Private John Bain, who deserted three times but never fled from combat—and who endured battles in North Africa and northern France before German machine guns cut his legs from under him. The heart of The Deserters resides with men like Private Steve Weiss, an idealistic teenage volunteer from Brooklyn who forced his father—a disillusioned First World War veteran—to sign his enlistment papers because he was not yet eighteen. On the Anzio beachhead and in the Ardennes forest, as an infantryman with the 36th Division and as an accidental partisan in the French Resistance, Weiss lost his illusions about the nobility of conflict and the infallibility of American commanders.
Far from the bright picture found in propaganda and nostalgia, the Second World War was a grim and brutal affair, a long and lonely effort that has never been fully reported—to the detriment of those who served and the danger of those nurtured on false tales today. Revealing the true costs of conflict on those forced to fight, The Deserters is an elegant and unforgettable story of ordinary men desperately struggling in extraordinary times.
The Boston Globe:
“Powerful and often startling…The Deserters offers a provokingly fresh angle on this most studied of conflicts… This is a stripped down, unromanticized, intimate history of battle in all of its confusion, chaos, terror, and moral ambiguity. Intricately structured — the author deftly juggles three narrative strands — and beautifully paced to build suspense, this tightly focused account, which draws on memoirs, archives, police files, psychiatric records, is neither reverent nor disapproving.”
The Wall Street Journal:
“By focusing on the stories of three deserters—two Americans, one Briton—Mr. Glass argues persuasively that deserters weren't the cowards of popular assumption but rational men making a natural choice to stay alive… Mr. Glass has conscientiously trawled through court-martial records and U.S. and British files, and he has spent many hours tape-recording interviews with deserters, but he has also been lucky enough to be allowed access to the unpublished memoirs of one deserter, Steve Weiss, as well as the correspondence of several others. Such material gives the author an intimate view into the mind of the wartime deserter.”
The Washington Post:
“[The Deserters] does provide an intimate look at the whys and wherefores of three men who opted out of the front lines. At a time when the ravages of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the general public more aware than ever of the price too many soldiers pay for their service, that helps.”
Dwight Garner, The New York Times:
“The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, by the historian and former ABC News foreign correspondent Charles Glass, thus performs a service. It’s the first book to examine at length the sensitive topic of desertions during this war, and the facts it presents are frequently revealing and heartbreaking… The Deserters has much to say about soldiers' hearts. It underscores the truth of the following observation, made by a World War II infantry captain named Charles B. MacDonald: 'It is always an enriching experience to write about the American soldier in adversity no less than in glittering triumph.'"
San Francisco Chronicle:
“A veteran correspondent in war zones, Glass is richly credentialed to write The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II. He is qualified by talent, by the good fortune of finding surviving veterans, and by exploring their lives with diligence and, most crucially, a deep compassion… Glass tells the soldiers' stories with novelistic vividness and a good historian's grasp of research detail."
The New Republic:
"Glass brings something new to the table by going deep with desertion, an overlooked aspect of the wartime experience. The result is an impressive achievement: a boot-level take on the conflict that is fresh without being cynically revisionist... [Glass] pulled off something special here: showing respect to what the deserters endured while acknowledging that the war—gruesome and unfair and nonsensical though it was—had to be won, and that this happened because enough men somehow found the will to keep going."
Publishers Weekly (starred):
"Glass is to be commended for his take on WWII through the eyes of those who ran away from it... Glass's history might be one of the best ways of relaying the experience of war: through the eyes of the young men who charged into the line of fire, gave up the ghost, and whose only reward was living to tell the tale."
"[Q]uite provocative... A well-written, fast-moving treatment of an issue still relevant today."
Sunday Telegraph (UK):
"Sensitive and thought-provoking … As this compelling and well-researched book shows, the battlefield was not a place for heroes, but a place where young men were dehumanised and killed … Given such conditions who among us would not also have considered walking away?"
The Guardian (UK):
"[These] stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery – are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past."
"Gripping … painstaking … sympathetic … Glass reveals just how inglorious war really is."
Sunday Times (UK):
Daily Telegraph (UK): "With his own skill and sensitivity, Glass recreates the inhuman scenes that pummel the other soldiers he examines… refreshing and stimulating—history told from the loser’s perspective."
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