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The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  380 Ratings  ·  68 Reviews
“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 Par
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published June 13th 2013 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published March 28th 2013)
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Aug 18, 2013 rated it liked it
I've always heard World War II vets referred to as gung ho dedicated soldiers. This look at WWII shatters some of those myths not just about the men who fought this war but about all soldiers in all wars. PTSD, Soldiers Heart, Shell Shock are all terms used to designate the damage killing and the fear of being killed does to people. This is what is at the heart of Glass's book, human beings who understandably abhor bloodshed. It's assumed that if a woman can get pregnant and give birth she'll na ...more
I could have sworn William S. Burroughs was dead, but, evidently, the publishing industry has revived him, pumped him up with electricity and narcotics, and somewhere along the line decided that they loved his cut-up technique, hired him as their master editor, and let him have at every historical book being published today, because here he is again playing pick-up sticks with a narrative and reassembling it all into a random order. At first it looks OK because it's printed all sharp on clean wh ...more
Sep 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
There is a quote in this book that is worth thinking about: "Each man, no matter how strong mentally and physically, has his limits beyond which the strongest will cannot drive him." That's from "Psychology for the Fighting Man," quoted in this book.
This story is about "the hidden side of World War II," the side that was not shown in the movies or comics or many books. It's about the 150,000 British and American soldiers who deserted their posts in WWII, almost all in the so-called ETO ( Europ
Mar 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Well, this was one of those books for me where 3 stars seems too low but 4 stars is too high. I found the title to be somewhat misleading - it was one of those books I just grabbed off the library shelf on the way out the door without knowing anything about it other than what was on the front cover. Anyway, I was expecting much more of a macro-level examination of the subject, perhaps some analysis of whether there were any distinctions to be made in terms of desertions among the armies of the a ...more
Nov 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: world-war-2
Much has been written about the deserters of the First World War, the lack of understanding of shell shock, the executions at dawn and the campaigns for posthumous recognition and pardons; but far far less has been written about the deserters of the Second World War. Perhaps because we think of the trenches of Flanders as a particularly unique and horrifying form of warfare, the life of the fighting man in World War Two is somehow seen, in comparison, as 'not as bad'. As if war was ever somethin ...more
Randall Smith
Apr 16, 2015 rated it liked it
The Greatest Generation? Well, not exactly. Before reading this book, I was not aware that 150,000 American and British soldiers deserted in the European Theater. Or that 38,000 American officers and men were court-martialed for seeking to avoid hazardous duty by dishonorable means. From 1944 to 1946, Allied deserters ran the black market economies of Naples, Rome and Paris. They plundered Allied supply convoys at gunpoint, deprived Patton of gasoline on his drive to Germany, and left their comr ...more
Aug 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: military-history
A look at the reality of what it cost to win the Second World War. This book uses the stories of three soldiers, one British and two American, who ran afoul of the system's treatment of those soldiers who deserted as a reaction to "battle fatigue" (PTSD). Along the way you will learn about the incompetence of the medical evaluation of these men and the cruelty of the military justice system. If you wish to have a well informed, well rounded understanding of WWII, then I can't urge you strongly e ...more
Oct 19, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, military
Since it is easy to glorify and embellish combat it is always useful to get a balanced perspective and hear the other side. The side that often is silent, untold and full of deep seated anguish and pain. Charles Glass does a decent job following the lives of three average G.I.'s who were classified as "deserters' and explorers their stories as well as the larger story of all the many hundreds of thousands of deserters during WW II. Desertion is usually something most people would see in black an ...more
Chris Pramas
May 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a terrific book on topic rarely covered in WW2 histories. It uses the stories of three men--two American and one British--as a lens to examine desertion and a host of related topics: battle fatigue, military justice, battlefield psychology, and leadership. It also highlights how truly terrible the American system was for combat infantrymen and their replacements. Basically, the Americans put the burden of the fighting on a relatively small number of divisions. Whereas other counties (and ...more
Dec 24, 2013 rated it liked it
I thought that this book would have been a more broad series of tales and exploits of dozens of deserters from all of the armies involved in the war. However, this book followed just a few soldiers from the time they entered the army until their deaths many decades after the war. It was still a pretty good read and I learned quite a bit about desertion in the war. I was astounded by the sheer number of soldiers who deserted and how many of them resorted to pilfering allied supplies and selling t ...more
Michele Weiner
Jun 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was perfect preparation for the return of Bowe Bergdahl. It explained what happened to make men desert their units and how the US government handled these men. Only one man was executed in WWII for desertion, and he should not have been. In the process of explaining things from the point of view of the deserter, the reader gets a good picture of the mistakes made in strategy that used up its men instead of attempting to give them some rest to recover from the hyper alert status of acti ...more
Mike Gabor
Sep 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
The author tells the story of three deserters during WW II. They are Pvt. Alfred Whitehead, and Pvt. Steven Weiss, from the U.S. Army and Pvt. John Bain from the British Army.

The three deserted not so much from cowardience but rather from battle fatigue. Weiss and Whitehead were actually highly decorated and Bain was later wounded in France. It is an interesting look into what made these three soliders run. It was also interesting to see how their comrades judged them after they returned. A very
Fredrick Danysh
Aug 15, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, world-war-ii
During World War II the USA and Britain had over 15,000 deserters between them. The US rarely executed theirs with Private Eddie Kovacs being the exception. The author tells the stories of the deserters using three soldiers as case studies telling of their lives and military careers. An usually unstied area of the war.
Oct 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
A must read for anyone interested in the history of W W 2 in Europe. This book brings out things that are overlooked and neglected in other W W 2 books. " Fascinating and absorbing . . . Glass writes with great fluency and verve and evident scholarship and has unearthed facts and figures that illuminate and perturb.
May 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Professional burnout is such a common phenomenon these days in the contemporary workplace that undue chastisement for anyone afflicted with it would most likely be abhorred as being indicative of a sign of lack of empathy and true leadership in those who head up the organizations concerned. Why, then, should the enlisted during wartime, who are subjected to the constant psychological and physical battery of ongoing bombardment of the senses, be expected to endure life-threatening dangers with no ...more
Regis Dean
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Every man has a breaking point. This was a well written look at a few specific characters that reached theirs. Literally picked up the book because I recognized the name of the author. Met him in a bar in Georgetown over 30 years ago.
Elliott Petty
Oct 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting window of WWII through complicated eyes in 1943-1945.
Pat Carson
Aug 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017-non-fiction
Another piece of the puzzle that is World War 2.
Feb 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-other
I received this book from a good friend who always seems to give me something interesting that is slightly off my beaten path of what I like to read. The Deserters is no exception.

Charles Glass gives the stories of three WW2 deserters, one Brit and two Americans. Each story is a fascinating read into the mindset of three men who deserted their combat units at some stage during the war.

When we hear the word "deserter" we tend to think of cowardice under fire and a running away from battle.

Glass m
Kevin Fraleigh
Sep 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
As a child of the fifties I grew up with the world―or more specifically, the war―of my father, World War II. I didn’t know it then, but that world and that war was to be the last great victory for the United States. In those early days I was immersed in the fiction of the great battle against Nazi tyranny. The struggle was portrayed in the movies, books, and comics as the good fight of light against darkness, a clearly defined good battling an easily identifiable evil. World War II was all I hea ...more
Steven Hull
Apr 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Our mental images of World War II today are driven by cultural artifacts like Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation and movies such as Saving Private Ryan. While important, such works favor the admirable aspects of war including, in the case of World War II, the critical importance of achieving victory to preserve civilization. Less popular World War II artifacts such as James Jones’s The Thin Red Line and the Brando movie The Men are mostly forgotten and unknown because they show the under ...more
May 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: amazon-vine
There are dozens (or hundreds, even) of books about the heroic exploits of the soldiers who fought the Second World War. But little attention has been paid to those soldiers who found themselves, for whatever reasons, unable to carry out their duty and abandoned their units. It is perhaps understandable that such men would be reluctant to tell their stories, but the stories of those who deserted are an integral part of the story of the war, and overlooking these stories leaves us with an incompl ...more
Daniel Ziegelbauer
Mar 27, 2015 rated it liked it
Although presented as a set of personal stories and experiences of just a few individuals rather than a thorough study on the subject of desertion and mental health it does offer a very thought provoking perspective. I find it amazing but understandable that human behavior is more accepting of death than the stigma that comes with the feelings of being considered a coward. However the study of mental health objectively would have us better understand the condition of cowardly behavior as the nat ...more
Aug 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: world-war-ii
Although there are important stories of war about the "deserter", we don't tend to focus on those stories. Here we have the story of three deserters. In Steve Weiss's case, he is caught behind enemy lines and works with the Maquis and OSS before the army forces him to go back with his original unit. John Bain is a guy who seemed like he just made a few bad choices from time to time. But Whitehead's story is unreliable to the point where, outside of the description of Paris under siege by rampant ...more
Liz Polding
Dec 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Deserter deals with an emotive and difficult subject. When you consider what conditions were like and what was being asked of these men, it is incredible that there were so few. While those who deserted because they could no longer deal with it (one of the deserters in question experienced the 'fugue state' which effectively meant that his mind had shut down and he was no longer in control of his actions) were easier to understand. Those who joined the gangs who robbed their former comrades of b ...more
Sep 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
A much-needed look at the cold, unfair realities of how a nation treats its soldiers. The deserters Glass focuses on were at one point all committed to the war effort. As each soldier comes to reject the war - for different reasons, and some on multiple occasions - we begin to understand the way the glory of combat obscures the trauma soldiers endure. As Steve Weiss bitterly described, war was unfair (units were rarely rotated, leaving only a small percentage to do the bulk of the fighting), unf ...more
marcus miller
Aug 15, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: u-s-history
This is a book to keep on the shelf next to all those books glorifying the "Greatest Generation," and their heroic fighting during World War II. As the title bluntly states, Glass examines those who deserted during WWII. Some left for just a short time while others planned to never return. Glass shares the statistics available but the bulk of the book focuses on the stories of three deserters, two from the U.S. and one from Britain. Using their stories Glass points to problems the military had w ...more
Jake Prest
Jan 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is by far the best WWII book I've ever read. To start, Glass' archive of Bain, Weiss,and Whitehead certifies his position as a great WWII research author. The battles, the drama, and the utmost desertion felt like a great tragic Shakespearean play, but it ACTUALLY happened. I used this for a history paper and my teacher was surprised by my selection. He said, "The topic [Deserters] never came up in my studies when I was learning WWII. I can't wait to read the book, and your research paper o ...more
Bill Pilon
Jun 18, 2013 rated it liked it
This book, is I am afraid, a bit of a mess. The author seems to be trying to personalize and place into context the experience of desertion on the Allied side of WWII. But there are a couple of problems. First, he chooses to tell the story through the experiences of only three soldiers whose experiences, one suspects were atypical. Furthering this problem was that the story of at least one of the three soldiers appears to have been largely based on that soldier’s unpublished memoir, which the au ...more
May 31, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobook, history
Three extraordinary stories of desertion in World War II, a phenomenon much more widespread than most people realize. The main cause of desertion was simply the grueling life of a solider on the battlefront. Recall from "Band of Brothers," that the guys from Easy Company kept being sent into the battle, year after year, throughout the European campaign. It turns out this was an over-all pattern: the same few divisions kept being sent into combat without respite, without adequate supplies or repl ...more
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Charles Glass is an author, journalist and broadcaster, who specializes in the Middle East. He made headlines when taken hostage for 62 days in Lebanon by Shi’a militants in 1987, while writing a book during his time as ABC’s News chief Middle East correspondent. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the London Review of Books and The Spectator. He is the author of Syria ...more
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