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Walking Away From War

Nearly seven decades after its end, the Second World War still provides fodder for historians, filmmakers, novelists, and other storytellers. With The Deserters [1], globe-trotting journalist and former ABC News correspondent Charles Glass sheds some light on an under-examined aspect of the great conflict of the 20th century.

The best known American deserter of World War II was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who became the only U.S. soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Slovik’s death-penalty appeal occurred in January 1945, while the Battle of the Bulge was raging. It was not a good time for General Eisenhower to be seen as soft on deserters. The Army was apparently embarrassed by the execution and covered it up, telling his widow only that he died in the European theater. Slovik’s story was eventually revealed by William Bradford Huie, who published The Execution of Private Slovik [2] in 1954.

While Glass briefly mentions Slovik and provides some background on the subject, The Deserters is an often fascinating group memoir that assembles into a single narrative the harrowing stories of three other men—two American one British—who decided they had experienced enough of war and deserted.

Men affected by the horrors of trench warfare during the Great War were described as having “shell shock.” Glass cites a report from 1943 in Fortune which revealed that “nearly half of the 67,000 beds in Veteran’s Administration hospitals are still occupied by the neuropsychiatric casualties of World War I.” The shell shock of the Great War era was described as “combat fatigue” during the Second World War. Glass describes the view that prevailed among the brass during World War II as favoring “psychiatric as well as traditional medical care in forward aid stations” over General Patton’s preferred treatment of shooting the “cowards.”

Even as military leaders were aware that men would crack under prolonged exposure to combat, the need for frontline troops was immense. The term “replacement” comes up repeatedly in The Deserters. Replacements were soldiers trained and inserted into combat units to, well, replace those who were killed, maimed, or otherwise unavailable for service. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall instituted the replacement policy to keep combat divisions on the line and simplify logistics, even at the cost eroding unit cohesion. Alfred Whitehead, one of the soldiers profiled by Glass, eventually deserted because he resented being a replacement—rather than returning to his old outfit—after recovering from appendicitis.

Whitehead—who wrote about his experiences in a self-published memoir (often viewed with skepticism by Glass) that he later sold in his barber shop—was sent to the 94th Reinforcement Battalion for reassignment. Before deserting Whitehead became insubordinate: instructing, for example, a superior officer to take an inadequate rifle and “shove it up his ass.” At that point Whitehead was a highly decorated combat veteran who had seen continuous action from D-Day through the end of 1944 and felt above the petty indignities foisted upon him by superiors, many of whom had seen no action.

There was a natural tension between frontline troops and those who had not been in combat. Paul Fussell wrote in The Boys Crusade [3] of the infantryman’s “common hatred” for “anyone occupying … a position to the rear of the infantryman.” Most men who went AWOL—Absent With Out Leave—did so from combat units. While on the run, they were not infrequently helped out by other frontline troops. Glass quotes from a 1951 study published in the American Sociological Review stating that “most combat soldiers are sympathetic toward other fellows who go AWOL,” while those in the rear were reluctant to lend aid. Steven Weiss, a deserter who had fought in Italy and France, contemptuously referred to rear-area “pencil pushers” who ate well and treated their Parisian girlfriends to food and cigarettes intended for the infantry.

Although it is counterintuitive, occasionally soldiers went AWOL toward the front lines and back into the war. Weiss did not exactly do that, but becoming inadvertently detached from his unit in August 1944 did not mean his war ended: he was smuggled by the members of the French Resistance through a German-occupied area to relative safety. While separated from his unit, Weiss joined the Resistance. It was a style of fighting that suited him better than the infantry, where he had sometimes clashed his superiors. “Steve Weiss embraced clandestine warfare more than he had the life of an infantryman,” says Glass. “Resistance fighting allowed him his independence, and usually let him sleep in a bed at night. Such luxuries were denied the ordinary infantryman, who obeyed orders and spent nights outdoors under enemy fire.” From the Resistance, Weiss reluctantly went to serve with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).


Weiss eventually came to respect his fellows in the OSS, as he did those in the Resistance, but an individual soldier’s preferences count for little during wartime and his request for an official transfer was denied. Still a teen and respectful of authority at this point, Weiss later stated that it didn’t occur to him simply to refuse and utter the words, “No, Major, I’m not going back. You might as well call the MPs.”

Eventually Weiss decided that he had seen enough after incidents both terrifying and humiliating convinced him that the consequences of desertion were less unappealing than those of staying in the infantry. For his desertion and refusal at the court martial to return to the infantry Weiss received a dishonorable discharge and a life sentence. He would later be paroled when he agreed to fight in the Pacific theater, though a directive from General Eisenhower that no soldier would be forced to serve in more than two theaters of operation exempted him from that fate. Having already served in the Mediterranean and European theaters, writes Glass, “Weiss was free, but he was not going to the Pacific. He was on his way to Paris. The last laugh was his.”

The one Englishman profiled in The Deserters became a well known poet in the postwar period under the name Vernon Scannell. While in the army he was known as John Bain, and he was a serial deserter. He had already taken an unexcused three-week break while still training in Scotland, and Bain again deserted while in the field in 1943 after witnessing his fellow soldiers plunder the corpses of both German and British dead after a battle in North Africa. Bain did not run from battle out of fear: instead, as he described it, he “seemed to float away” from the aftermath of combat.

The result for Bain was a term in an infamous prison in Britain’s Mustafa Barracks near Alexandria in Egypt. Inmates at Mustafa, known as SUSs—soldiers under sentence—were subject to an exhausting and humiliating regimen, one aspect of which would inspire a novel, The Hill [4] by Ray Rigby, and a film of the same name [5] starring Sean Connery. SUSs were required to perform tasks of  “Sisyphean absurdity” involving a large pile of sand:

On the morning after the SUSs had piled the sand up in one corner of the square, the staff sergeants ordered them to collect two buckets each. Columns of inmates ran double-time with a bucket in each hand, filled them with sand, ran to the diagonal corner of the square and poured it out. The morning’s labor succeeded in moving the entire hill from one corner to the other. When they had finished, their lungs gasping for the dry desert air, the men were ordered to move the sand back again. This would be repeated, along with drills and physical training, every day.

One result of such harsh treatment was to make horrifying alternatives seem bearable. After serving six months, Bain went before a Sentence Review Board looking for prisoners who would return to combat. After hearing a colonel refer to his desertion as a  “damned bad show,” Bain accepted an offer to return to the war and a new front in Europe. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/archive/januaryfebruary-2014/ [6]

Men frequently sought escape from the horrors and rigors of combat, but the final time Bain deserted, he was in England shortly after the end of the war in Europe. This time Bain ran from the banality of life in the military. As he put it, “if I stayed in the Army any longer I would be finished, I would become a brown automaton, a thing without imagination, intelligence, ambition.”

There is a tension, evident in The Deserters, pitting an army’s need to maintain discipline among the troops—to keep the men who are supposed to be on the front line there—against the risk of pushing men too far. It is essential to a functioning military that men subordinate their own interests, including their physical safety, to their mission. The stories told by Glass indicate that the armies of the United States and Great Britain in Europe had some difficulty maintaining the balance. Deserters quotes from a report to the deputy theater commander in Europe to the effect that “the problem of war weary men in the Infantry of the old divisions which fought in Italy is one of the most severe we have … these men should be removed from the Infantry because they have lost their ‘zip’ and tend to weaken the fighting spirit of the new men.”

Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist, one-time division commander over Steven Weiss, wrote those words in February 1945, and they marked a change in his thinking from earlier in the war when he wanted to see more men punished for desertion.

Glass is sympathetic to his subjects even when he is skeptical of their version of events. Humans have always engaged in warfare, but the sort of mechanized, mass-scale killing of the Second World War is a recent phenomenon, and the men of The Deserters had to endure it for prolonged periods of time. They, along with thousands of their fellow soldiers, knew what to do when they had seen enough.

Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Walking Away From War"

#1 Comment By Will Leach On February 20, 2014 @ 2:22 am

The best of troops will fail if the strain is big enough…I have commanded in World War II the finest troops the U.S. had…I have seen individuals break in battle, and I have seen units perform miserably. The latter was always because of poor leadership. But sometimes, failure of the individual was not due to leadership. It just gets to the point where a man can’t take it anymore — that’s all…I saw men in Normandy in a few cases where the strain was too damn much for them. Casualties were very, very heavy, men were falling all around them, and they just walked off crying. Always be easy on a man like that. Help him get back to the rear. Nine times out of 10 he will come out of it all right. Sometimes he can be ruined for life, though.”

General Ridgway

Perhaps in the future a military model may be developed where all troops are combat troops and support troops, and units rotate to give eachother breaks. Its not something that would work with our tech heavy paradigm, but maybe one day.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 20, 2014 @ 7:43 am

I am all for peace, but when someone insists on going to war with you, then war it is.

It is the assumption that an all volunteer military is the solution to such issues. The assumption that those who join want to be there. The assumption however is predicated on a false notion of what there means. Given the modern advances and the increasingly infrequency of war (despite all the ‘warmongering’ accusations flying about these days) I am not sure an all volunteer force signs up to fight as much as for opportunity.

Our problems in Iraq were the result of the occupation. And I am unclear just how battle leaden one considers Afghanistan. More like a series of individual disturbing the peace as the military attempts to quell, the Taliban by force, money, goodwill or any combination of the above. Perhaps, the unpredictability of fighting creates even greater pressures than all out warfare.

Contrasted against Vietnam where dissertion seems to have come out of the closet, so to speak, cloaked in political protest.

As part of the collective representing the US, my expectation is that soldiers fight fully recognizing that war is a nasty, filthy, brutal choice, best avoided. But when fighting is thrust on you — you must fight. And to the extent that men owe something to the nations that provides for them — even if said provisions are scant and shoddy despite one’s integrity, and service — dissertions are not permitted and discouraged. Especially in all volunteer force — fulfilling one’s responsibilities matters to us as a nation.

I think the examples so presented here are indicative of just how distasteful desertion is, as these two examples are not the classic understanding of desertion. At least in these two cases — the men fought in some other mode or were in some manner just obstinate to in their minds, “banal life” lead by ‘banal’ the hypocrisy of the leadership.

#3 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 20, 2014 @ 8:58 am

Elite, Afghanistan is no Normandy, but it is combat enough for the Infantry manning isolated outposts which alternate between getting mortared and rocketed and receiving small arms fire, while foot patrols are subjects to that and RPGs and suicide bombers and booby trapped bombs in the road.

Desertion has to be dealt with fairly harshly to keep the system together. (The sand story I’ve seen variations of, only with gravel, for much more minor offenses.) On an individual level though, each person has their limits. Our troops are pushed to that point and past it. In the short term, it gets the job done. It’s on society, and the families of these individuals, to deal with the long term.

#4 Comment By Johann On February 20, 2014 @ 9:40 am

“Steve Weiss embraced clandestine warfare more than he had the life of an infantryman,” says Glass. “Resistance fighting allowed him his independence, and usually let him sleep in a bed at night. Such luxuries were denied the ordinary infantryman, who obeyed orders and spent nights outdoors under enemy fire.”

Uniformed combatants are allowed and expected to kill the enemy combatants any way they can – straight-away frontal attack, by ambush, killing the enemy while they are retreating, shooting them in the back, on and on. But when a “resistance fighter” in civilian clothes walks up to a soldier and kills him, or ambushes him, or whatever, its murder. And what’s worse, it is a contributing factor to intentional targeting of civilians and retribution against civilians by the opposing side. “Resistance fighters” love to have it both ways. They want to be able to blend in with civilians after they do their killing. They should man up and put on a uniform or desert.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 20, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

One day the mass of people, wherever they are, may see how manipulative of them are those who plan and order wars, on all sides.

#6 Comment By The Wet One On February 20, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

Luckily, this:

“…but the sort of mechanized, mass-scale killing of the Second World War is a recent phenomenon,”

Will never happen again.

Instead, we’ll have a few days or weeks of fighting, then the nukes will come out and the world will end. It’s a marked improvement over what came before. 😀

#7 Comment By The Wet One On February 20, 2014 @ 4:05 pm


What you say is true to some extent. But what Americans are facing in Afghanistan (or previously in Iraq) I don’t think compares to Normandy, or other fronts in WWII. Titanic battles of massive scale and danger haven’t really existed in the last 10 – 20 years of U.S. fighting.

It’s probably best put this way. The U.S. hasn’t faced an equal or somewhat superior military, on relatively even terms, fighting a lenghthy war of attrition since Korea (I think it’s Korea, possibly earlier, though Vietnam probably counts despite the Vietnamese being technologically overwhelmed by the U.S. They were simply far more willing to win than the U.S. and the casualty counts reflect this, where the U.S. never lost a single battle and inflicted disproportionate death on the enemy but lost the war anyways. It was the reverse in large part in WWII, where the Germans were the better army and hit a lot harder but the Allies, the U.S. included had more men and material and simply wore down Germany and her armies (and in truth the Soviets did most of that work).

When was the last time that the U.S. took 5,000 casualties in one day? Hell, the U.S. just fought two whole wars and hasn’t taken that many dead yet (at least I don’t think so, it’s 4,000+ dead still right?). WWII had 5,000 dead a week. Lose a couple of cruisers and a destroyer or three in WWII (pretty easy back then) and you’ve got that many dead no problem. Some Canadian units inflicted that many casualties in a single action in a single battle (e.g. the Victoria Cross winner at the Battle of the Falaise Gap). That scale of fighting and battle is unknown today.

Afghanistan and Iraq were just never like that. I’m not going to pretend that I really understand the difference between the two, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t quite the same thing combat experience-wise, even though both are terrifying, lethal and unknowably unpleasant to those of us who’ve never been there, even if rationally speaking, they aren’t exactly the same.

#8 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 20, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

As is implied in the review, the replacement system used in WWII by the US Army exacerbated the AWOL situation.

It was hard on the replacement but even harder on the front line units. Unlike the German army, infantry units were kept in the field far too long. The only way out was via KIA, or Million Dollar wound or madness.

The Germans worked to staff, train and rotate units together. This worked better in several ways, most importantly in morale. It’s odd, but the German method of dealing with psychological casualties was better as well. Actual AWOL or refusal to obey order was another story.

#9 Comment By Just Dropping By On February 20, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

The best known American deserter of World War II was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who became the only U.S. soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion.

I’m curious about how that statement can be reconciled with reporting that Edmond Dubose and Lewis Russell of the U.S. 9th Cavalry were executed in 1902 for desertion during the Filipino Insurrection: [7]

#10 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 20, 2014 @ 10:04 pm

Johann, resistance fighters is how it’s done behind enemy lines. We have our own Special Forces operators, not in uniform, training what are often irregulars in theaters around the world. You are right in pointing out the problems with this tactic. I’m not so sure it’s murder for a fighter in civilian clothes to sneak up and kill an enemy. Too much depends on context (and perspective.) But it’s definitely fighting dirty.

The Wet One, more likely wars will continue to trend low-grade, messy, irregular, assymetric, and long.

#11 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On February 21, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

my exposure to combat/war is academic only. it seems to me, the nature of warfare (drones, special operations, base camp and outposts as opposed to “island hopping/Normandy to Berlin) in general and the nature of the actual soldier (volunteer vs. conscript) has changed so radically since the end of WWII; the very idea of a “deserter” is almost obsolete. I tend to think suicide has replaced desertion in terms of coping with the stress or combat/military life.

#12 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 21, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

Just Dropped By, that is a very interesting link. The two US soldiers who it is claimed were executed for desertion in the Philippines were members of the famed 9th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers.”

This is an interesting topic. From reading the linked material, it seems likely to me that they were executed at least as much for going over to the enemy as deserting I say this because they were publicly hanged rather than shot. My guess is that in the old army one would be shot for desertion rather than hanged ignominiously. The Ninth gain a reputation for hardiness and professionalism in the Old West.

My reading on Slovic suggests that he was executed not simply for deserting, but for refusing repeated orders to return to combat. That was an exacerbating circumstance that whether Slovic realized it or not forced the command authorities hand.

#13 Comment By Benson On February 21, 2014 @ 11:46 pm

I’m honestly not sure which is worse- The old-school mass battles of both World Wars and Korea, vs the roadside bombs, suicide bombers, and the soldiers often never knowing who the enemy actually is, such as in Iran and Afghanistan. One things is for sure though, both scenarios produce their fair share of PTSD cases.

#14 Comment By Chico On February 22, 2014 @ 4:04 am

While the intensity of combat was much worse in World War II, what is worse in the recent wars is the long and repeated exposure to danger that soldiers have to endure.

North Africa and Sicily were short campaigns with relatively few participants. There were long breaks between these campaigns and Italy and the western front in France/Germany. Few divisions, like the 3rd Infantry and 82nd Airborne, participated in all of those places.

The western front from Normandy to Germany lasted less than a year.

In contrast, an infantry NCO or officer who enlisted after 9/11 might have done six tours of one year or more in Iraq and Afghanistan by now. And that would mean going out almost everyday to face roadside bombs and ambushes.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2014 @ 8:54 am

“Afghanistan is no Normandy, but it is combat enough for the Infantry manning isolated outposts which alternate between getting mortared and rocketed and receiving small arms fire . . .”

I understand your comments.

#16 Comment By rcocean On February 22, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

Dubose and Russell were executed for fighting for he enemy, not desertion per se.

Slovik not only refused to go back and fight, his appeal for clemency came to Ike during or right after the Battle of the Bulge, when Ike was trying to get Infantrymen from every source he could. Exactly the wrong time for Slovik’s appeal.

Poor Slovik. He could have gone SIW route or simply deserted BEFORE he got to France and he would have been better off.

#17 Comment By KJS On February 24, 2014 @ 11:25 am

Interesting comments on an engaging book review. All of this got me to thinking about my father, who served as a lowly MP in Patton’s army during the North African campaign. He was given orders to go to England for the armada/invasion, but somehow managed to get those orders changed to guarding Italian POWs in Southern California. He commented to me that he didn’t want to go because “guys were going to get killed (in large numbers)” and to go would have been nuts in his view if you would “engineer” another assignment stateside.

I deeply regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he managed that feat.

#18 Comment By smitty On February 26, 2014 @ 7:45 am


“I deeply regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he managed that feat.”

Most likely, with the help of well-placed buddies.

Your story reminds me of my Dad’s stories of Army service during the Korean war.

Luckily, he was in a TOPO map making and litho printing unit in Germany. Being that he was an excellent pitcher (he was signed by the Boston Braves, but foolishly threw his arm out attempting to throw ever harder fastballs-his ability was compared to the great Satchel Paige by those that observed the pitching of both)he played baseball for Special Services, entertaining the troops, half the year. The other half-aside from duties-was spent profiting from black market cigarette dealing with buddies and spending the $ on a car in order to tour Europe when they had a pass or leave. I can tell from photos of he and his buddies that they enjoyed themselves immensely. I wonder if I have some half-brothers and/or sisters in Europe?

His main distinction was that he never slept in the field when there were maneuvers. Always managed to get a pass or leave. Superior officers eventually were determined that they get his ass out in the field.

Trouble-for those officers-was, his best friend worked in the office that handled the scheduling, so he was always tipped off ahead of time.

He fondly remembers waving goodbye to the rest of the troops heading to the field in trucks, while he had a pass in hand.

#19 Comment By Ron J On March 1, 2014 @ 7:37 am

It has been said by historians (Fussel, I believe) that 90% of the participants in WWII never heard a shot fired in anger, but the exact opposite is true of the participants in Vietnam and subsequent wars. Thus the disproportionately serious problem with PTSD in vets of later wars.

#20 Comment By ROB On June 18, 2014 @ 9:31 am

There is a novel, “In the Spring the War Ended” by James Linakis which describes the live of a deserter in the European Theater. According to Linakis, who I recall, was himself a deserter, there were hundreds if not thousands of AWOLs in France and Belgium.

During Vietnam, hundreds of AWOLs trying to avoid deployment were in stateside stockades. When I was in AIT at least one draftee simply up and left bound for Canada. I don’t recall much opprobrium from the rest of us.

Oh, and Northern cities during the Civil War …..