No one knows exactly how many US soldiers deserted from the Vietnam War, nor how many young men resisted conscription by going either to jail or to another country. The most conservative account puts the number at about 50,000, the highest at about double that. The majority of those went to Canada, where - after a people's movement organized to support them - they were allowed to live and eventually become citizens. Because of this, resistance to the war in Southeast Asia is part of American and Canadian history, no matter who tells the story.
Resistance to other US wars, however, is mentioned less frequently, if at all. There was massive resistance to conscription to (what was then known as) the Great War or the War in Europe. Ireland and Quebec went into full-scale rebellion, and thousands in both Britain and the US spent time in jail after they refused to fight. I'm somewhat familiar with this history through my ongoing exploration of World War I from a progressive and peace-activism perspective. I certainly didn't learn about it in school.
Still, it's relatively easy to talk about resistance to World War I, at least for Americans. It's the war that no one understands, the war where the name of every battle is a shorthand for massive slaughter, the war of mustard gas and horses vs. machine guns. It's the war that ushered in the modern world. We can understand why people didn't want to die in the mud in Belgium or France.
Resistance to World War II, however, is entirely different. This is the supposedly good war, the war to crush the Nazis, the war to punish the people who attacked Pearl Harbor. This is the war that supposedly every able-bodied boy and man wanted to fight.
Well, not quite. As Charles Glass shows in The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, no matter what the political motivations of war, the reality on the ground is largely the same. Troops face appalling conditions and constant deprivation. They are forced to remain in combat past the point of mental and physical endurance. Their stress is ignored, ridiculed, and punished. And thousands - tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands - refuse to continue.
The book, unfortunately, is not a very good read. It's incredibly well researched, but literary nonfiction needs more than research. No lively narrative pulls the reader through the stories. Glass offers a tremendous amount of detail without synthesis or explanation. At times I felt as if I were reading a pile of facts, rather than a story.
The book's saving grace, and what makes it worth reading, is the introduction. In 10 pages, the author gives us an overview of war resistance and society's responses to it. He blends the political, social, physical and psychological views into a miniature masterpiece.
Readers with a special interest in World War II and hidden histories in general may enjoy The Deserters. For me it was a tough slog. But in my continuing education about war resistance, Charles Glass' introduction has a place on the bookshelf.