5.04.2016

what i'm reading: the deserters, a hidden history of world war 2

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.

10 comments:

UU4077 said...

Arthur G. Dorland was a Quaker and the first head of the History Department at the University of Western Ontario. In one of his books (I think "Former Days and Quaker Ways") he tells his problems with being a pacifist during WWI and how his sons handled it during WWII.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

What an interesting subject. This is something I never really gave much thought to. I've read a fair amount about WW1 and WW2, but more on WW2. My focus has been to understand what are the real causes that created both wars.The propaganda and spin in trying to get people to fight is also important to understand. Conscription, forcing people to go to war, has to be one of the greatest violations of a persons right to live their life in the way they want to. Howard Zinn said something really interesting. He said when as a person is asked why they joined the military, they usually say "Because I want to fight for my country." Howard Zinn then said "you're not fighting for your country, you're fighting for your government." Thanks for the review.

laura k said...

UU, thanks for that. I know one WWII resister personally, Frank Showler, who at 90+ years old is still an active peace activist. It was not a popular position to take, as you can imagine.

Pamela MacNeil, this is a constant theme for me. (I probably should have said so.) I was very active in the War Resisters Support Campaign, supporting US Iraq War resisters who came to Canada. Other good books on the topic:

The Deserter's Tale - Joshua Key with Lawrence Hill - a must-read IMO :)

The Taste of Metal - Jack Todd

Northern Passage - John Hagan

Among others.

I couldn't agree more about conscription. It's a violation of human rights. More on this soon.

laura k said...

I found it! Something I wrote in 2008: involuntary military service is a form of slavery.

John F said...

This topic reminds me of a locally (In Nova Scotia) famous WWII deserter. Willard Kitchener MacDonald jumped from a Halifax-bound troop train in 1944, and spent most of the rest of his life in the woods. He came to be known the the hermit of Gully Lake.

A book and documentary about him were made after he died. Here's a link to the Toronto Public Library's copy of the book, if you're interested:

http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDM754490&R=754490

Pamela Mac Neil said...

Thank you for including your posting of 2008. It was a great read. Making the connection that "involuntary military service is a form of slavery" is profound, because they are indeed enslaved by their governments for the purpose of killing.The US Iraq war resisters deserve to live their lives freely in Canada. I can only imagine the hell they have gone through under Harper 9+ rule. I am a boomer, so I remember the Vietnam vets coming to Canada very well. I think 50k of them came. We had a very different Prime Minister then, Pierre Trudeau, who was known for saying that he would like Canada to be a military refuge. Needless to say he was villified by the American government and press.

laura k said...

Pamela, thanks so much for reading that old post! And more importantly, thanks for your support of US Iraq War resisters in Canada. You're right, it was hell for them under the Harper government. Many were deported and did time in prison, including Kim Rivera, while she was pregnant, her baby delivered in a military prison. Many many lives were made much more difficult, many people were punished, for the "crime" of refusing to participate in war. All so unnecessary, all politically motivated.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is still fighting. The Trudeau government has not yet reversed Harper's policies towards the war resisters. Those still in Canada are still at risk.

You can still help, by writing to your MP and to Minister John McCallum. Info here.

THANK YOU :) :)

laura k said...

John F, that is fascinating! Thanks so much for the info and the link to the DVD. I've got to see that!

A former Vietnam War resister who lives in Truro, NS, was a big help to the WRSC. He owns a business in Truro, has thrived in Canada, contributed a lot to his community, and spoke out in support of the Iraq resisters.

Many Vietnam war resisters are at the heart of the WRSC. But at the same time, at least 50,000 Americans came to Canada during that time, and fewer than 50 ever spoke out in support of the Iraq resisters.

Joseph Jones said...


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.

No one knows much of anything exactly. Almost everything we know quantitatively is a tighter or looser approximation. That's Physics 101.

(1) Desertion incidents. A pretty good figure is 550,000. [Lawrence M. Baskir & William A. Strauss. Chance and circumstance: the draft, the war and the Vietnam generation. 1978 p. 115. Based on compilation of U.S. Dept. of Defense data]

(2) Jail. Tighter figures of 10,055 trials, 8750 convictions, 4000 prison sentences.
[Baskir & Strauss 1978. p. 69. Based on compilation of data from Federal Offenders in U.S. District Courts]

(3) Another country. Most difficult to calculate. Involves multiple data sources and multiple assumptions or qualifications that often inject ideologies.

"An estimate of males strictly aged 19-25 in only the peak period of 1966-1972 who obtained official immigration status in Canada should stand between 20,000 and 35,000." [Joseph Jones. Contending statistics: the numbers for U.S. Vietnam War resisters in Canada. 2005. p. 34]

The huge fuzziness of official Canadian data relates to the lack of detail made available for the massive intakes under the 1972 Administrative Measures Program and the 1973 Adjustment of Status Program.

laura k said...

No one knows much of anything exactly. Almost everything we know quantitatively is a tighter or looser approximation. That's Physics 101.

And this is a blog. "No one knows exactly how many" is a fairly standard English phrase that doesn't need to be parsed or held under a microscope. That's Blogging 101.

What's your point here? Or are you just a garden-variety pompous blowhard?