All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War, The Story of a British Deserter by Andy Owen is a story of a World War II British deserter which is a personal story as well as part of a much bigger and usually not recognized consequence of war. Owen served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army reaching the rank of Captain. He completed operational tours in Northern Ireland (2003), Iraq (2004 and 2005) and on intelligence duties in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2007. East of Coker is his second novel following Invective (2014).
I would imagine that when an American thinks of a deserter, the image someone running away from the Vietnam War comes to mind and gets blurred into Jane Fonda sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. Americans rise to the challenge especially if it was a “good war” like World War II. Movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or series like Band of Brothers show that courage and sacrifice are the keys to winning a war. Vietnam was different. From July 1, 1966, through December 31, 1973, the Department of Defense reported 503,926 cases of desertion. In the Iraq War, there have been thousands of desertions (40,000 according to some sources) in the American military, but only one made the news.
The reasons for desertion are many, from fear of death to moral grounds (war for oil). One reason that is not usually discussed is mental exhaustion. Shellshock first came into being as a mental illness in the first world war. However, this was after many who suffered were executed for desertion and cowardice. Shellshock remained a problem after the war although there was little progress in treatment. In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith is a WWI veteran being treated for shellshock with a tragic outcome. Shellshock was a problem but it was far from understood. Today shellshock is more correctly called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The story of Alan Juniper who was conscripted into the Tower Hamlets Rifles and found himself in North Africa fighting Rommel’s forces is central to this book. Things were not going well for the British defeats and heavy shelling took a toll on the men. The casualty rate was high and unlike modern fighting, there was no twelve-month tours or even rotation as in trench warfare. Men stayed and fought until the end of the war, death, or severe injury. Juniper served 551 days in North Africa before deserting the first time. He did not present any indication that he was against the war or a troublemaker, in fact, he was promoted quickly. The question commonly asked is, “Why desert then?”
War is not only about killing. It is about taking away your enemies will to fight. It is easier and causes fewer casualties on your side if you can get your enemy to stop fighting. German Stukas used sirens to terrify the targets of their dive bombing. Those who survive know what the sound of the sirens meant and the fear lingered on. Constant artillery barrages and chemical weapons were to inflict physiological damage. Sleep deprivation, concussion from artillery, and general wearing down of the enemy troops is the goal. Some people can handle the stress better than others. Some people simply break down mentally. That is what happened to Juniper.
It may not be the danger that causes the breakdown but the lack of peace. US Southern Command used Van Halen at loud volumes to try and drive Noriega out of hiding in Panama. This was repeated in Afghanistan with US Marines blaring heavy metal music into the village of Marjah. Music and lights, or strobe lights, are used in interrogations to break down prisoners by depriving them of rest without leaving marks on the body. The point is that certain tactics are designed to break down the human mind. However, when it works against our own people it is seen as weakness.
Owen examines the British efforts in North Africa against the Germans and Alan Juniper’s role in the war. The personal, as well as the big picture, are brought together in the book. The war and its effects are described on the British forces as a whole, public opinion, and the individual soldiers. Owen examines the war in the historical sense and in the philosophical sense too. Just War Theory, Kant, and Camus are brought into the discussion. Playing the role of devil’s advocate (as well as describing its origins), Owen creates and “Alan II” to serve as an “every soldier”. Owen makes a case for effects of PTSD and its effect on those in combat. Those who serve are expected to serve to the best of their ability. What should happen to those who serve beyond their best ability? Physically wounded soldiers* are expected to recover before returning to battle. What of those who are mentally wounded? We all have our breaking points. For those of us who served, most have seen that breaking point exceeded by some in boot camp which is far less stressful than combat.
Another problem with military desertion is it is made into a political issue. Sadly, the some of the toughest criticism of deserters comes from those who never served and those who did their best to avoid conscription through various means. The system is unfair to those who break down under conditions that are meant to break them down. A deeper understanding of PTSD and its recognition and treatment are needed. The examination of one soldier’s experience can be used to start understanding other soldier’s experiences. Mental wounds are just as disabling as physical wounds. They are just harder to see. Veterans in the US have a 22% higher suicide rate than the general population. According to the Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, twenty veterans a day took their own life.
PTSD is a major factor in many veteran’s lives. There is not a clean and easy solution. PTSD will not be treated by “I Support the Troops” magnets on cars. It is easy to support the troops for war, once they come home hurt or broken it is another matter that requires more than a car magnet. This is when the real support is needed. All royalties from this book will be donated to PTSD charities. Here is a chance to support the troops in a meaningful way — donating and getting educated on the effects of war on those who served. Although the major combat is over, the battle for our soldiers is far from over.
* I am using soldier as a convenient general term to cover all uniform services