All Soldiers Run Away
My review of “All Soldiers Run Away,” which was released today, is below. You can read my very interesting interview with Andy Owen about writing the book and about war, literature, and PTSD here and my review of his novel “East of Coker” here.
Some soldiers are heroic. But what about the ones who are not? In “All Soldiers Run Away,” Andy Owen, who served in the British military for a number of years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, uses the story of Alan Juniper, a British soldier who deserted twice during WWII, to consider issues such as just vs. unjust war, what soldiers owe their countries and vice versa, and the damage caused by PTSD. Part biography, part history, part discussion of PTSD, this is an important account of an issue that many are afraid to confront directly: the fact that, if not all, then many soldiers do in fact run away.
One of the biggest surprises for me personally on reading the book was just how many deserters there were: during WWII they numbered in the tens of thousands from the British army alone. We think of the British as being highly motivated in their fight against Germany in WWII, and indeed they were, but, as Owen discusses, the horror of the war and the stress of being under such heavy bombardment for months or years on end could break even the most hardened soldiers. When Alan Juniper deserted for the first time, he had already been serving in combat for over 500 days, or twice the amount that contemporary psychologists now think people can withstand. Furthermore, Juniper had been serving as a driver, the kind of supporting role that, Owen notes, tends to lead to even more PTSD than actual front-line service, since drivers are subjected to the same dangers and stresses, but without the cachet that comes from being an acknowledged front-line soldier. This brings up some interesting comparisons with Helen Benedict’s “The Lonely Soldier,” about female veterans of the recent conflict in Iraq and their struggles with PTSD: they, like Juniper, were placed in “supporting” roles that in fact put them in considerable danger and frequent contact with the enemy.
As well as reconstructing Juniper’s story as best he can–it came to light when Juniper had already slipped deeply into dementia, and so much of Juniper’s story is, as Owen makes plain, reconstruction and speculation based on family memories, historical documents, and Owen’s own experiences of what it is like to be in combat–Owen struggles with his own feelings about desertion. As an officer in a volunteer, professional army, his initial reaction to the idea of desertion was, he says outright, strongly negative, but as he studied the issue further, and Juniper’s story in particular, he gained more and more understanding of why some people would choose to do such a thing.
“All Soldiers Run Away” is an in-depth examination of an emotional subject that often goes unexamined. The detailed descriptions of battles and movements during WWII means that it is likely to appeal to WWII buffs; others may find those sections of the book a trifle slow-moving, although they do help put Juniper’s actions in context. Owen’s prose style is straightforward and unaffected, with frequent interjections of his own thoughts and feelings about what he discovered and how it compared with his own experiences. The overall effect is both personal and thought-provoking, making this unusual book well worth reading for those interested WWII or veterans’ issues.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.