*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Charles Glass, journalist, author

10 November 2023

‘So much of what we were taught about the First and Second World Wars was simply wrong’

Investigative reporting can be more thrilling than war reporting. The exciting times I experienced as a foreign correspondent had little to do with reporting violence and more with discovering and reporting information that had been concealed from the public.

I’ve been working as a foreign correspondent for 50 years, moving around; so what it’s like depends on which conflict you’re talking about, and whether I’m writing or working for television. I find it easier to go around as a writer, because then it’s just me and my notebook, and I can observe without affecting people around me.

When you turn up with a camera crew, you may not get the fresh kind of take that you get if you’re sitting in a coffee shop just listening to people. And, yes, television is a visual medium; so, when you’re writing for TV, you’re writing video captions.

Fifty years of getting to know the Middle East has given me a longer time-frame in which to view what is happening now. One can see clearly, for example, that what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank is a continuation of the longstanding policy of conquering the land and displacing the people. It is nothing new. Edward Said encapsulate the consistent policy as “More land, fewer Arabs.”

Politically, this conflict has been going on for about a century, with Zionist settlers trying to get rid of the native population, and it’s not resolved yet. In 1967, the Israelis expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians to Egypt and Jordan. The Hamas attack is a reaction to what has been happening, and it’s not entirely unpredictable. The reaction of the Israelis is similar to the reaction of white settlers against the Native Americans — and I say this as a descendant of white settlers in America. It’s overwhelming — much heavier than anything that they have suffered.

There won’t be any solution. The Israelis want to keep the West Bank for themselves and plant settlers on it. Gaza will be devastated and suppressed, and Israelis will hope that no Hamas-like entity rises up again. Arab states have to pacify their own populations: no Arab government I can think of is actually elected. So they have to pay lip-service to the Palestinian cause to avoid insurrection.

Reporting contemporary events is rewarding. But I love working in archives, finding documents that lay untouched for years and connecting to the past.

My first book, Tribes with Flags, allowed me to travel throughout Syria and Lebanon at leisure, and dig deep into the culture. It was a change from sporadic reporting of the day’s news.

I didn’t know much about writing books then, and wish I could rewrite it now. Researching and writing Americans in Paris and Soldiers Don’t Go Mad taught me much about the First and Second World Wars. So much of what we were taught was simply wrong.

Well, one thing we’re never taught is that 50,000 American soldiers and 100,000 British soldiers deserted from the front lines during the Second World War. (The British soldiers were in the war far longer than the Americans, of course.) And we’re told that most of France resisted the German occupation, but, in fact, most French people collaborated with the Germans, or just waited it out.

Because of the revulsion over the execution of over 300 British soldiers in the First World War, the Labour Government banned the death penalty for desertion or cowardice in 1929. The Americans did execute one, but most were sent to army prisons and were released after ten years.

No one had written a history of the Craiglockhart War Hospital, in Scotland, which is what Soldiers Don’t Go Mad is about. It is more than the story of Sassoon and Owen, setting their treatment for shell-shock within the context of psychiatry for hundreds of young officers. Through the book, readers understand where their war poetry, and that of others, originated. It came from the experience of warfare, but also from discussing their fears and nightmares with their sensitive psychiatrists.

PTSD is a wound to the mind, recognised by military psychiatrists, and it needed to be treated at the root, not just its symptoms, though the symptoms themselves were horrifying: paralysis, mutism, nightmares, and men going without sleep for days because they were afraid of their nightmares. The nurses at Craiglockhart heard soldiers screaming at night, often for their mothers.

Unlike in many military hospitals, doctors listened to their patients, who were traumatised by spending months and months fearing for their lives, or having seen their closest friend or brother physically destroyed by bombs, or being trapped underground by shells. They had to discuss those experiences and confront them again to minimise the horror.

The book contains letters and documents that are published for the first time, and important information on the lead psychiatrists, William Halse Rivers and Arthur Brock. Their relationships with, respectively, Sassoon and Owen have rarely been studied in depth.

Each war brings a mass of literature that points to better methods of treatment for shell-shock/battle fatigue/PTSD that is forgotten by the time of the next war. The lessons have to be learned afresh each time, which is a disgrace. Friends of mine are still in need of treatment following their experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s a shame, when a war ends, everything that has been learned in the psychiatric treatment of soldiers starts from zero next time.

I was born in Los Angeles in 1951. I grew up in America, and attended strict Catholic schools. It took a life of travel and experience to overcome it. Still, there were good aspects to reading new books, following great sports teams, working in Hollywood, and forging strong friendships. No regrets.

I live in Tuscany for much of the year, and in London and in Beirut. I’m in Beirut now, looking outside at the sea. It’s a beautiful clear day, just a normal day. I have a place here and come for a few months a year. Beirut itself is an urban eyesore, but the people are charming. The French mandate ended here in 1943, and, as English is now the language of commerce, and the Lebanese are commercially minded, the French cultural influence is waning. There has also been an economic crisis; so there’s a great contrast here between rich and poor — two very different ways of living. But there is theatre and opera.

I finished Soldiers Don’t Go Mad some time ago, and it came out in the US in June; so I’m looking for my next book idea — but I’ll be coming to London soon for the launch of the book in England.

I’m not sure I’ve experienced God. My first communion was a moment when I felt somehow holy and close to the eternal, but I was seven years old. When I was a hostage in Lebanon, in 1987, I prayed much of the time, and took great consolation from it. [Charles Glass was snatched off the street in Beirut at the time of multiple Hezbollah kidnappings. He subsequently escaped after being held for 62 days.]

Mass murder, war, injustice, racism, anti-Semitism, politicians, homophobes, advertisers. . . The list of things that make me angry is long.

My children and grandchildren make me happiest. I see them all the time. They live in England, Paris, and Singapore. We get together at Christmas and other times, usually meeting in England; and they spend part of the summer in Tuscany.

I love the sound of children playing in schoolyards. Whatever the language, it is the same all over the world.

I pray most for friends and family who have died or are ill, for an end to whatever war is going on at the moment, and for a measure of sanity in the world.

If I were to find myself locked in a church, I’d choose to have Harry Houdini with me. You can guess why.

Charles Glass was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Soldiers Don’t Go Mad is published in hardback on 23 November by Bedford Square Publishers at £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-1-83501-015-0.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)