Every man has two countries ... or three if you're Charles GlassCharles Glass has had a career that reads like a movie script – war correspondent, interviewing hijackers and being kidnapped. These days the 62-year-old spends his time writing between France, Italy and Lebanon.
Born in Los Angeles, Glass had his first taste of expat life as a graduate student at the American University of Beirut in 1972. While studying philosophy, he did some work at the ABC news bureau alongside Peter Jennings; the two became close friends. The following year he became a full-time journalist working in the Middle East and from 1983 to 1993, the decade that saw the birth of Hezbollah and the Lebanese Civil War, Glass was ABC’s Chief Middle East Correspondent.
We discuss how journalism has changed since his start. Gone are the days of embedded journalism where news services would hire reporters, experts in the field, who could provide continuous analysis of a changing situation.
"With the exception of The New York Times and the BBC," Glass says, "most of the newspapers and television networks have reduced their staff overseas to save money, which means nowhere will be covered by the reporters who used to develop regional expertise. It probably helps to keep the American public ignorant about conditions in other countries and permit American companies and agents to act without public scrutiny.”
Covering the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 187 was one of his biggest stories. He broke the news that the hostages were hidden in the surrounding suburbs which led to the Reagan administration calling off a rescue attempt.
A year later, while en route to Beirut with the son of the Lebanese defence minister Ali Bey Osseiran, two unmarked vehicles pulled in front and behind their car. As there had been several kidnappings in the region, Glass was not unaware of what was in store. He tried to make a run for it but received a blow to the head with a rifle butt. “I had my press card stating that I was American and I knew that wasn’t good.”
Kidnapped by Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorists, he spent 62 days in captivity, hoping that as he was not with the CIA or the army his life would be spared.
Glass was moved to different locations and was only able to make his escape thanks to some slipshod kidnappers in the last apartment who did not secure a window. He made his way down to the street in the middle of the night and posing as a Canadian tourist in need of a doctor for his baby, found a motorist to drive him back to his hotel.
Despite the abduction, Glass stayed on to report in the Middle East, and his experiences have lead to countless articles and four books.
I ask if he foresees any fundamental change in the area. “The Middle East suffers from the settlement at the end of the First World War, which drew borders than no one wanted across what had been the Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire. The area never had a chance.”
Over the past few years, Glass has also written two books (both with HarperPress) about the Second World War: in 2010, Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940-44 and his latest release, Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War, an account of British and American servicemen who went AWOL.
He explains that the idea for Americans in Paris sprang up after seeing various war memorials in Paris and wondering how he would have reacted to the German occupation. “We’d all like to think we would’ve acted heroically but the reality is very different.
“Americans in Paris originated with a love of Paris more than an interest in the Second World War. There had been books on Americans who came to Paris in the 1920s and immediately after the war, but no one had looked into the subject of the 5000 Americans who remained in Paris during the German occupation. They had extraordinary experiences.”
One of the most compelling stories is that of the Director of the American Hospital in Paris, Sumner Jackson, who, along with his wife and 15-year-old
son, was an instrumental part of the Resistance hiding soldiers in the hospital and helping get them back to Britain. The SS arrested the entire family and placed them in a camp. His wife and son survived, but Dr Jackson died just five days before the end of the war.
Deserter came about when a French friend asked Glass whether many American and British soldiers deserted during the war. He discovered that about 150,000 American and British troops had indeed done so, and since no one had written about it – and the subject was somewhat taboo – Glass found the topic too appealing to pass over.
Curious, I wonder if he uncovered a pattern for desertion in World War II. “There were as many reasons for deserting as there were deserters. Countless left because they had nervous breakdowns and could not take combat any longer, while others were disgusted with the military or their officers. Some were criminals, who saw an opportunity to make money on the black market.”
According to Glass, many of the deserters were in the infantry and didn’t think it was fair that they were in the thick of the action while ninety percent of the other troops never saw battle.
As for his next project, Glass is working on a book that deals with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a top-secret branch of the British military that worked behind enemy lines in countries that the Axis powers had invaded.
Although Glass still travels to Lebanon for work, he has a house in the Bouches-du-Rhône because, as he says, “It’s a good place to write as well as being tranquil and beautiful.” He enjoys living in France for two reasons: the food and the “strangely efficient” French. While he believes that Italy is a mess and that the infrastructure of London is crumbling, he finds the infrastructure of Paris magnificent and feels that despite the crisis, “things still work in France”. n
Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War is now available, and in Kindle Edition. For more on Charles Glass, see www.charlesglass.net