By Naomi Spencer
27 November 2007
After a decline in desertion rates following an initial exodus before
the preemptive strikes on Afghanistan and Iraq, the military is
recording a rise in the number of soldiers who abandon their posts.
The Associated Press reported November 16 that desertions this year
stand 80 percent higher than in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.
According to the US Army, 4,698 soldiersabout 9 in every
1,000deserted in the fiscal year ending September 2007. Over the
same period, the Department of Defense reported 1,163 total US deaths
and 8,190 wounded. Overall, desertion is the largest cause of
personnel attritionover fatalities and injuriesserious enough to
result in military discharge.
A deserter is an active duty service member away from his or her unit
without permission for more than 30 days. The Army reports that more
than three quarters of its deserters are soldiers in their first term
Roy Wallace, director of plans and resources with the Army, told the
Associated Press that soldiers generally exit the military in one of
four ways: They are determined unable to meet fitness requirements;
they are found to be "unable to adapt to the military"; they violate
the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy prohibiting someone who
is gay from revealing their orientation; or they simply go absent
without leave and do not report for duty.
For the Army, the desertion rate for 2007 is 42 percent higher than
that of the previous year, when 3,301 deserted. In 2005, 2,011 Army
soldiers deserted, representing the lowest annual rate of the war
period. In 2001 and 2002, the number of desertions was similar to the
most recent figures for the Army (4,597 and 4,483, respectively)
before they began to decline.
Historically, the military has not actively pursued deserters. Troops
who leave their posts are denied veterans benefits and their names
are permanently added to a national database of fugitives. If they
are picked up by civilian law enforcement, they are handed over to
military police for court martial.
However, Army prosecutions of desertions and other unauthorized
absences have greatly increased over the past four years in an
attempt to deter other would-be deserters, according to Army lawyers
in interviews with the New York Times earlier this year. In a report
published April 9, the Times noted that from 2002 through 2006, the
average annual rate of Army prosecutions for desertion was triple the
preceding five-year period, and prosecutions of similar absences have
doubled. This increase in disciplinary action is an unmistakable
acknowledgment by the chain of command that the rise in desertions
represents not a fluke but a sign of things to come.
Pointing to the far higher Vietnam-era desertion rates, which rose as
high as 5 percent, the military has insisted the current rise in
desertion rates has nothing to do either with the so-called war on
terror or with mass antiwar sentiments.
According to the Army, lower rates in 2003-2005 were the result of
successful efforts to identify soldiers likely to desert during basic
training, before they were assigned to their posts.
The current higher desertion rates, the Army insists, are too small
an increase to attribute to any factors other than personal or
familial stress. As Army planning director Wallace put it for the
Associated Press, "We're asking a lot of soldiers these days. They're
humans. They have all sorts of issues back home and other places like
that. So, I'm sure it has to do with the stress of being a soldier."
What the military will not acknowledge is the obvious connection
between "issues back home" and military culture and the war itself.
Above all, the open-ended and brutal nature of colonial-style
occupation has taken a psychological toll on the soldiers charged
with carrying it out on the ground, as well as on their families and
friends in the United States. Consequently, morale among active duty
troops is low and stress is very high.
The military has encouraged a dehumanizing attitude in its ranks
toward the Iraqi population, which is understandably hostile to the
occupying force. A survey conducted a year ago by the Pentagon of
soldiers stationed in Iraq found that more than a third thought
torture of captured Iraqis was acceptable. The survey also found that
destruction of civilian property, assault and abuse of civilians by
troops were utterly routine.
The same survey, conducted by the military's Mental Health Advisory
Team, found that 40 percent of Iraq-deployed soldiers were concerned
about uncertain redeployment dates and extended tours. Lengthened
tours of duty exacerbate exhaustion and stress, as well as domestic
difficulties. Last year, a quarter of soldiers reported marital
problems, and 20 percent were in the process of divorce.
When soldiers return home, there is no guarantee they will not be
redeployed even when diagnosed with post-traumatic stress or other
psychiatric disorders. Nearly 40 percent of Army and half of National
Guard personnel who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have
been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.
Senior brass readily admit that the military is stretched to the
breaking point, even as preparations are drawn up for an expansion of
the war into Iran. Yet how to resolve the numbers crisis poses a
major policy problem for the current administration and the
Democrats, who recognize that a re-institution of the draft would
have a devastating effect on public acquiescence of the war.
The great majority of deserters during the Vietnam-era had been
conscripted; by comparison, the "all-volunteer" composition of the
current militarydrawn almost entirely from the poorest layers of the
working class and secured with enticements of signing bonuses and
college tuitionhas undoubtedly acted as a suppressant upon desertion rates.
Since 2003, the Army has greatly relaxed recruitment and enlistment
standards in order to wage the two wars and increase numbers for
future occupations. Over the past few years, the proportion of Army
recruits without high school diplomas has risen from fewer than 10
percent to 24 percent. About 20 percent of current recruits would not
have been accepted before the Iraq invasion, including a higher
percentage of recruits issued "moral waivers" for criminal records.
The Army has also increased monetary inducements for officers,
including bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain sergeants and other
Coinciding with the troop surge early this year, the Bush
administration called for an additional 65,000 Army troops and 27,000
Marines over the next five years, putting pressure on the military to
find volunteers. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office in
April suggested the addition would cost $65 billion, not including
the expense of extra training facilities and likely hospital care.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's senior
military assistant, Peter Chiarelli, asserted that the military must
be better structured for open-ended occupation. According to a piece
by Art Pine in the National Journal November 12, Chiarelli wrote,
"Like it or not, until further notice the US government has decided
that the military largely owns the job of nation-building.... We need
to accept this reality instead of resisting it."
The National Journal cited Andrew Bacevich, a military analyst at
Boston University, who advocated the institution of a "small-scale
draft, supplementing the current all-volunteer force with a small
cadre of conscripts. One possibility," the Journal specified, "making
military service an option in a broader program in which young people
would be required to do a stint in some kind of 'national service.' "
This proposal has been high on the Democratic Party platform since
the 2006 congressional elections. Bacevich told the Journal, "A draft
would involve a broader spectrum of Americans with the military and
would serve as a constraint for policy makers.... But there's a need
to begin debating the issue because the heavy lifting for future
Iraqs is going to be done by the Army."