Friday, November 16, 2007

Desertion in Perspective

No doubt you're going to see a lot of anti-war triumphalism over this AP story.

After six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980. The number of US Army deserters this year shows an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Desertions are up for the year, no doubt. But an 80 percent increase in a very small number is still a very small number.

Still, the cheerleaders of the "this war is a failure that is destroying America and freedom" faction, by which I mean many of my friends in the media, are rolling out the headlines.

"Huge rise" (The Scotsman), "soaring" (CBS News), "skyrocket" (USA Today).

Here's a few things to keep in mind when reading or discussing this one:

  • The story makes remarkable statements about the motivation of deserters -- without interviewing a single deserter or anyone who claims to speak for them or have studied them. It admits, in fact, it can get no statistical profile of deserters (except that -- shocka! -- most of the people who go AWOL from the Army are male).

    Yet we're treated to all sorts of presumptions about motivation:

    The weight of the war has proven to be too heavy for a growing number of soldiers.

    Faced with difficult and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, deployments that stretch for 15 months, and signs of lingering stress disorders, more soldiers are finding a way out: desertion.

  • The article focuses on the Army, where the rate has gone up. You have to read way, way down into the story to learn that among the Marines, who also have borne the brunt of heavy duty in Iraq, the number of deserters has been stable for three years, after falling at the start of the war.

    And the Air Force had its lowest number of deserters in the last five years -- a mere 15. And in the Navy, the number of desertions declined, too, continuing a steady trend since 2001.

  • Nor would you know, until you read way down to the bottom of the story, that desertions go up and down as armies get into wars or not. They went up in the early 1990s when the U.S. got actively involved in the Balkans.

    Which is a historical trend of long standing.

    In the case of Iraq, however, the number of deserters decreased across the board in 2003 and 2004. In fact, the desertion rate in the total U.S. military halved between 2001 and 2005. This remarkable, history-making development passed all but unnoticed in the press. It barely raises its head even here.

  • Desertion is a complex topic (I've written some about it and researched it extensively), and wars and armies differ. A volunteer army such as ours can be expected to have a fairly low desertion rate compared to a drafted army.

    Nonetheless, the lack of historical perspective in the AP story is remarkable. It notes the current rate, even for the Army, is far below the Vietnam War rate of 3.4 percent (in 1971). Which itself is well below the rate from World War II, which peaked at 6.3 percent in 1944. In the American Civil War, the overall rate was 14 percent from the Union Army and 11 percent from the Confederate army.

    The AP story never gives the actual numerical rate of desertion, which would be a useful comparison here. But it gives enough statistics to calculate it. The "huge," "soaring," "skyrocketing" increase in desertion brings the Army's rate to a whopping .9 percent. [corrected]

    This book tends to be sympathetic to deserters, as most such studies I have read tend to be. Nonetheless, it lists, in order, the usual reasons given for leaving one's post of duty, and I find they agree with the results of my research on the subject:

    • Inability to adjust to military life,

    • disagreement with or apathy toward the reasons given for going to war,

    • incompetent leaders,

    • horror of war,

    • family considerations.

    The order of the thing may vary somewhat -- Confederate desertion in the Civil War was hugely impacted by #5 on that list, and you can peg the spike in desertions among the state regiments to the exact week their home district got overrun by the Yankees.

    Just some perspective. Which AP did not care to offer you.

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