Rising Desertion Rates
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.
to the US Army, 4,698 soldiers—about 9 in every 1,000—deserted
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 attrition—over
fatalities and injuries—serious enough to result in military discharge.
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 of enlistment.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
majority of deserters during the Vietnam-era had been conscripted; by
comparison, the “all-volunteer” composition of the current
military—drawn almost entirely from the poorest layers of the
working class and secured with enticements of signing bonuses and college
tuition—has undoubtedly acted as a suppressant upon desertion
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 mid-level commanders.
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.
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.”
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.’ ”
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.”
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