Desertion is the abandonment of a military duty or post without permission (a pass, liberty or leave) and is done with the intention of not returning. This contrasts with unauthorised absence (UA) or absence without leave (AWOL), which are temporary forms of absence.
Desertion versus Absence Without Leave
In the United States Army, United States Air Force, British Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, New Zealand Defence Force, Singapore Armed Forces and Canadian Armed Forces, military personnel will become AWOL if absent from their post without a valid pass, liberty or leave. The United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, and United States Coast Guard generally refer to this as unauthorised absence. Personnel are dropped from their unit rolls after thirty days and then listed as deserters; however, as a matter of US military law, desertion is not measured by time away from the unit, but rather:
- By leaving or remaining absent from their unit, organisation, or place of duty, where there has been a determined intent to not return;
- If that intent is determined to be to avoid hazardous duty or shirk contractual obligation; and
- If they enlist or accept an appointment in the same or another branch of service without disclosing the fact that they have not been properly separated from current service.
People who are away for more than thirty days but return voluntarily or indicate a credible intent to return may still be considered AWOL. Those who are away for fewer than thirty days but can credibly be shown to have no intent to return (for example, by joining the armed forces of another country) may nevertheless be tried for desertion. On rare occasions, they may be tried for treason if enough evidence is found.
There are similar concepts to desertion. Missing movement occurs when a member of the armed forces fails to arrive at the appointed time to deploy (or “move out”) with their assigned unit, ship, or aircraft. In the United States Armed Forces, this is a violation of the Article 87 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The offense is similar to absence without leave but may draw more severe punishment.
Failure to repair consists of missing a formation or failing to appear at an assigned place and time when so ordered. It is a lesser offense within article 86 of the UCMJ (refer to DUSTWUN).
An additional duty status code – absent-unknown, or AUN – was established in 2020 to prompt unit actions and police investigations during the first 48 hours that a Soldier is missing.
During the First World War, the Australian Government refused to allow members of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to be executed for desertion, despite pressure from the British Government and military to do so. The AIF had the highest rate of soldiers going absent without leave of any of the national contingents in the British Expeditionary Force, and the proportion of soldiers who deserted was also higher than that of other forces on the Western Front in France.
In 2011, Vienna decided to honour Austrian Wehrmacht deserters. On 24 October 2014, a Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice was inaugurated on Vienna’s Ballhausplatz by Austria’s President Heinz Fischer. The monument was created by German artist Olaf Nicolai and is located opposite the President’s office and the Austrian Chancellery. The inscription on top of the three step sculpture features a poem by Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1924-2006) with just two words: all alone.
According to the Dutch Shot at Dawn website greatwar.nl, from 1914 to 1918 approximately 600 French soldiers were executed for desertion.
In addition, according to this website, the 10th Company of the 8th Battalion of a mixed Algerian soldier regiment refused an order to attack and retreated. Subsequently, they were subject to decimation (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit), being shot on 15 December 1914 near Zillebeke in Flanders, Belgium.
In contrast, France considered as highly praiseworthy the act of citizens of Alsace-Lorraine who during WWI deserted from the German army. After the war it was decided to award all such deserters the Escapees’ Medal (French: Médaille des Évadés).
During the First World War, only 18 Germans who deserted were executed. However, the Germans executed 15,000 men who deserted from the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. In June 1988 the Initiative for the Creation of a Memorial to Deserters came to life in Ulm. A central idea was, “Desertion is not reprehensible, war is”.
During the First World War 28 New Zealand soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion; of these, five were executed. These soldiers were posthumously pardoned in 2000 through the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act. Those who deserted before reaching the front were imprisoned in what were claimed to be harsh conditions.
World War II
Order No. 270, dated 16 August 1941, was issued by Joseph Stalin. The order required superiors to shoot deserters on the spot. Their family members were subjected to arrest. Order No. 227, dated 28 July 1942, directed that each Army must create “blocking detachments” (barrier troops) which would shoot “cowards” and fleeing panicked troops at the rear. Over the course of the war, the Soviets executed 158,000 troops for desertion.
Afghan Civil War
Many Soviet soldier deserters of the Soviet War in Afghanistan explain their reasons for desertion as political and in response to internal disorganisation and disillusionment regarding their position in the war. Analyses of desertion rates argue that motivations were far less ideological than individual accounts claim. Desertion rates increased prior to announcements of upcoming operations, and were highest during the summer and winter. Seasonal desertions were probably a response to the harsh weather conditions of the winter and immense field work required in the summer. A significant jump in desertion in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan may suggest a higher concern regarding returning home, rather than an overall opposition towards the war itself.
Inter-Ethnic Explanation for Desertion
In the beginning of the Soviet invasion, the majority of Soviet forces were soldiers of Central Asian republics. The Soviets believed that shared ideologies between Muslim Central Asians and Afghan soldiers would build trust and morale within the army. However, Central Asians’ longstanding historical frustrations with Moscow degraded soldiers’ willingness to fight for the Red Army. As Afghan desertion grew and Soviet opposition was strengthened within Afghanistan, the Soviet plan overtly backfired.
The personal histories of Central Asian ethnic groups – especially between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, caused tension within the Soviet military. Non-Russian ethnic groups easily related the situation in Afghanistan to Communist takeover of their own states’ forced induction into the USSR. Ethnic Russians suspected Central Asians of opposition, and fighting within the army was prevalent.
Upon entering Afghanistan, many Central Asians were exposed to the Koran for the first time uninfluenced by Soviet propagandist versions, and felt a stronger connection towards the opposition than their own comrades. The highest rates of desertion were found among border troops, ranging from 60 to 80% during the first year of the Soviet invasion. In these areas, strong ethnic clashes and cultural factors influenced desertion.
As Afghan soldiers continued to desert the Soviet army, a united Islamic Alliance for the Liberation of Afghanistan began to form. Moderates and fundamentalists banded together to oppose Soviet intervention. The Islamic ideology solidified a strong base of opposition by January 1980, overriding ethnic, tribal, geographic and economic differences among Afghans willing to fight the Soviet invasion, which attracted Central Asian deserters. By March 1980, the Soviet army made an executive decision to replace Central Asian troops with the European sectors of the USSR to avoid further religious and ethnic complications, drastically reducing Soviet forces.
Soviet Disillusionment upon Entering the War
Soviet soldiers entered the war under the impression that their roles were primarily related to the organization of Afghan forces and society. Soviet media portrayed the Soviet intervention as a necessary means of protecting the Communist uprising from outside opposition. Propaganda declared that Soviets were providing aid to villagers and improving Afghanistan by planting trees, improving public buildings and “generally acting as good neighbours”. Upon entering Afghanistan, Soviet soldiers became immediately aware of the falsity of the reported situation.
In major cities, Afghan youth that originally supported the leftist movement soon turned to Soviet oppositional forces for patriotic and religious reasons. The opposition built resistance in cities, calling Soviet soldiers infidels that were forcing an imperialist Communist invasive government on Afghanistan’s people. As Afghan troops continued to abandon the Soviet army to support the mujahideen, they became anti-Russian and anti-government. Opposition forces emphasized the Soviets’ atheism, demanding support for the Muslim faith from civilians. The hostility shown towards soldiers, who entered the war believing their assistance was requested, grew defensive. The opposition circulated pamphlets within Soviet camps stationed in cities, calling for Afghan freedom from the aggressive Communist influence and a right to establish their own government.
The native Afghan army fell from 90,000 to 30,000 by mid-1980, forcing Soviets into more extreme combative positions. The mujahideen’s widespread presence among Afghan civilians in rural regions made it difficult for Soviet soldiers to distinguish between the civilians they believed they were fighting for and the official opposition. Soldiers who had entered the war with idealistic viewpoints of their roles were quickly disillusioned.
Problems in Soviet Army Structure and Living Standards
The structure of the Soviet army, in comparison to the mujahideen, set the Soviets at a serious fighting disadvantage. While the mujahideen structure was based on kinship and social cohesion, the Soviet army was bureaucratic. Because of this, mujahideen could significantly weaken the Soviet army by the elimination of a field commander or officer. Resistance forces were locally based, more ready to address and mobilise the Afghan population for support. The Soviet army was centrally organised; its regime structure emphasized rank and position, paying less attention to the well-being and effectiveness of its army.
The initial Soviet plan relied on Afghan troops’ support in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. The majority of the Afghan army support crumbled easily as forces lacked strong ideological support for Communism from the beginning.
The Afghan army, comprising 100,000 men before 1978, was reduced to 15,000 within the first year of the Soviet invasion. Of the Afghan troops that remained, many were considered untrustworthy to Soviet troops. Afghans that deserted often took artillery with them, supplying the mujahideen. Soviet troops, to fill Afghan soldiers’ place, were pushed into mountainous tribal regions of the East. Soviet tanks and modern warfare was ineffective in the rural, mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Mujahideen tactics of ambush prevented Soviets from developing successful counterattacks.
In 1980, the Soviet army began to rely on smaller and more cohesive units, a response to mirror mujahideen tactics. A decrease in unit size, while solving organisational issues, promoted field leaders to head more violent and aggressive missions, promoting Soviet desertion. Often, small forces would engage in rapes, looting, and general violence beyond what higher ranks ordered, increasing negative sanctions in undesirable locations.
Within the Soviet army, serious drug and alcohol problems significantly reduced the effectiveness of soldiers. Resources became further depleted as soldiers pushed into the mountains; drugs were rampantly abused and available, often supplied by Afghans. Supplies of heating fuel, wood, and food ran low at bases. Soviet soldiers often resorted to trading weapons and ammunition in exchange for drugs or food. As morale decreased and infections of hepatitis and typhus spread, soldiers became further disheartened.
Soviet Deserters to the Mujahideen
Interviews with Soviet soldier deserters confirm that much of Soviet desertion was in response to widespread Afghan opposition rather than personal aggravation towards the Soviet army. Armed with modern artillery against ill-equipped villagers, Soviet soldiers developed a sense of guilt for the widespread killing of innocent civilians and their unfair artillery advantage. Soviet deserters found support and acceptance within Afghan villages. After entering the mujahideen, many deserters came to recognise the falsity of Soviet propaganda from the beginning. Unable to legitimise the unnecessary killing and mistreatment of the Afghan people, many deserters could not face returning home and justifying their own actions and the unnecessary deaths of comrades. Upon deserting to the mujahideen, soldiers immersed themselves into Afghan culture. Hoping to rectify their position as the enemy, deserters learned the Afghan language and converted to Islam.
Historically, one who was paid to enlist and then deserted could be arrested under a type of writ known as arrestando ipsum qui pecuniam recepit, or “For arresting one who received money”.
During the Napoleonic Wars desertion was a massive drain on British army resources, despite the threat of court martial and the possibility of the capital punishment for the crime. Many deserters were harboured by citizens who were sympathetic to them.
First World War
“306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for…desertion during World War I,” records the Shot at Dawn Memorial. Of these, 25 were Canadian, 22 Irishmen and five New Zealanders.
“During the period between August 1914 and March 1920 more than 20,000 servicemen were convicted by courts-martial of offences which carried the death sentence. Only 3,000 of those men were ordered to be put to death and of those just over 10% were executed.”
Second World War
Throughout the Second World War, almost 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops deserted from the armed forces.
On 28 May 2006, the UK military reported over 1,000 absent without leave since the beginning of the Iraq War, with 566 still missing since 2005 and that year to date. The Ministry of Defence said that levels of absence were fairly constant and “only one person has been found guilty of deserting the Army since 1989”.
According to United States Uniform Code of Military Justice, desertion is defined as:
(a) Any member of the armed forces who–
(1) without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organisation, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently;
(2) quits his unit, organisation, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service; or
(3) without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another one of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated, or enters any foreign armed service except when authorised by the United States; is guilty of desertion.
(b) Any commissioned officer of the armed forces who, after tender of his resignation and before notice of its acceptance, quits his post or proper duties without leave and with intent to remain away therefrom permanently is guilty of desertion.
(c) Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.
War of 1812
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
The desertion rate in the US Army was 8.3% (9,200 out of 111,000), compared to 12.7% during the War of 1812 and usual peacetime rates of about 14.8% per year. Many men deserted in order to join another US unit and get a second enlistment bonus. Others deserted because of the miserable conditions in camp, or in 1849-1850 were using the army to get free transportation to California, where they deserted to join the California Gold Rush. Several hundred deserters went over to the Mexican side; nearly all were recent immigrants from Europe with weak ties to the United States. The most famous group was the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, about half of whom were Catholics from Ireland, anti-Catholic prejudice reportedly being another reason for desertion. The Mexicans issued broadsides and leaflets enticing US soldiers with promises of money, land grants, and officers’ commissions. Mexican guerrillas shadowed the US Army, and captured men who took unauthorized leave or fell out of the ranks. The guerrillas coerced these men to join the Mexican ranks – threatening to kill them if they failed to comply. The generous promises proved illusory for most deserters, who risked execution if captured by US forces. About fifty of the San Patricios were tried and hanged following their capture at Churubusco in August 1847.
In the Mexican-American War, high desertion rates were a major problem for the Mexican army, depleting forces on the eve of battle. Most of the soldiers were peasants who had a loyalty to their village and family but not to the generals who conscripted them. Often hungry and ill, never well paid, under-equipped and only partially trained, the soldiers were held in contempt by their officers and had little reason to fight the Americans. Looking for their opportunity, many slipped away from camp to find their way back to their home village.
American Civil War
During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy had a desertion problem. From its 2.5 million or so men, the Union Army saw about 200,000 desertions. Over 100,000 deserted the Confederate army, which was less than a million men and possibly as little as a third the size of the Union one.
New York suffered 44,913 desertions by the war’s end, and Pennsylvania recorded 24,050, with Ohio reporting desertions at 18,354. About 1 out of 3 deserters returned to their regiments, either voluntarily or after being arrested and being sent back. Many of the desertions were by “professional” bounty men, men who would enlist to collect the often large cash bonuses and then desert at the earliest opportunity to repeat another enlistment elsewhere. If caught they would face execution; otherwise it could prove a very lucrative criminal enterprise.
The total number of Confederate deserters was officially 103,400. Desertion was a major factor for the Confederacy in the last two years of the war. According to Mark A. Weitz Confederate soldiers fought to defend their families, not a nation. He argues that a hegemonic “planter class” brought Georgia into the war with “little support from non-slaveholders”, and the ambivalence of non-slaveholders toward secession, he maintains, was the key to understanding desertion. The privations of the home front and camp life, combined with the terror of battle, undermined the weak attachment of southern soldiers to the Confederacy. For Georgian troops, Sherman’s march through their home counties triggered the most desertions.
Adoption of a localist identity caused soldiers to desert as well. When soldiers implemented a local identity, they neglected to think of themselves as Southerners fighting a Southern cause. When they replaced their Southern identity with their previous local identity, they lost their motive to fight and, therefore, deserted the army.
A growing threat to the solidarity of the Confederacy was dissatisfaction in the Appalachian mountain districts caused by lingering unionism and a distrust of the slave power. Many of their soldiers deserted, returned home, and formed a military force that fought off regular army units trying to punish them. North Carolina lost 23% of its soldiers (24,122) to desertion. The state provided more soldiers per capita than any other Confederate state, and had more deserters as well.
First World War
Desertion still occurred among American armed forces after the US joined the First World War on 06 April 1917. Between 06 April 1917 and 31 December 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) charged 5,584 servicemen and convicted 2,657 of them for desertion. 24 AEF troops were eventually sentenced to death, but all managed to avoid execution after having their sentences being commuted to prison terms by President Woodrow Wilson. Deserters were often publicly humiliated. One US Navy deserter, Henry Holscher, later joined a British regiment and won the Military Medal.
Second World War
Over 20,000 American soldiers were tried and sentenced for desertion. Forty-nine were sentenced to death, though forty-eight of these death sentences were subsequently commuted. Only one US soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, was executed for desertion in World War II.
Approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted during the Vietnam War. Some of these migrated to Canada. Among those who deserted to Canada were Andy Barrie, host of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio’s Metro Morning, and Jack Todd, award-winning sports columnist for the Montreal Gazette. Other countries also gave asylum to deserted US soldiers. For example, Sweden allows asylum for foreign soldiers deserting from war, if the war does not align with the current goals of Swedish foreign policy.
According to the Pentagon, more than 5,500 military personnel deserted in 2003-2004, following the Iraq invasion and occupation. The number had reached about 8,000 by the first quarter of 2006. Another source states that since 2000, about 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted. More than half of these served in the US Army. Almost all of these soldiers deserted within the United States. There has been only one reported case of a desertion in Iraq. The Army, Navy, and Air Force reported 7,978 desertions in 2001, compared with 3,456 in 2005. The Marine Corps showed 1,603 Marines in desertion status in 2001. That had declined to 148 by 2005.
Before the Civil War, deserters from the Army were flogged; after 1861, tattoos or branding were also used. The maximum US penalty for desertion in wartime remains death, although this punishment was last applied to Eddie Slovik in 1945. No US serviceman has received more than 24 months imprisonment for desertion or missing movement after 11 September 2001.
A US service member who is AWOL/UA may be punished with non-judicial punishment (NJP) or by court martial under Article 86 of the UCMJ for repeat or more severe offenses. Many AWOL/UA service members are also given a discharge in lieu of court-martial.
The 2012 edition of the United States Manual for Courts-Martial stated that:
Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.
Legal Status of Desertion in Cases of War Crime
Under international law, ultimate “duty” or “responsibility” is not necessarily always to a “government” nor to “a superior”, as seen in the fourth of the Nuremberg Principles, which states:
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
Although a soldier under direct orders, in battle, is normally not subject to prosecution for war crimes, there is legal language supporting a soldier’s refusal to commit such crimes, in military contexts outside of immediate peril.
In 1998, UNCHR resolution 1998/77 recognised that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections” while performing military service. This opens the possibility of desertion as a response to cases in which the soldier is required to perform crimes against humanity as part of his mandatory military duty.
The principle was tested unsuccessfully in the case of US Army deserter Jeremy Hinzman, which resulted in a Canadian federal immigration board rejecting refugee status to a deserter invoking Nuremberg Article IV.