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In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of a "duty" or post without permission from one's Government or superior. The term AWOL is an acronym for "Absent Without Leave." Ultimate "duty" or "responsibility," however, under International Law, is not necessarily always to a "Government" nor to a "superior," as seen in the fourth of the Nuremberg Principles, which states: This Nuremberg Principle of "moral choice," "morality," or "conscience" being the higher authority was subsequently formulated into International Law by the United Nations as we see in this quote: In 1998, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights document called “Conscientious objection to military service, United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77” recognized that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections” while performing military service.

Absent Without Official Leave

In the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, military personnel become AWOL (US: Absent Without Official Leave) or AWL (UK, Canada and Australia: Absent Without Leave), all of which are , when they are absent from their post without a valid pass or leave. The United States Marine Corps and United States Navy generally refer to this as Unauthorized Absence, or "UA." Such people are dropped from their unit rolls after 30 days and then listed as deserters. However, as a matter of U.S. military law, desertion is not measured by time away from the unit, but rather:

  • by leaving or remaining absent from their unit, organization, 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;
  • 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 30 days but return voluntarily or indicate a credible intent to return may still be considered AWOL, while those who are away for fewer than 30 days but can credibly be shown to have no intent to return (as by joining the armed forces of another country) may nevertheless be tried for desertion or in some rare occasions treason if enough evidence is found.

In the United States, before the Civil War, deserters from the Army were flogged, while after 1861 tattoos or branding were also adopted. The maximum U.S. 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 18 months imprisonment for desertion or missing movement during the Iraq war.

AWOL/UA may be punished with nonjudicial punishment (NJP; called "office hours" in the Marines). It is usually punished by Court Martial for repeat or more severe offenses.

Also, "Missing Movement" is another term which is used to describe when a particular serviceman fails to arrive at the appointed time to deploy (or "move out") with his assigned unit, ship, or aircraft; in the United States military, it is a violation of the 87th article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The offense is similar to AWOL, but considered more severe.

Less severe is "Failure to Repair," consisting of missing a formation, or failing to appear at an assigned place and time when so ordered.

U.S. 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.

Mexican–American War, 1846-48

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.

The desertion rate in the U.S. 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 U.S. unit and get a second enlistment bonus. Others deserted because of the miserable conditions in camp, or were using the army to get free transportation to California, where they deserted to join the gold rush.

Several hundred deserters went over to the Mexican side; nearly all were recent immigrants from Europe with weak ties to the U.S. The most famous group was the Saint Patrick's Battalion, about half of whom were Catholics from Ireland. The Mexicans issued broadsides and leaflets enticing U.S. soldiers with promises of money, land bounties, and officers' commissions. Mexican guerrillas shadowed the U.S. 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 getting shot if captured by U.S. forces. About fifty of the San Patricios were tried and hanged following their capture at Churubusco in August 1847.

American Civil War

Desertion was a major factor for the Confederacy in the last two years of the war. According to Weitz (2000), Confederate soldiers fought to defend their families, not a nation. He argues that a hegemonic "planter class" brought Georgiamarker into the war with "little support from non-slaveholders" (p. 12), 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 Georgia troops, Sherman's march through their home counties triggered the most desertions.

One example of desertion in the Civil War was Confederate soldier Arthur Muntz, who was killed by his fellow soldiers after deserting at The First Battle of Bull Runmarker. In many cases, in the early years of the war, the Confederate Home Guard dealt with deserters. For a time, the Confederate government offered a bounty to be paid for the capture and return of deserters. However as the war progressively got worse for the south, often Home Guard units would deal with desertion as they saw fit, whether that be by execution or imprisonment.

In Arkansasmarker, many units deserted completely when rumors spread that local Indians had raided towns and scalped citizens, with the soldiers feeling their place was at home rather than fighting in the war. There were also instances across the southern states where whole units deserted together, banding together and living in the mountains, at times fighting against Union Army regulars if forced to do so, but also raiding civilian farms to obtain food or supplies. [56133] The fictional story of a wounded Confederate deserter is told in the novel Cold Mountain, who at the end of the Civil War walks for months to return home to the love of his life after receiving her letters pleading him to come home. Many Confederate units had signed on, initially, for a one year service, and felt completely justified in walking away when they'd reached their breaking point. By the war's end, it was estimated that the Confederacy had lost 103,400 soldiers to desertion. [56134]

The Union Army also faced large scale desertions. Confederate forces lost fewer to desertion than did the northern forces. This has been partly attributed to the southern soldiers fighting a defensive war, on their own ground, rather than an offensive war of invasion, which gave the southern soldiers a sense that they were defending their homeland which is always an advantage in any war. In addition up until late 1863 the South had many victories in fact more than the North, and many northern soldiers felt the war was a lost cause. For example New Yorkmarker alone suffered 44,913 desertions by the war's end, with Pennsylvaniamarker having 24,050 and Ohiomarker having 18,354, not to mention the desertions faced by the other northern states. [56135]

World War I

"306 British and Commonwealth soldiers [were] executed for...desertion during World War I," records the Shot at Dawn Memorialmarker."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...." [56136]

World War II

Over 21,000 US military personnel were convicted and sentenced for desertion during the 3.5 years of American involvement in World War II. Of these, 49 were sentenced to death, but only one soldier, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed for desertion; he being the only one after the Philippine–American War

The 'Lost Division' was a term given to the estimated 19,000 U.S. Army soldiers absent without leave in Francemarker at the close of World War II.

Of the Germans who deserted the Wehrmacht, 15,000 men were executed. In June 1988 the Initiative for the Creation of a Memorial to Deserters came to life in Ulmmarker (birthplace of Albert Einstein). A central idea was, "Desertion is not reprehensible, war is".[56137]

Order No. 270, dated August 16, 1941, was issued by Joseph Stalin. The order required superiors to shoot deserters on the spot. Their family members were subjected to arrest.Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953. New Heaven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0300112041), page 98 Order No. 227 directed that each Army must create "blocking detachments" (barrier troops) which would shoot "cowards" and fleeing panicked troops at the rear. The Soviets executed 158,000 soldiers for desertion.

Vietnam War

Approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted. 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.

Iraq War

United Kingdom

On May 28, 2006, the UK military reported over 1,000 deserters since the beginning of the Iraq war, with 566 deserting since 2005. [56138]

United States

According to the Pentagonmarker, more than 5,500 military personnel deserted in 2003–2004, following the Iraq invasion and occupation. [56139]. The number had reached about 8,000 by the first quarter of 2006. Another report stated that since 2000, about 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted, also according to the Pentagon. More than half of these served in the US Army [56140]. Almost all of these soldiers deserted within the USA. There has only been 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 by 148 in 2005.

See also


  • Peter S. Bearman; " Desertion as Localism: Army Unit Solidarity and Group Norms in the U.S Civil War" Social Forces, Vol. 70, 1991
  • Ella Lonn; Desertion during the Civil War University of Nebraska Press, (1928 (reprinted 1998)
  • Aaron W. Marrs; "Desertion and Loyalty in the South Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865" Civil War History, Vol. 50, 2004
  • Mark A. Weitz; A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War University of Nebraska Press, 2000
  • Mark A. Weitz; "Preparing for the Prodigal Sons: The Development of the Union Desertion Policy during the Civil War" Civil War History, Vol. 45, 1999


  1. On Watch "AWOL in the Army, version 2.0", by James M. Branum and Susan Bassein.
  2. J.C.A. Stagg, "Enlisted Men in the United States Army, 1812-1815: A Preliminary Survey," William and Mary Quarterly, 43 (1986), 615-45, esp. pp. 624-25, in in JSTOR
  3. Douglas Meed, The Mexican War, 1846-1848 (Routledge, 2003), p. 67.
  4. see Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (1988) p 193
  5. Paul Foos, A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War (University of North Carolina Press. 2002) p 25, 103-6
  6. Foos (2002) p 105-7
  7. Text of Order No. 270
  8. Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953. New Heaven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0300112041), page 132
  9. Patriots ignore greatest brutality. The Sydney Morning Herald. August 13, 2007.
  10. The War's Costs . Digital History.
  11. Vietnam War Resisters in Canada Open Arms to U.S. Military Deserters. Pacific News Service. June 28, 2005.

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