The headline over at Drudge was worrisome, "More Soldiers Deserting than Previously Reported."
"Oh no.", I thought. I pictured brigades leaving equipment and units behind and going to Canada and Sweden. Then I read the article behind the banner. It seems as if a total of 3,196 active-duty soldiers deserted the Army last year, or 853 more than previously reported, according to revised figures from the Army.
The new calculations by the Army, which had about 500,000 active-duty troops at the end of 2006, alter the annual desertion totals since the 2000 fiscal year, but are they significant?
In 2005, for example, the Army now says 2,543 soldiers deserted, not the 2,011 it had reported earlier.
The revised figures show 2,543 desertions in the fiscal year 2005, an 8 percent increase from the 2,357 the year before. Previously, the service said 2005 desertions dropped by 17 percent, to 2,011 from 2,432.
But from the fiscal year 2000 through 2003, there were hundreds fewer desertions than the Army had previously reported. The Army’s revised data, while reflecting significant errors in year-to-year desertions, showed a total of 22,468 desertions since the fiscal year 2000, nearly the same as the old count of 22,586. There is no explanation for the change but I suspect it could be the result of adjudication of status between awol and desertion.
Desertions, always present in all armies in all times, now account for less than 1 percent of active-duty soldiers. There were 33,094 soldiers, 3.41 percent of the total force, who deserted the Army in 1971, during the last days of the Vietnam War.
My suspicions are that most desertions are personal and not ideological. Someone gets a "Dear John", or has emotional or drinking problems. Financial considerations or personality problems would be high on the list. Surely, the increase in woman in units where they just do not belong adds to the numbers.
The numbers are minor compared to earlier wars. I found this link where a Civil War historian investigated desertions in some small Pennsylvania units during the Civil War. Desertion in Pennsylvania Civil War Units. It is interesting and timeless as it looks as the small but very important reasons soldiers desert their units. The author finds the reasons behind desertions are rarely political:
...Again, an immediate and personal decision, rather than a political one. This is also bolstered by the fact that desertion tended to be highest from the regiments with a reputation of being poorly led. I also studied, in detail, a local company in the Philadelphia Brigade. This four-regiment unit was made of the same stuff -- working-class Irish and native-born soldiers, recruited in Philadelphia and the smaller industrial cities in its vicinity.
The four regiments in the Philadelphia Brigade served together until the very late stages of the war, fought the same battles, slept on the same campsites. Yet their desertion rate ranged from only 10 percent in the 106th Pa., to 19 percent in the 71st Pa. (California Regiment). Not coincidentally, the 106th had a reputation from the opening weeks of the brigade's term in service as the best-led, and the 71st as the worst-led, regiments in the brigade.
[Gottfried, "Stopping Pickett" is a good study of the Philadelphia Brigade that I wish had been in print when I did my work on it].
"My" part of that outfit was Company K of the 71st, one hundred or so Irish immigrants or sons of immigrants from the Schuylkill River iron mill town of Phoenixville. In Company K, there were 27 desertions, a rate of 25 percent. There was no meticulous records-keeping, as there had been in the 97th, so I turned to the county relief records, on which an astounding one-third of Company K was represented. Unlike the majority of the 97th Pa., these soldiers had families at risk.
The families on relief got one dollar per week for a wife or other adult dependent, sixty-five cents for each child under 12. Rates fluctuated, but generally grew smaller as the war went on, as more and more men with families were in the ranks while the county cash contribution did not keep pace. A family's relief also was slashed if a child was put out to live, or died, and wives could be dropped for "improper conduct."
As early as March 1862, the Phoenixville relief directors reported to the county that many under their charge were "extremely needy, not having BREAD to eat unless given by the hand of charity." All of which gives some context to the 25 percent desertion rate, and to men like Pvt. Patrick McKenna, 39, an iron mill worker with a wife and two children on relief who deserted, came to Phoenixville, took his family and went to New York.
No large political issue to worry about then or now.