Peace Time: August 23, 2001


While they don't like to talk about it, armed forces have always had a lot of trouble with desertion. During the American Civil War and the Revolutionary War, you could lose over ten percent of your troops a month to desertion, usually when food or victories were in short supply. "Morale" was not just an idle phrase, if the troops felt things were going badly, a lot of them just went. This changed about a century ago, as more attention was paid to screening recruits and improving their initial training. The U.S. Army was the first to do this, and their desertion rates dropped. For the first ten years of the 20th century, the army desertion rate was 5.6 per thousand troops. The U.S. Navy, which still clung to the sloppy old ways, had a desertion rate of 15 per thousand. Then the navy decided to emulate the army and over the next ten years got it's desertion rate down to where the army's was. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. desertion rate peaked in 1971 at 42 per thousand troops. But it was much worse in the army that year; 176 (17 of every hundred troops walked away during the year.) Then the draft ended and, just as it was a century ago, only volunteers were used. The desertion rate went down through the 1980s and early 90s. By 1995 it his a near record low of 2.75 per thousand troops. But this was because the U.S. armed forces were downsizing through the early 1990s. If someone wanted to get out, for whatever reason, the unofficial policy was to let them go. But once the downsizing was over, discharges were not so easy to come by. For a while, dissatisfied troops found they could use the new "don't ask, don't tell" policy to get out. Just announce you were homosexual, and you were in your way out. Not always with an honorable discharge, but not with a dishonorable one either. For those who really, really wanted out, this was a convenient way to go. But not everyone wanted to pretend to be gay to get out. And the brass soon cracked down on the "I'm gay, lemme go" scam. Reluctant troops then began to notice that if they just deserted, and later turned themselves in, they would usually be discharged. Again, it would be a less than honorable discharge, but at least there was no risk of jail time. The military decided it was not worth the time, expense and negative publicity to prosecute deserters.  It was easier all around just to toss them out. So by 2000, the desertion rate was up to 6.85 and continuing to rise. Part of the problem was that a lot of the young people in the service no longer realized just what they were involved with. Basic training had been diluted so much during the 1990s (partially to prevent so many unsuitable recruits from washing out), that a large proportion of recruits went to units unsure of exactly what military service was. Undisciplined and poorly prepared, an increasing number of these troops now wanted out. But the military was having a hard time getting enough recruits to keep its strength up. Officers and NCOs are under a lot of pressure to keep people in (currently, 47 percent of female and 28 percent of male recruits don't make it to the end of their enlistment.) Counseling, changes in assignments or work rules are all used to keep the dissatisfied troops from taking a hike, But the really determined soldier knows they can just desert and get a discharge. So the desertion rate continues to go up, and no one knows how high it will go.


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