Mark Perry writes: When the movie “Patton” was released in 1970, in the midst of one of our most divisive wars, it thrilled American theatergoers. The account of our nation’s finest tank commander won seven academy awards, including best picture.
The movie opens with a reprise of George Patton’s legendary speech to the U.S. Third Army just before D-Day, in 1944. In his address, the full-throated Patton extolled the virtues of American manhood and the sanguine character of combat. His words brought howls of appreciation in 1944 — and have ever since.
“Men,” Patton said, “all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”
Was Patton right? Do we Americans love “the sting and clash of battle”?
The controversy over President Barack Obama’s swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held in Afghanistan as a Taliban prisoner since June 2009, places Patton’s claims in a new light, just as Bergdahl’s return has spurred questions about whether he is a hero, or should be put on trial for deserting his post. Claims that the search for Bergdahl might have resulted in as many as six U.S. combat deaths have deepened the controversy. And Bergdahl’s return has aroused impassioned criticism of Obama from his partisan opponents.
The Bergdahl controversy masks the difficulty all militaries have in defining when a soldier has deserted, or “just wandered off” — which might have been the case with Bergdahl. For the U.S. military, the key is intent: A soldier is listed as a deserter when he intends to separate himself from his unit permanently, and forever shirk his service. In wartime, as Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes clear, desertion is punishable by death.
You would think that this punishment, when added to the opprobrium that a deserter suffers from his family and fellow soldiers, would dampen the rate at which men (or women) in uniform leave their posts. But an examination of American military history shows that that’s not true.
Desertion rates in George Washington’s Continental Army peaked in the early years of the Revolutionary War (when desertion rates averaged an astonishing 20 to 25 percent of all men under arms), but fell off when his army became more professional. This didn’t keep Washington from lamenting his losses. The situation was so bad, he said, that the mountainous areas between New Hampshire and Vermont were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”
Desertion rates during the Civil War were not as high, with the Union Army suffering a 9 to 12 percent desertion rate. Of the approximately 42,000 Union soldiers court-martialed during the war, just over 14,000 were for desertion, with 147 executions for the offense. The desertion rate among Confederate units was much worse. In the wake of the Gettysburg defeat, Robert E. Lee struggled to keep his army together, with desertion rates peaking at between 20 to 25 percent. In all, more soldiers (North and South) were executed during the Civil War (some 500 in all) than in all our other conflicts combined — two-thirds of them for desertion.
With the Civil War as its model, the Army created a Morale Division after the U.S. entered World War One. The unit’s commander later noted that explaining to recruits why they were fighting kept them on duty. A 1918 memo noted that many U.S. recruits “seemed unclear about the purpose of the war.” The division’s work had an effect: 5,584 men were charged with desertion during the conflict (the lowest rate of any U.S. war), and 2,657 were convicted — with no executions.
Explaining a war’s purpose is a significant factor in the Bergdahl case. His unit was isolated for long periods of time and fighting a conflict that was fast becoming an afterthought for the American people. In truth, most Americans didn’t even know that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban until his release, a chilling commentary on America’s focus on the war. [Continue reading…]