AskDefine | Define desertion

Dictionary Definition



1 withdrawing support or help despite allegiance or responsibility; "his abandonment of his wife and children left them penniless" [syn: abandonment, defection]
2 the act of giving something up [syn: abandonment, forsaking]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Desertion




  1. The act of deserting.


Extensive Definition

In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of one's "duty" or post without permission from one's Government or one's superior. One's ultimate "duty" or "responsibility," however, under International Law, is not necessarily always to one's "Government" nor to one's "superior," as we see 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." 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: "Under UN General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), paragraph (a), the International Law Commission was directed to "formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal."" 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, Canada, and France, military personnel become AWOL (UK: Absent WithOut Leave; US: Absent Without Official Leave) or AWL (Canada and Australia: Absent Without Leave), all of which are , except Australia who say the letters "A W L" 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 important responsibility;
  • 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 servicemember 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 servicemember fails to arrive at the appointed time to deploy (or "move out") with their 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.

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 Georgia 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 Run.
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.

World War I

"306 British and Commonwealth soldiers [were] executed for...desertion during World War I," records the Shot at Dawn Memorial. "During the period between August 1914 and March 1920 more than 20,000 servicemen were convicted by court-martials 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...."

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.
The 'Lost Division' was a term given to the estimated 19,000 U.S. Army soldiers absent without leave in France at the close of World War II.
Of the Germans who deserted the Wehrmacht, 15,000 men were executed. In June of 1988 the Initiative for the Creation of a Memorial to Deserters came to life in Ulm (birthplace of Albert Einstein). A central idea was, "Desertion is not reprehensible, war is".

Iraq War

United Kingdom

The UK military has reported over 1000 deserters since the beginning of the war in Iraq, with 566 deserting since 2005.

United States of America

According to the Pentagon, more than 5500 military personnel deserted in 2003–2004, following the Iraq invasion and occupation. The number had reached about 8000 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 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. To date, no service member from the Iraq war has received a sentence of more than 18 months for desertion or missing movement.


  • 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
desertion in Danish: Desertering
desertion in German: Fahnenflucht
desertion in Spanish: Deserción
desertion in Esperanto: Dizerto
desertion in French: Désertion
desertion in Korean: 탈영
desertion in Italian: Disertore (guerra)
desertion in Hebrew: עריקה
desertion in Lithuanian: Dezertyravimas
desertion in Hungarian: Szökés (bűntett)
desertion in Dutch: Desertie
desertion in Japanese: 脱走兵
desertion in Norwegian: Desertering
desertion in Polish: Dezercja
desertion in Russian: Дезертирство
desertion in Slovenian: Dezerter
desertion in Finnish: Sotilaskarkuruus
desertion in Swedish: Desertering

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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