19 April 2011

Cowards: Deserters

Anna C. Bowling

A few years back, Ancestry.com offered free access to US Civil War records. Since my parents’ ancestors lived in different countries during the nineteenth century, I searched with my husband’s last name, keying in the states where his ancestors lived at the time. This search yielded an interesting surprise…someone with the right last name from the right state joined the army, only to desert three days later. Was there a deserter in the family tree? While we haven’t pursued the genealogy far enough to know if this deserter has any direct blood ties to my husband, no writer can resist playing the 'what if' game with this one. What is a deserter, why would someone leave their fellow soldiers in a time of war and how would that affect the rest of their lives? Rich fodder for any writer, and for a historical writer, the well is bottomless. Let’s take a look.

Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice defines a deserter as:

(a) Any member of the armed forces who--
(1) without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently;
(2) quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service; or
(3) without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another on of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated, or enters any foreign armed service except when authorized by the United States;

This is more severe than merely going absent without leave, which implies a return or intention to return, and far different from the conscientious objector, who refuses military service on the grounds of deeply held personal beliefs.

The Roman historian, Vegitius, stated that desertion took more of a toll on an army’s morale than deaths in battle. Deserters not only take themselves out of the battle, but also may leave doubts in the minds of those who remain as to the wisdom of remaining, not to mention feelings of anger, abandonment or myriad other concerns. Not, most would agree, a distraction active duty personnel need. As Vegitius’ treatise, De Re Militari, dates back to approximately 450 CE, we can see deserters have been a serious issue for military units for a very long time.

The reasons an individual might desert can vary- panic, inability to adjust to the rigors of military life, shock from the horrific conditions of battle, or even homesickness, a common cause for soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, especially when battle sites were close to those very homes they missed. Both sides of the conflict were known to induce enemy combatants to desert, as one means to deplete the other’s army, a tactic Vegitius would probably recognize far too well.

Recovered deserters in the United States in the nineteenth century could expect to be flogged, branded or tattooed as well as imprisoned or sent back to the front, and the ultimate penalty for desertion in wartime remains as death by firing squad, though this was last carried out in 1945.

In 1904, British author A. E. W. Mason published his adventure novel, The Four Feathers, a story that examines the consequences of one man’s desertion from his unit prior to their deployment to the Sudan. This act of costs the protagonist not only his closest friends and the woman he loves, but also causes him to face his deepest fears as he seeks to make things right and remove the stain of cowardice from his name. The Four Feathers has been through several cinematic adaptations, as early as 1915 and as recently as 2002. The original text is available via Project Gutenberg here.

As shown in The Four Feathers, there is a hope that the deserter will have a second chance to uphold the oath they took when they first donned their uniform. In the hands of a talented writer, such a character could be hero or villain, find triumph or tragedy. How would such a character fare in one of your stories, writers? Readers, have you ever read a story with a character who deserted their organization?

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.