The WSJ has published a book review about desertion during WW II.   Back in 2003,  Dora Costa and I published a paper on social networks and desertion during the U.S Civil War.  We returned to this topic in our 2008 book Heroes and Cowards.

Here is our paper’s abstract:

What motivated men to risk death in the most horrific war in U. S. history when pay was low and irregular and military punishment strategies were weak? In such a situation creating group loyalty by promoting social capital is of paramount importance and in the Civil War was the cement of both armies. We find that individual and company socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, ideology, and morale were important predictors of group loyalty in the Union Army. Company characteristics were more important than ideology or morale. Soldiers in companies that were more homogeneous in ethnicity, occupation, and age were less likely to shirk.


Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

5 thoughts on “Desertion”

  1. Which, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, is why the results of the war were so horrific for particular towns far from the fighting.

  2. An aphorism that seems especially relevant to this post and its author:
    “socialism is when I have to make sacrifices that benefit you; patriotism is when you have to make sacrifices that benefit me”.

    1. Not sure where you’re going with that, Maynard, but I rather like the ideas most heroes are socialists at heart. As a military brat, I’ve always said that we won the Cold War by having a better socialist system, the US military, than the Russians did. Too bad we can’t apply more of the better aspects of benefits, healthcare, housing quality, and promotion to the rest of society, although I think we’ve had enough practice fighting for now.

      Hmm, sounds interesting, but I’ve read neither book — and I don’t sub to the WSJ. How does this relate to SLA Marshall’s WWII findings, which is where most military history starts with this topic in academia? I’d suppose your book finds empirical socio-econiomic support for the unit cohesion? I know Marshall tends to see this more as direct binds between soldiers, rather than ascribing it to the unit per se, but that’s a nuanced thing that probably make for animated grad seminar discussions. The WWII book sounds similar. Curious if anyone would elaborate the basics for our discussion here?

  3. Matthew:

    I wonder if you had seen or had a chance to assess Bruce Levine’s new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie. He mentions a couple of factors on the Confederate side influencing rates of desertion. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which had enjoyed a string of victories, had lower rates of desertion than the Army of Tennessee, which had a string of defeats beginning with Forts Henry and Donelson early in 1862, growing worse after the loss at Chattanooga in late 1863. Winning battles had a salutary effect on morale and troop retention; losing battles had the opposite effect.

    Levine touches on the influence of major pro-Union sentiment in parts of the Confederacy, mentioning a surprising fact: that the white residents of Confederate states who served under the Union flag would have filled out an army larger than any which Richmond was able to field during the entire war. The anti-Confederate Heroes of America in North Carolina resisted conscription and provided intelligence about troop movements to Union forces, recruiting members in Raleigh’s and Wilmington’s white working classes, where many unionists lived.

    One interesting feature of Levine’s book is his account of the degree to which resistance to central government undermined the Confederate cause. We have all read accounts of how Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson and gained control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in 1862, but I never knew that the calls for local slaveholders to lend labor to the government were ignored or resisted, such that when Albert Sidney Johnston called for laborers to strengthen the works around these forts, the slave masters sent less than one tenth of the number he had requested.

    Basically, the slave masters did not want the gubmint telling them what to do with their proppity, and the defenses on places like the Chattahoochee River were weaker than they had to be. The anti-government forces that fueled secession damaged the war effort.

    To me, this seems like a pretty good book; I would value the professional judgments of others.

  4. I recently read the book reviewed in the WSJ and it was very engrossing, saddening and thought-provoking.

    For those who haven’t read the book or can’t access the WSJ review, the book provides an overview of Allied desertion during the Second World War while recounting the stories of two GIs and an English soldier who deserted. Some of their experiences before, during and after their desertions are truly astounding.

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