NBC and CBS Jump to Showcase Rise in Army Desertions

Catching up with news from the end of last week, NBC and CBS on Friday night jumped to highlight an increase in Army desertions blamed on the Iraq war, but failed to note the rate has simply returned to its 2001 level or that the number of desertions by Marines, a service also heavily committed to Iraq, has fallen. Brian Williams led the NBC Nightly News with how “the number of desertions from the U.S. Army is way up in the six years we've been at war.” Jim Miklaszewski outlined how “over the past year, 4,698 soldiers were declared deserters. That's an alarming increase of 42 percent over the previous year, but a stunning 80 percent jump in desertions compared to the first year of fighting. As they did during the Vietnam War, many deserters flee to Canada to avoid a military court-martial in the U.S.” Unlike Miklaszewski, CBS reporter David Martin added some perspective by pointing out that “the overall number of deserters represents less than one percent of soldiers on active duty. During the last unpopular war, Vietnam, the desertion rate was five percent.”

Both networks linked their stories to Canada's top court rejecting asylum for two U.S. Army deserters. On NBC, a deserter living in Canada asserted: “The whole reason we're here is because this was a bogus war. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no links to international terrorism.” CBS featured another deserter who rationalized: “If I had been asked to go to Afghanistan, I would have gone there. But the Iraq War, I didn't want to have any part of that anymore.”

An Army Times story by William H. McMichael, first posted Thursday night, reported:
....At the same time, desertions fell in two of the other three services. A total of 1,036 Marines walked away last fiscal year, marking a three-year decline. Navy desertions -- 1,129 during the 12 months ending Sept. 30 -- fell for the seventh straight year.

And a mere 16 airmen left the Air Force for more than 30 days, the time a service member must be absent without leave before being declared a deserter.

In the Army's defense, however, [Roy] Wallace [Director of plans and resources for Army personnel] said the percentage of the force that deserted last fiscal year was nearly identical to the fiscal 2001 figure -- indicating that the newer figure, produced under more stress, is actually somewhat of an improvement.

"We're comparing a wartime footing with a peacetime footing," he said. "The Army was not in combat in [fiscal] 2001."

And while desertions are up, the first-term attrition rate -- which includes desertions -- has dropped from 18.1 percent in April 2005 to 7.2 percent today....
A Friday AP dispatch, by By Lolita C. Baldor, pointed out how desertion rates rose in the 1990s, and provided specific numbers on Marine Corps desertions:
....Army desertion rates have fluctuated since the Vietnam War -- when they peaked at 5 percent. In the 1970s they hovered between 1 and 3 percent, which is up to three out of every 100 soldiers. Those rates plunged in the 1980s and early 1990s to between 2 and 3 out of every 1,000 soldiers.

Desertions began to creep up in the late 1990s into the turn of the century, when the U.S. conducted an air war in Kosovo and later sent peacekeeping troops there.

The numbers declined in 2003 and 2004, in the early years of the Iraq war, but then began to increase steadily.

In contrast, the Navy has seen a steady decline in deserters since 2001, going from 3,665 that year to 1,129 in 2007.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, has seen the number of deserters stay fairly stable over that timeframe -- with about 1,000 deserters a year. During 2003 and 2004 -- the first two years of the Iraq war -- the number of deserters fell to 877 and 744, respectively.

The Air Force can tout the fewest number of deserters -- with no more than 56 bolting in each of the past five years. The low was in fiscal 2007, with just 16 deserters....
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth provided transcripts of the November 16 stories:

NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. They are among the very best of America, those who raise their hands and volunteer to serve in this nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deployments have been long, up to 15 months at a time away from home, and then some. And tonight, there is hard evidence that that time away and the tempo of battle are indeed taking their toll. The number of desertions from the U.S. Army is way up in the six years we've been at war. We begin tonight with our Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski who goes inside the numbers for us. Jim, good evening.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: Oddly enough, Brian, in the first two years of the Iraq War, the number of U.S. Army desertions actually declined. But the dramatic spike in desertions over this past year appears to be linked to the multiple combat tours in Iraq. It's the highest number of Army desertions during the entire Iraq War. Army figures released today show that over the past year, 4,698 soldiers were declared deserters. That's an alarming increase of 42 percent over the previous year, but a stunning 80 percent jump in desertions compared to the first year of fighting. As they did during the Vietnam War, many deserters flee to Canada to avoid a military court-martial in the U.S. After six months in Iraq, Private First Class Joshua Key fled to Saskatchewan with his wife and two sons.

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS JOSHUA KEY, U.S. ARMY: I did it for the best of my family, for the best of my conscience.

UNIDENTIFIED WIFE OF JOSHUA KEY: Now we're technically refugees in Canada.

JOSHUA KEY: If I go to prison, and I get out, I'm still going to be labeled what I am.

MIKLASZEWSKI: This week the Canadian Supreme Court refused to consider political asylum for two U.S. Army deserters, including Jeremy Heinzman, who opposes the war in Iraq.

JEREMY HEINZMAN, U.S. ARMY DESERTER: The whole reason we're here is because this was a bogus war. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no links to international terrorism.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Army officials claim, however, most deserters leave the Army for personal or financial problems back home.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL DARRYL DARDEN, U.S. ARMY: A person could have family problems, a person could just not adapt well to the military. Maybe just doesn't want to be here.

MIKLASZEWSKI: But multiple combat tours now as long as 15 months in Iraq are also taking a toll.

RETIRED GENERAL BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY: The force is under enormous stress. You know, a lot of these new soldiers are bringing in are facing units that have been deployed three or more times into combat, and they're right on the verge of going again.

MIKLASZEWSKI: The ultimate criminal punishment for desertion during wartime is capital punishment, execution, but there's only been one U.S. Army soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. And the Army doesn't appear to be cracking down here either. Of the 174 soldiers found guilty of desertion in the past year, most were given simply dishonorable discharges.

CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC: Canada's supreme court today denied refugee status to a couple of soldiers who deserted the U.S. Army. By one estimate, 300 American deserters may be hiding in Canada, and they're just part of a growing problem for the U.S. Army. David Martin reports now from the Pentagon.

DAVID MARTIN: Desertions from the Army are up dramatically -- 4,698 soldiers deserted in the last fiscal year, a sharp 42 percent increase from the year before. It doesn't take a wild guess to figure out why.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL DARRYL DARDEN, U.S. ARMY: The stress of combat probably is one of the reasons that you see this spike.

MARTIN: Sergeant Phil McDowell is one of those deserters. Now living in Canada, he had served one tour in Iraq and was getting out of the Army when Uncle Sam said, "Not so fast."

PHIL MCDOWELL, U.S. ARMY DESERTER: The reason I was being called back was to go to another tour in Iraq, and I didn't agree with that.

MARTIN: McDowell could eventually be deported from Canada and court-martialed by the Army. But for him, that beats going back to Iraq.

MCDOWELL: If I had been asked to go to Afghanistan, I would have gone there. But the Iraq War, I didn't want to have any part of that anymore.

MARTIN: The rate of desertions is accelerating in a pattern that tracks almost exactly with the extension of tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months. Still, the overall number of deserters represents less than one percent of soldiers on active duty. During the last unpopular war, Vietnam, the desertion rate was five percent.

DARDEN: Five percent of the total force. Here we're at one percent.

MARTIN: Vietnam was an army of draftees. Today's is all volunteer. Two different armies, but as one Pentagon study put it, desertion always gets worse in time of war “when the Army tend to increase its demands for troops and to lower its enlistment standards to meet that need.” David Martin, CBS News, the Pentagon.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center