Are British Soldiers Deserting Iraq?

The British government finds itself on the defense following a BBC report from this weekend that more than 1,000 members of the British military have deserted since the start of the Iraq war.

With Iraq still engulfed in violence and Prime Minister Tony Blair facing calls for resignations from his own party, the story suggests British unhappiness with the Iraq war extends down to boots on the ground.

Government officials say the upward trend in desertions, made public during a House of Commons debate last week, doesn't represent anything unusual. According to the BBC, 86 soldiers who went absent without leave in 2001 are still missing. There are 118 reported still missing from 2002, 134 from 2003, 229 from 2004, 377 from 2005, and 189 so far in 2006.

"We regard that figure as fairly constant," a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said. "It often happens for family reasons and there is no evidence to suggest operational commitments contribute significantly to the figures."

Military law expert Gilbert Blades, who represents soldiers at courts martial, was quoted as saying "one can't help thinking that what's behind every absence is the problem in Iraq and I would think that if the real truth was told, then the Iraq problem has contributed to a huge number of people going absent," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

The Times of London, relying on the same House of Commons source, notes that 3,000 British soldiers have gone absent without leave every year since the start of the Iraq war. Two thousand have been found and 1,000 of them remain at large.

The Times, which editorially supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reported skepticism among defense attorneys about the government's denials that the desertion rates reflect unhappiness about Britain's role in Iraq.

The London daily quoted a lawyer representing a flight lieutenant sentenced to eight months in prison for disobeying orders to train for deployment to Iraq who said that he was approached regularly "by people who are seeking to absent themselves from service." He claimed that there had "definitely been an increase."

The tabloid Mirror quoted an unnamed 23-year-old deserter as saying, "There are some soldiers who are gungho about Iraq but most feel it's America's war."

The Scotsman reports that the news comes as the British parliament "debates a law that will forbid military personnel from refusing to participate in the ordered occupation of a foreign country."

Two weeks ago, the Edinburgh daily reported that the House of Commons had rubber-stamped a change in the official definition of desertion "to include soldiers who go absent without leave and intend to refuse to take part in a 'military occupation of a foreign country or territory.'"

Antiwar activists cited the change in language as evidence that British ministers "are trying to scare soldiers from objecting to future preemptive strikes - a charge denied by the Ministry of Defence," the Scotsman reported.

On May 23, the MP's voted overwhelming to keep life imprisonment as the penalty for desertion.

The desertion figures received especially widespread coverage in countries that once belonged to Britain's colonial empire, including South Africa, Pakistan, India and Egypt.

By Jefferson Morley |  May 31, 2006; 10:35 AM ET  | Category:  Europe
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Good for them for deserting the now-discredited British armed forces and this disastrous and illegal war.
Here's hoping their American counterparts do likewise. If Georgie and Dick can no longer find any more American dupes to put their lives on the line for this terrible and destabilizing war they imposed on the world, maybe it will end sooner.
America and Britain have lost this war. It's only a matter of time before that hard reality sinks in.
You turned your back on the world and waged this war despite warnings from experts that this would be the result.
What soldier in his right mind would stay on and fight under the circumstances?

Posted by: Joel | May 31, 2006 11:33 AM

I am all for the harshest penalty for deserters, but not before making sure that sons and daughters of MPs should be forced to go to the front lines of occupied countries.

I dont care if Tony Blair's children are underage (r they?). Make them work at the front lines, for atleast a year. The same goes for the lesbian daughetr of the Dick, and the reatred daughetrs of Bush clan.

Posted by: Alam | May 31, 2006 12:11 PM

In that perverted adventure, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, the use of depleted uranium on civilian populations, Haditha, etc., etc., etc., have amply established that the only honourable thing to do has always been, still is and will forever be, to resign (or "desert", as the case may be) and rush home (or go into exile). Indeed, in such dishonourable circumstances, there is only one priority for each man and woman: "Save your soul!".

Posted by: Robert Rose, Canada | May 31, 2006 12:38 PM

I have always thought that it is laughable that Tony Blair has managed to get both credit (for being the #2 member of the GWOT) and blame (for following Bush into a budding quagmire), when the reality is that they have like 8,000 troops there in Iraq, when we have 138,000. There probably more than 8,000 police in the London police force, Scotland Yard.

Blair is so wildly unpopular in Britain, and so praised by Bush bakers, when the reality is that this token 8,000 person force is such a joke, regardless of how you look at the Iraq war.

Posted by: Kerry | May 31, 2006 12:53 PM

well, i'm trying to think what would i do if my government sent me to occupy a foreign country, to fight a dirty an illegal war.. i would probably do the same as the 1000 deserters.

this has nothing to do with honor or patriotism. the soldiers have sign up to defend their country. i bet if the war was against a country who attacked england, there will be almost no deserters at all.

apparently there are a lot of people who think the war is illegal, despite the technical twisting of half-truths that the 'coalition' governments used as a pretext. spain woke up, poland as well, italy is next. england would probably be the last one to pull out.

Posted by: michael, canada | May 31, 2006 01:02 PM

Bush's bogus coalition of the foolish, gullible and coerced is falling apart. Not only are those few countries that took part from the outset pulling out (eg. Spain, Italy) but soldiers in armies still there are deserting en masse.
The disastrous fallout from Bush's decision to defy international law and world opinion with this invasion was predicted from the outset.
Soldiers who desert are doing the honorable thing.
This battle is lost, and America's prestige has gone down the drain with it.
The time has come to make America pay reparations for the harm it has caused with this pig-headed invasion.
Make America pay.

Posted by: Sean | May 31, 2006 01:16 PM

Well, well, well. I don't know where or who is making these comments. But I'm sure glad I'm not in the reserve forces anymore to defend these people. I looked at the movie Hotel Rwanda the other night and then researched it...the Clinton Administration did ...nothing...the UN did ...nothing, they even tried to make like it wasn't genocide because by law they would have had to do something. But when the Somalia starvation/war occurred George Bush did something--he sent in Marines. When we were under attack and we thought Hussein was going to attack..Bush jr. did something with Blair. One murderous tyrant down later you people? thing the world is less of a place? God help us when we have leaders that would not rescue us or fight tyranny. Brave British troops go AWOL because of various reasons. Some might snap under the strain. I can't help but imagine that the world would be less of a place if any that demonize Bush were in power.

Posted by: Annandale Mark | May 31, 2006 01:20 PM

Once a man or woman has agreed to serve their country in one of the armed services, they truly are committed to going where and when sent. Conscientious objectors serve in the medical corps or not at all. (The medics are serving in a very dangerous position as a note.)

I am not at all in favor of this ongoing war in Iraq and the nearly forgotten ongoing war in Afghanistan. Never was, and I fear we're headed for Iran now.

I still insist, though, enlistment means understanding the rules. No changing of minds.

The draft of the Viet Nam war was a different situation all together. Those men (only) had no choice, and many fled to Canada and received amnesty later. Good!

Posted by: MarchDancer | May 31, 2006 01:24 PM

One of the reasons we haven't seen a similar AWOL rate in the US military, I think, is that most of our soldiers and marines are still operating under the (presidentially encouraged) delusion that they are defending their country.

"... 85% said the U.S. mission is mainly 'to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks,' 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was 'to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.' ... "

Our brave but confused service people are even more ignorant than the American public, 47% of which still believed this false notion in February 2005 - OVER 3 YEARS AFTER THE ATTACK. Think about that: THREE YEARS AFTER THE WORST ATTACK ON AMERICAN SOIL, WITH CLEAR INFORMATION AVAILABLE ABOUT WHO DID IT, HALF OF AMERICA STILL DID NOT KNOW WHO ATTACKED US. You can bet they knew who won on "American Idol" the night before though.

We can thank the wonderful, independent (cough) US mainstream media for politely refusing to disabuse Americans of this preposterous notion while the Administration was working overtime to instill it in people's heads during 2002-2003. What happened to this country's basic institutions? When did they disappear and get replaced by imposters?

Posted by: B2O | May 31, 2006 01:26 PM

Annandale Mark said:

"When we were under attack and we thought Hussein was going to attack[,] Bush jr. did something with Blair."

I hope that koolaid is yummy enough to be worth the self-delusion involved.

By the way, I think that you are going to attack me. Imminently in fact. I have zero credible evidence for this, of course, but that DOES NOT MATTER. I will spin what I have and make up what I don't, and I will act on my desires regardless of what anyone says. I'm sure you will not see anything wrong with me bringing shock and awe down on your family, your home, and 150,000 of your neighbors and their homes? You will all die, and your survivors will suffer in chaos because I "feel" you are about to attack me. Okay with you?

Posted by: B2O | May 31, 2006 01:34 PM

I spent ten years in the Air Force and army. I had one son in the Marine Corp, and one in the Army. I generally support the military. But, I thank God that my family had completed their military service before the present Bush Administration. I would not advise anybody to join any US or British military service. Bush and Blair haven't a clue. They will get you killed

Posted by: P. J. Casey | May 31, 2006 01:55 PM

I agree whole-heartedly with those who are skeptics of the war in Iraq. I agree our pretenses for involvement and engagement were false, illogical, and ideologically motivated. To be perfectly clear, I do not support this war, or our executive.

However, to promote the desertion by our personnel stationed in countries where we are in the midst of conflict is irresponsible at best and naive, reckless, dishonorable at worst.

The one principle by which this country has survived intact as long as it has is that of military leadership following, without fail, the orders of its civilian masters. I do not blame those in our military who are disheartened, disillusioned, and skeptical of our shared leadership, but I certainly do believe it was their choice to enlist, and therefore it is their responsibility to see through to whatever end their side of the bargain. Ours, or any country, cannot stand aside and accept the desertion of ANY of its military members simply because of an ideological gap. Ours is a system based on change from within. There are no coups, no revolutions, no bloody transitions from one regime to the next. If it bothers you, get off the couch, turn off Idol, move away from the computer screen and VOTE. To be sure, the vast majority of the people here (in this country, possibly not this site, but that remains to be seen) have not. Desertion shall never be an acceptable form of protest, it costs more lives than it saves.

Posted by: John | May 31, 2006 02:19 PM

Annandale Mark, I'll be kind with you. This is relief for you. Nobody has to serve in the reserve forces or in any others to "defend" me! Hope that's clear. I do not wish anybody of the Guantanamo-Abu-Ghraib-Fallujah-Haditha type ever to "defend" me the way they claim to be "defending" themselves in Iraq and in Afghanistan. White bearded Russians accompanied by their grandchildren did defend the Motherland in due course... and helped WIN that war for the whole world. They were partisans. We don't need you to defend our homeland. So you can relax and enjoy life. Forget us! Just forget us, will you? That's all we ask for and from all those who betray the values they claim to fight for, just forget us and attend your own business.

Lest I forget, American marines snap under the strain... as in Haditha. Most snap when they return home. But apparently, they do not interest those who need "heroes" so as to give themselves good conscience and apease their souls.

Posted by: | May 31, 2006 02:26 PM

Sorry, message to Annandale Mark posted 2:26 was from me, Robert Rose. Just in case it was not evident...

Posted by: Robert Rose, Canada | May 31, 2006 02:28 PM

re: Annandale Mark

Isn't this typical, predictable "But, but Clinton..." baloney getting old and tired? C'mon, dittohead, hasn't Rush provided you any new talking points this week? "But, but Clinton"...and besides why aren't you back in the reserve forces fighting this so-called war for your heros in the White House if you feel so strongly about it?

Posted by: goatsage | May 31, 2006 02:31 PM

Annandale Mark:

Wasn't it Clinton who sent troops into Somalia? And took a lot of heat for doing so?

Posted by: THS | May 31, 2006 02:55 PM

1,000 Deserted? That is very sad. How many did they send to Iraq, 1,000?

Posted by: Hamilcar | May 31, 2006 03:56 PM

"...however, to promote the desertion by our personnel stationed in countries where we are in the midst of conflict is irresponsible at best and naive, reckless, dishonorable at worst."

No, on the contrary, staying and fighting in an illegal, unjust war that is making the world a less stable, less safe place and making our nation the most hated on earth -- THAT is irresponsible, naive, reckless and dishonorable.

The soldiers who desert our armed forces are brave patriots who deserve our support and praise. If only there were more such courageous men and women of honor.

Posted by: Dwayne | May 31, 2006 05:22 PM

the british have more sense of morality than the amaricans these wars are amarican made as 9,11

Posted by: al | June 1, 2006 12:53 PM

Yes, Dwayne, and I'd go farther: those servicemen currently "serving" in Iraq are doing a great disservice to their nation. This war is illegal. It is endangering U.S. national security.
Anyone who fights in it should be denounced. Enough of this faux patriotism! Let's call a spade a spade: George W. Bush's war is not America's war and Americans should stop taking part in it. Let George send his daughters to Iraq, or go there and fight himself, if he is so convinced this is the right thing to do. Anyone who signs up to fight this brutal and destabilizing war deserves our contempt, not our praise.

Posted by: Hugh | June 1, 2006 05:11 PM

Since this war is and has always been clearly illegal, anyone who fights in it is committing a crime.
A reminder: this war is, and always has been, illegal because, among other reasons, (a) there was no legitimate basis for the invasion (UN weapons inspectors said they had not found WMD and pleaded for more time but Bush went in anyway) and (b) the requisite international approval was never obtained.
You Americans seem to think you can just wage war, on your own, without U.N. approval, and without any sound basis in fact and without even any evidence of a threat to your nation.
Well, doing that is a violation of international law.
U.S. soldiers who willingly take part in such a violation of international law are themselves violating international law.
The world must crack down on these U.S. law violations, and on the soldiers who willingly take part in them.
Otherwise, we're left with the law of the jungle.
I prefer to live in a world of laws, not in a world where one bully acts only on its own ill-advised impulses.
That is only a recipe for permanent war.

Posted by: Manuel | June 2, 2006 09:14 AM

PS: Obviously the most culpable of all in this is George W. Bush himself, who should be hauled before an international tribunal, imprisoned and tried -- just as Milosevic was.
Bush's crime in Iraq is analogous with Milosevic's crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Posted by: Manuel | June 2, 2006 09:17 AM

Mr. Morley, what happened to the 22 comments posted under "Are British Soldiers Deserting Iraq?"

Posted by: Robert Rose | June 2, 2006 07:07 PM

And the list keeps getting longer by the day: Haditha, Hamandiya, Ishaki... The very tip of what iceberg!

Remember? Those are the troops that, the world was told, would be cheered, greeted with flowers as liberators and heroes, by the Iraqis!

Remember Ted Westhusing? The Army's top military ethicist and professor at West Point ... who volunteered to go to Iraq and was upset by what he saw. "His apparent suicide raises questions..." it was then said.

And Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki now says "There is a limit to the acceptable excuses... Yes a mistake may happen but there is an acceptable limit to mistakes... We are worried about the increase in 'mistakes'..."

Meanwhile, American authorities claim 99.9% of the troops are doing "a great job"...

Question: if American commanders cannot even manage to know what 0.1% of the troops are really doing, how can they be so sure the other 99.9% are doing such "a great job"?

At all cost, those men and women must resist and refuse to forsake their humanity. Their first duty is to themselves. Save their souls.

Posted by: Robert Rose, Canada | June 2, 2006 07:54 PM

B20...I see you're using my Jim Jones / Kool-Aid reference with Annadale Mark. Really, that was my comment sent to you a couple of weeks back.

As a regular '' you appear to be running out of fresh material.

Thank goodness!

Posted by: jett | June 6, 2006 02:39 PM


As an ex British soldier I have to tell you that this is A COMPLETE NON -STORY. You have all failed to understand or mention the difference (at least in the U.K. Forces) between being AWOL and being a DESERTER.There are very clear definitions between being AWOL and being a DESERTER. There are always significant numbers of soldiers Absent Without Leave. Crucially it is only if they are on active service that they are classed as deserters. i.e. if they are serving or have been warned about upcoming service in a war zone - then to be absent is classed as desertion. You will find historically that, especially in peacetime, there will always be numbers of soldiers AWOL, for a variety of prosaic reasons, domestic to boredom. I believe you will find that 1000 soldiers over several years is nothing unusual. It is the number OF ACTUAL DESERTERS that everyone is confusing this with - I think you'll find this is very low. Most British soldiers, whether they agree with this ridiculous war or not, would not absent themselves on active service. When about to go on active service it is my experience that AWOL soldiers will present themselves for duty rather than be classed as deserters. I know of several excellent soldiers who went AWOL in peacetime.,generally out of boredom and some even to join the other Armies to see some action. The essential debate over the legitimacy of this recent conflict is not informed by a complete misunderstanding of the classifications of absenteeism.
So please lets get the figures on British DESERTIONS and then we can restart the debate.

Posted by: James Delaney | July 4, 2006 09:30 AM

Understand the terms Washington Post, this article is very misleading!

From former British Soldier.

For goodness sake people get the facts right. This story is a red herring. The figures given were NOT for DESERTION but for being "absent without leave", or AWOL. Big difference people! Absent from leave is an every day occurence and is usually for various prosaic reasons i.e. boredom , domestic pressures, job disatisfaction, getting drunk on leave! These figures are generally irrelevant. It is specifically the figures for DESERTION which are pertinent. i.e. when a soldier on ACTIVE SERVICE ( in combat zones to the U.S. reader) in a war zone, or about to go there, or on leave from there - goes absent. AWOL figures have always been to a certain level and you find they go right down when soldiers are briefed to got war zones , as they don't want to get accused of DESERTION!( Indeed I know of soldiers who have gone AWOL to join other Armies where they can see some active service.) Come on guys, how can we debate this war if we don't get the facts right. This is not semantics it is a complete misunderstanding of terms.

Posted by: James Delaney | July 4, 2006 09:46 AM

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