Desertion and Collective Action in Civil Wars

Last summer, units of the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of ISIL’s campaign against Mosul. At the same time, fighters in the Free Syrian Army headed home in larger numbers, exhausted and disillusioned. Desertion, in short, plays a large role in the course and outcomes of civil wars. In my paper “Desertion and Collective Action in Civil Wars,” I study what makes individual soldiers in civil wars more likely to desert, using data I gathered on about 4,000 soldiers on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), fighting against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist rebels.


Desertion is less common when a military unit develops a sense of trust and norms of cooperation—the sense of obligation that says that if you fight, I’ll fight. If you can’t rely on your unit-mates to provide covering fire or to place a bomb where they’re supposed to, you’re likelier to die, and even if you live your efforts are likelier to be wasted. This is what military sociology tells us. In civil wars, it’s especially natural to think that trust in one’s unit-mates isn’t automatic. Not only are people as reluctant to risk death as anywhere, but civil wars divide societies. Many people find themselves on the wrong side of the lines, people use the context of civil war to pursue their own small-scale rivalries and vendettas, and armies divide into multiple different factions. In this very difficult context, how can combatants trust each other and develop norms of cooperation? Do they rely on social ties, trusting those they know? Can their commitments to the armed group and its cause help build bonds of trust across social divisions?


The key to these norms, I argue, is showing a willingness to fight for the armed group. When soldiers could show that they were committed—for example, by volunteering rather than getting conscripted—they built trust among their peers. In fact, it turned out that serving among volunteers had a bigger impact on a soldier’s likelihood of desertion than actually being a volunteer. Put another way, a volunteer serving among conscripts was more likely to desert than a conscript serving among volunteers. Here’s one soldier’s memory of his own unit, almost all conscripts: “When we were ordered to advance, some fainted, others shot themselves in the hand.” Volunteers feared that conscripts were closet Francoists who’d waited to serve until forced.


Factionalism also undermined a commitment to a common cause. Promoting your faction could come to be more important than helping the whole unit win. Factions can distribute guns, supplies and promotions to their own members, or even let members of different factions take the brunt of an assault while hanging back. In Spain, I find that the more evenly split a military unit was between members of the two leading—and often fiercely competitive—union confederations, the more likely any soldier was to desert.


Another big component of trust might be social similarity—sharing a hometown, an occupation, or an age group. I do find that the more socially homogenous the military unit, the lower the likelihood that any given soldier deserts. But only in the volunteer units. In conscript units, social homogeneity or heterogeneity made very little overall difference to the rate of desertion. The reason is simple: having something in common with other soldiers can help you be more aware of what motivates them. But if you learn that they aren’t committed, it’s clearly no help in trusting that they’re going to fight. Indeed, if both of you would rather not be there, the trust that you can develop can help you to resist fighting together. In the Spanish Civil War, groups of soldiers from the same hometown were implicated in plots to desert en masse.


I think this helps us get at the apparent disconnect between the collective causes that seem to animate civil wars and the everyday motivations of ordinary combatants. Academics generally, and rightly, I think, reject the idea that commitments to a cause are enough on their own to explain the decision to fight, beyond a minority of deeply committed militants. It’s just too easy an answer. The big stories we tell about conflicts really don’t seem to capture complex on-the-ground mixtures of motivations, or the everyday concerns keeping people from fighting. For any given person trying to decide whether to fight or not, interpersonal relationships and social pressures in everyday life may matter a lot more than abstract, long-run goals.


But those social influences are political. What people pressure you to do depends on what they want. Whether you can trust that someone else actually has your back depends on how committed you think they are to fighting for the unit. Here, then, is where commitments to a cause can make a difference in the behaviour of ordinary people, not just ideologues: through the group’s pressures on the individual soldier.

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