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Fleeing Moment

About 400,000 people, many of them children, annually tour the battlegrounds of Ypres, near the French border in Western Belgium, the scene of some of history's most savage combat. Millions of troops fought here during World War I; more than 600,000 of them died. Sightseers can view the numerous monuments extolling the bravery of the dead or visit the museum named for John McCrae's haunting threnody, "In Flanders Fields." And now, they can see something else, something unusual for a battlefield turned tourist destination--a memorial not to those who fought, but, instead, to those who didn't.

The new monument comprises a single pole, reminiscent of those to which convicted deserters were tied and shot, set in a courtyard outside the cells in which the condemned awaited execution. Roughly 1,000 men on both sides met that fate during the war, killed not for their beliefs--very few were conscientious objectors--but for shirking the burdens of national defense.

In earlier times, such a monument would undoubtedly have sparked outrage from veterans groups. But the Great War's survivors have nearly all died off, and European governments have embraced the memorial. The deserters, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told an Armistice Day ceremony last fall, according to The New York Times, "were not dishonored, nor were they cowards," but, rather, had been driven "to the extreme limits of their strength." The British government has gone even further than the Belgians, erecting its own monument to those who were shot and pardoning them posthumously.

What should we make of this practice of immortalizing deserters? Morally speaking, it is a complicated matter. World War I was in many respects a dubious enterprise, and those who desert from unjust wars might correctly be regarded with sympathy. The issue grows murkier, however, when an admiration for deserters from particular wars bleeds into an admiration for desertion as a general practice. There is reason to worry that this is precisely what is happening--to fear that the monuments in Belgium and Britain are symptoms of European attitudes toward not just World War I soldiers but toward all soldiers, even those who fight in just causes. And, if that is true, one might well ask: Can a society that valorizes its deserters long survive?

Questions about the Great War's greatness emerged almost as soon as the war was over. They surfaced first in the agonized poems of Wilfred Owen, killed a week before the armistice, and also in the writings of veterans Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Erich Maria Remarque. Christopher Nevinson and Otto Dix later exposed thewar's horrors on canvas, and Jean Renoir, Abel Gance, and Raymond Bernard portrayed all its senselessness in film. But only with the Second World War was the central moral claim attached to the first--that it would be a "war to end all wars"--finally discredited. Thereafter, World War I in European memory became the unjust war par excellence, a metaphor for the irrationality of all modern conflict, if not of modernity itself--"the ultimate origin of the insane contemporary scene," in historian Paul Fussell's description, "where the irony and the absurdity began."

Escaping such madness could hardly be deemed cowardice. On the contrary, it might seem preeminently sober, even heroic. That is the premise of French author Sebastien Japrisot's exhilarating 1991 novel, A Very Long Engagement, about five soldiers condemned to death for deliberately wounding themselves in order to escape the trenches, and about one woman's search for their fate. Those who fought were boorish, in Japrisot's telling, even savage, while those who fled were human. His bookwon the Prix Interallie, one of France's highest literary honors, and was later adapted into a critically celebrated film.

The process of de-glorifying World War I and sanctifying its deserters was not restricted to Europe, however. In the United States, as well, the war had scarcely concluded when artists began stripping away its patina. Two of Hollywood's earliest blockbusters--King Vidor's Big Parade (1925) and Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory? (1926)--deflated the notion of heroism in the trenches. Similar themes animated A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's 1929 tragedy, in which the American protagonist shoots one deserter, is nearly executed--unjustly--himself, and then flees the war to Switzerland. As in Europe, World War II served to complete the debunking of its predecessor. American audiences had no difficulty identifying the heroes of Stanley Kubrick's 1957 classic Paths of Glory, about four poilus arbitrarily accused of cowardice and shot to cover up the French army's shortcomings. By the 1960s and early 1970s, movies set in World War I, such as Oh, What a Lovely War and Johnny Got His Gun, were being mustered by the antiwar movement to protest the U.S. entanglement in Vietnam.

That conflict, much like the Great War in Europe, prompted many Americans to question generationally held taboos about deserters. Between 1966 and 1973, the Pentagon registered 500,000 cases of desertion, and popular culture in the United States was quick to lionize those who slipped over the Canadian border or who, like Tim O'Brien's spooked grunts in Going After Cacciato, simply walked away from the jungle. In time, the dispensation for deserters from World War I and Vietnam would be extended to those who fled from other conflicts widely perceived as immoral. W.P. Inman, protagonist of Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, is heroic because he runs away from the Confederacy; Sgt. Brandon King, the focus of Kimberly Peirce's 2008 film Stop-Loss, is laudable because he refuses to return to Iraq.

Still, it is difficult to imagine any but the most dovish Americans idolizing a soldier who bolted from the fight to liberate African American slaves--Union soldiers in fact deserted at higher rates than Confederates--or the 6 percent of GIs who deserted in 1944.Stephen Crane's hero, Henry Fleming, abandons the Union Army but later rallies and earns his red badge of courage, as does James Jones's Private Witt, who goes awol in the1962 novel The Thin Red Line, only to rejoin his unit and die on Guadalcanal. There are exceptions to this pattern--the movie Patton (1970) condemned the punishment of soldiers emotionally unsuited for combat during World War II, as did The Execution of Private Slovik(1974)--but Americans have generally seemed inclined to draw a distinction between desertion from unjust wars and desertion from just causes.

Is a similar understanding exhibited by Europeans? In contrast to the United States, fortunate to have fought most of its wars overseas, Europe was host to two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized. Torn between ravaging communist and fascist tides, many on the continent came to see war as an inherently no-win, illegitimate endeavor. Consequently, desertion could be conceived as logical, even honorable--and not only from the killing fields of Ypres.

The revulsion to any war, irrespective of its merits, is especially evident today among the European left. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero, for example, appointed a self-professed pacifist to head his defense ministry. Meanwhile, German leftist leader Oskar Lafontaine, a former minister of finance, recently accused his nation's army of being "indirectly involved in terrorist actions" for conducting reconnaissance flights in Afghanistan.

Such extreme positions do not characterize the policies of most European governments, several of which are centrist or even right-leaning. But some conservative European politicians are also reluctant to employ military means-- even in the service of obviously just efforts, such as keeping peace in the Middle East or standing up to the Taliban. Though empowered by the U.N. Security Council in 2006 to forcibly interdict Hezbollah from rearming and reestablishing its presence close to the Israeli border, the Italian, French, and German forces in Southern Lebanon have ignored their mandate and permitted Hezbollah to increase its stockpile of missiles. That same year, European Union observers fled their posts at a Gaza border crossing rather than confront Palestinian violence. And, in Afghanistan, European nato members have consistently resisted U.S. requests for additional troops while restricting the scope of their soldiers' operations. Deployed in relatively quiet sectors, German troops can only patrol from inside armored vehicles and cannot leave their bases at night.

For some Europeans, the aversion to military force is insufficient; they want Americans to lay down their arms as well. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled U.S. Army Specialist Andre Shepherd, a deserter living in Germany. Shepherd, with assistance from German peace activists, is seeking to stay in the country under an EU directive offering asylum to soldiers who refuse to fight in illegal wars. The German government has been paying for Shepherd's room and board. "It's just amazing here," he told the Journal.

The connection between courage and survival has been acknowledged since earliest antiquity, along with the dangers posed by desertion. "When soldiers break and run," warned the Iliad's Agamemnon, "goodbye glory, goodbye all defenses." Beowulf promised an "unpleasant fate, by any measuring of it" to those who abandoned the field, and Buddha, renowned for his placidness, forbade soldiers from deserting, even to become monks. Few leaders understood the problem better than George Washington, who, during the horrendous winter of 1777, feared that "our new Army will scarcely be raised before it will dwindle and waste away" due to unchecked desertion.

Washington stemmed this hemorrhaging by punishing the slackers among his troops, and Americans have never extolled them. Yet the question remains whether Europe's eagerness to immortalize deserters will reverberate elsewhere. It sounds far-fetched, but it is impossible not to wonder: Will visitors to Valley Forge someday see a single pole?

Michael B. Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, has been nominated to serve as Israel's ambassador to the United States. Simone Gold contributed to the research of this article.

By Michael B. Oren