Why Armies Break: Explaining Mass Desertion in Conventional War

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Jason Lyall
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Working Paper, Department of Politics, Yale University

What explains mass desertion from armies fighting conventional wars? To date, our theories of military effectiveness have largely ignored the question of why soldiers abandon the fight. I argue that wartime desertion is tied to the prewar nature of the collective identity that a regime uses to legitimate its rule: the more exclusionary toward internal populations, the greater the odds a military will "break" on the battlefield. I test this argument using a new dataset of 825 combatants in 250 conventional (civil) wars since 1800. A mixed method framework combines cross-national regression, a two-control group comparison via matching, and the use of matching to select a representative paired comparison for causal process-tracing with primary documents. Taken together, evidence suggests that mass desertion is associated with identity type; little support is found for regime type, material preponderance, or other accounts of mass desertion.