The AWOL soldier as a figure of transgression

Written by Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, Associate Professor at Department for the Study of Culture


I just returned from an interdisciplinary research seminar at the University of Birmingham titled “Figures of Transgression in War Representation.” Scholars from Law, Politics, Cultural Studies, Art History, Geography, History, and Film Studies presented papers that illuminated so-called figures of transgression in war representations. The figures of transgression in focus here are those that trouble normal boundaries of war, figures such as traitors, deserters, exiled persons, translators, and negotiators. So I heard exciting talks about, among other things, new Maghrebi-French war films, African-American soldiers in post-Fascist Italy, child soldiers, dead militants and the legal obligations associated with identifying casualties of war, and the figure of the nurse in war films. 

In my own presentation, I talked about the figure of the AWOL (absent without leave) soldier in Kimberly Pierce’s 2008 film Stop-Loss. The issue of desertion flared up recently in the US, when US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive in Afghanistan for five years, was charged with desertion. As historian Brian K. Feltman has asserted, the ensuing debate about Bergdahl “is part of our continued struggle to balance idealized expectations of soldierly virtue against the psychological strains of modern warfare.”

Seen in that light, Stop-Loss is especially relevant. The film tells the story of US Staff Army Sergeant Brad King (Ryan Phillippe), a squad leader who has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He returns to the US ready to be discharged, only to find that he is being stop-lossed (that is, his active duty service has been involuntarily extended) and will be sent back to Iraq. In protest King goes AWOL.

Up until that point, King has been constructed as an archetypal soldier hero, a natural-born leader who looks out for his men both on the battlefield and back home. He lives up to the most universally recognized heroic qualities: leadership, loyalty, and risk-taking. These traits also echo what Jon Robert Adams in Male Armor terms “soldierly masculinity,” that is, “the particular brand of traditional male function associated with heroism—courage, suppressed emotion, strength, and clearheaded decisiveness” (9). So what happens when the traditional male warrior is suddenly charged with allegations of disloyalty, dishonesty, disrespect, selfishness, dishonor, lack of integrity, and cowardice? These are all terms that are the antithesis to “soldierly masculinity.” When King goes AWOL, he debunks the very qualities that defined him as a soldier hero. However, the film makes it possible to argue that King holds on to his male heroic traits: Rather than following ranks and obeying orders blindly, he acts on a personal moral level, and his action can be seen as him employing the above-mentioned heroic traits, albeit on a strictly personal level: taking leadership of his own life, being loyal to his moral compass, and taking a great risk (of prison or a life on the run). 

The transgression that King’s desertion creates opens up a space in the film that makes it possible for director Pierce to address issues of AWOL/desertion without resorting to the rigid clichés of cowardice and effemination that usually make up the cultural understanding of the deserter.