Themes

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Desertion
As the title of the play indicates, the main theme is desertion. The unnamed soldier, who was drafted into service in the war, tried to flee from his military unit when he saw an opportunity to do so. ‘‘We got separated from our outfit, this buddy of mine and me. We didn’t know where they were, so we just joined this other outfit.’’ The soldier briefly rejoins his military unit and tries to explain to his captain that he cannot fight, but the officer does not listen to him. The soldier says, ‘‘He told me I gotta stay there . . . and I left.’’ Unfortunately, the soldier is caught and sentenced to be executed. This surprises him since, as the soldier notes, America does not generally execute its soldiers. The soldier says, ‘‘They ain’t never shot anybody before. Not even in the last war.’’ The sergeant notes, ‘‘You thought we were gonna put you in the stockade and take care of you to the end of the war. Didn’t you?’’

The sergeant and the priest, Father Murray, try to explain to the soldier why his crime of desertion deserves death. Although they approach the issue differently, both men essentially tell the soldier that by deserting his post, he is putting his entire military unit in danger of being killed by the Germans. The sergeant says, ‘‘I mean, you heard them shooting at you. They were out to kill you. If you were in my squad, I would have shot you right then and there.’’ The sergeant is mad because the desertion of one soldier weakens the unit and can mean the difference between living and dying when fighting the Germans. Father Murray offers a similar assessment when he scolds the soldier. Father Murray says, ‘‘Did you ever think that they had to do your fighting for you? Did you ever think that some of them might be alive right now, if you had been fighting beside them?’’

Cowardice
The sergeant assumes in the beginning that the soldier has deserted his military unit because he is a coward who is afraid of being killed. The sergeant says, ‘‘What was it then? I mean, everybody’s scared. Anybody that’s got any sense.’’ When the soldier is talking to Father Murray, he confirms his cowardice. The soldier says, ‘‘I was afraid, Father. I was afraid of being shot.’’ When the soldier explains how he did not run away after being recaptured by his military unit, the sergeant thinks he is even more of a coward. The sergeant says, ‘‘You didn’t even have the guts to run away.’’ However, while this fear plays a part in the soldier’s decision to leave his military unit, the main reason is his fear of killing others. In his letter to his wife, the soldier describes the horrors that he has seen. Writes the soldier, ‘‘When we rolled into Germany the first day, I was sick and I’ve been sick ever since. There were bodies all along the road. It’s not like in the movies.’’

Religious Beliefs versus Military Necessity
The soldier sees all of this carnage and refuses to fight, which is unacceptable in the military. As the sergeant notes, ‘‘In the army you do what you’re told.’’ Even Father Murray agrees with this: ‘‘In the army you’re supposed to do as you’re told. That’s the only way an army can be run.’’ However, the soldier sees a conflict between his religious beliefs and the military necessity that he kill others. The soldier’s brother is serving time in prison for being an accomplice in a fatal...

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robbery. After this crime happened, the soldier’s priest back home, Father Hart, told him that all killing is wrong. The soldier says, ‘‘He said there was no excuse for killing anybody. Murder is murder, no matter what reason you had, and it was a mortal sin.’’ As a result, the soldier has developed a mental block that prevents him from firing his rifle: ‘‘when we were attacked, something in me just froze, and I knew it was all wrong.’’ Nevertheless, Father Murray says that murder is justified during wartime. The priest says, ‘‘This is war, boy. God doesn’t want you to sit on your heels and let your enemy destroy you.’’

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