In the years since the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of American soldiers have deserted for Canada, hoping to be protected as refugees from a conflict they consider to be illegal and immoral. Even with popular support, the resisters face deportation to stand trial in the US. Clint van Winkle finds that despite the setbacks, their fight to not fight continues. Jeremy Hinzman, a US Army soldier, felt he had only two options: deploy to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division or desert his unit and seek asylum in Canada. He chose the latter, and in January 2004, the 25-year-old paratrooper earned the distinction of being the first US soldier to file for political refugee status in Canada. Records show that Hinzman was a decent soldier: he had completed parachutist school, earned an Expert Infantryman Badge and was one of a handful of soldiers to receive a coveted spot in the pre-Ranger course, the first step towards becoming an elite Army Ranger. From the outside, he may have appeared to be the model soldier. However, his thoughts were churning. He started to explore Buddhism and attend meetings with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Both religious groups advocate non-violence, views incompatible with soldiering in any army. Doubts about his career choice surfaced around the same time his unit started preparing for a combat deployment to Afghanistan.
Specialist Hinzman filed for conscientious objector status and asked the army to move him into a non-combat role. His unit obliged and allowed the paratrooper to "perform menial kitchen tasks" while they were in Afghanistan, then assigned him to guard the entrance to Fort Benning once they returned to the United States. A decision about his conscientious objector/non-combatant status came down from the army: application denied.
Lieutenant Dennis Fitzgerald, the investigating officer wrote the following in his report on Hinzman's application: "After a comprehensive review of the packet and personal investigation, I strongly believe that PFC Hinzman is using this regulation to get out of the infantry. He is not willing to conduct offensive operations as a combatant, but he is willing to conduct defensive operations as a combatant. He is not unwilling to conduct the other operations such as peacekeeping operations, and safe and secure environment operations that infantrymen conduct. He clearly stated 'it would be his duty to defend his airfield if it were attacked'. He is willing to defend a military installation as part of his duty. If he is willing to fight and defend against the enemy, he cannot choose when or where."
Even though the maximum sentence for desertion during a time of war is death, the US hasn't executed a deserter since the Second World War when a firing squad made an example of Eddie Slovik for refusing to fight with his US Army unit. Five years of confinement and a dishonourable discharge, which is the equivalent of a felony conviction, is the maximum sentence the US imposes nowadays. It was a risk Hinzman was willing to take. Quakers, anti-war groups and Vietnam-era draft dodgers on both sides of the US/Canadian border banded together to help him make the transition from soldier to deserter, transforming him into an anti-war folk hero and spokesman of the "war resister" movement.
In order to gain residency through refugee status, in accordance with the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, people must prove that there is a high probability if they are returned to their country that they will be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Hinzman argued he needed protection from the United States government because any sentence a military court martial imposed on him would amount to persecution for following his conscience. In 2005, a year after arriving, the Canadian Refugee Protection Division (RPD) ruled against him, citing the aforementioned bellicose statements he had made in his Army application.
Approximately 200 Americans followed in Hinzman's footsteps, with many having already served at least one tour in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. However, to date, only 50 of the deserters have petitioned the RPD for refugee status, all unsuccessfully. The other 150 reside in Canada illegally or are trying to get Canadian residency. Undeterred by predecessors' lack of success, deserters continue to trickle across the Canadian border every week. "They just turn up and say help me," says Jeffry House, a Toronto-based lawyer who has lived in Canada since refusing to be inducted into the US military during the Vietnam War. He is considered the primary lawyer for American deserters. "Calling them 'deserters' is mean. They're war refugees," he continues.
This is a common belief among war resister supporters, a belief the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government does not share. And the lack of concern shown by the Conservatives hasn't helped the American deserters who want to remain in Canada. Canada's reputation for welcoming US draft dodgers and deserters is well known in North America. Historically, it has been the preferred destination for Americans who want to escape military service. During the Vietnam War, hordes of Americans migrated north of the 8,891 kilometre international boundary that separates the two countries. With thousands of American soldiers dying daily in south- east Asia and the threat of being forced to serve in the US military via a draft lottery, most Canadians understood the Americans' need to flee. It was a life or death matter where many young men saw only two options: live peacefully in Canada or die violently in Vietnam.
Pierre Trudeau, Canada's Liberal prime minister during the height of the Vietnam War, understood their dilemma and was happy to offer a safe harbour for draft-age Americans to weather the storm. At that time, draft dodgers merely had to show up and settle in. Some reports estimate as many as 100,000 Americans "immigrated" to Canada to avoid being drafted into the US military. Even though the US president Jimmy Carter offered the draft dodgers amnesty in 1977, one third of them never returned to the States. According to a webpage titled "Forging Our Legacy" on the Canadian government's current Citizen and Immigration website, the draft dodgers were "the largest, best-educated group [Canada] had ever received".
The war resisters equate and their supporters equate their self-imposed exile to the plight of the Vietnam-era draft dodgers. However, the parallel falls short since the United States hasn't drafted people into its armed forces since the 1970s. US military service isn't compulsory, and opponents are quick to point out that when consenting adults sign a contract with an organisation that will train them to kill, the chances are pretty high that one day they will have to do just that. Still, deserters claim they have a duty to resist what they believe is an unjust and illegal war: it is their mantra, their way of validating desertion.
The Iraq war isn't a popular action and may very well prove illegal, but the fact that the deserters chose to enlist doesn't help their cause. Soldiers aren't allowed to pick their wars, which is what the fugitive soldiers want to do. They "realised they made the wrong decision and corrected it by doing something else," said Lee Zaslofsky, co-ordinator of the War Resister Support Campaign and another Vietnam-era American draft dodger. "Their sense of decency would not allow them to carry on."
While Vietnam draft dodgers weren't willing to go to war at all, many of the current deserters have said they would accept orders to fight in Afghanistan but not Iraq. Opponents say willingness to fight in one war and not another is contradictory to the views a true conscientious objector holds. A conscientious objector won't fight in any war. To counter the opponents, many modern resisters claim they were tricked into military service or were coerced by unscrupulous recruiters into signing up. Zaslofsky calls it a "poverty draft" that uses "bait and switch" methods to lure Americans into military service. "There are a few sadists, adventure-seekers and buccaneers [who sign up for the military], but the majority are looking for health care and money for university."
Canada's House of Commons made an attempt to renew its commitment to deserters on June 3 2008 when it passed a non-binding motion created by the opposition recommending "the government immediately implement a programme to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members, who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already commenced against such individuals." The motion was praised by a majority of Canadian citizens, but the Conservative government wasn't impressed.
On July 15 2008 the Canadian police led a handcuffed Robin Long to a cell. With his dreadlocks and beard, 25-year-old looked more like a throwback to the Sixties than a US Army soldier. After three years of living in south-west Canada, where he had fathered a son and had been a productive member of his community, Long was being turned over to law enforcement officials in the United States, becoming the first American deserter of the Iraq war actually to be deported. Hundreds rallied to save him, hoping their support would dissuade the US Army from proceeding with its inevitable court martial.
Prosecutors for the US Army were ready for Private First Class Robin Long, producing a four-and-a-half inch thick binder containing emails, text messages and transcripts pertaining to his desertion. They sought the maximum jail time prescribed by military law for the crime of desertion with the intent to stay away. It was obvious that the US government was about to make a example out of the deserter. Long didn't stand a chance. And since desertion is easy to prove (you are either present or absent), he decided to agree to a plea bargain rather than fight the charges. His lawyer negotiated a favourable deal, one that allowed Long to plead guilty to the lesser charge of desertion and offered a reduced sentence. Instead of five years in a military prison, he received 15 months' confinement in a military brig, a reduction in military rank and a dishonourable discharge. It was the harshest sentence given to any Iraq war deserter and both governments' attempt to send a message. Zaslofsky believes the US government wanted "to show American troops that you will obey orders or be punished severely".
Canada was just warming up its deportation machine. Hinzman and his family received a deportation notice shortly after Long's conviction but managed to obtain a last-minute, and temporary, stay of deportation. Daniel Sandate, a mentally ill soldier, was deported in November and received an eight-month jail sentence: he had asked to be deported after a failed suicide attempt. He was released from a military brig last month.
There were more in the pipeline. Several months after Hinzman received his first deportation notice, while US President Barack Obama was enjoying inauguration festivities in Washington DC, Canada's Conservative government was preparing to rid its country of five deserters. Among them is Iraq war veteran Kimberly Rivera, who was released from Army training in 2001 due to a pregnancy. Then in 2006 the 24-year-old Wal-Mart employee, unable to provide for her family, decided to re-enlist in the US Army in order to reap the benefits afforded to members of the US military. Unfortunately for her three young children, Rivera's next stop is likely to be a federal prison.
Patrick Hart, a regular on the Canadian anti-war circuit, is in the same boat as Rivera.The 34-year-old served a tour in Kuwait as a supply sergeant before deciding to head north of the border two months before his Army unit rotated to Iraq. "I chose my family over the Army," he said by phone. Although the chances are good that he'll be in prison by the end of the month, Hartman doesn't regret deserting. "Going to Iraq would have been the easy way out. I would make the decision again in a heartbeat."
Barring a miracle, all five deserters are expected to be in US custody within the coming weeks, and there isn't any indication that Obama is interested in the war deserters one way or another. An Angus Reid poll shows that 64 per cent of Canadians think the war resisters should be permitted to stay in Canada. "Public opinion is on their side," says House, but the "immigration ministry doesn't want them to stay because of the implications". Harper "doesn't want to ruffle [the US government's] feathers."
Zaslofsky sounds irritated when talking about Harper and his administration. Apparently, he isn't he only one with such negative feelings toward the minority Conservative government, which has been in power for nearly three years. Fed-up politicians from opposition parties have formed a coalition with the aim of ousting the Conservatives. An unprecedented political coup d'etat that has turned Canadian politics into a three-ring circus, and this may be the war resisters' saving grace since the coalition's parties strongly support their movement: they were the ones who drafted and passed the non-binding motion. However, the coalition will have to take control of the government before the war resisters can relax, and that may not help the ones who have already been served deportation notices.
The American deserters may gain residency in Canada but it is unlikely that they will ever be able to set foot in their country again. The chances of a Jimmy Carter-type clemency are nil. However, Zaslofsky says the deserters "aren't anti-American" or "political zealots" and claims most of them "have a better criminal record than [the US] Congress". Maybe the resisters did the noble thing by walking away from a war they consider illegal; maybe they should be punished for deserting. Whatever the case, public opinion doesn't matter to them. They did what they believed to be morally correct and are now, according to Zaslofsky, "living peacefully in Canada". Civil disobedience is a hallmark of America and, for the small band of deserters, protesting against the Iraq war seemed like the most American thing they could do. Only time will tell what will become of the war resisters, but one thing is certain: their fight will continue long after the war has ceased.
Clint Van Winkle is the author of Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir Of Combat And Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (St. Martin's Press; March 2009).