U.S. military deserters again flocking to Canada to avoid war

This time they picked the wrong country

   

IT'S LATE JANUARY, and the past few days have brought grim news to Lee Zaslofsky's small office on the fourth floor of a brick building that houses unions and peace organizations. Along with Rivera, two other deserters living in Toronto have been denied residency and are scheduled to be deported by the end of the month. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week" and is holding nightly rallies and advocacy events.

On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed sixtysomething with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the flyers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and one-year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada. The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant near the office, keeping tabs on one another's court cases, and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children, and he doesn't want any of them put in jail. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here. This isn't how Canada is supposed to be," he says defiantly.

Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto
Megan Feldman
Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters
Megan Feldman
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters

The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoneybrook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories he heard from soldiers returning from Southeast Asia. When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious objector status and was denied. In January 1970 he drove into Canada. While President Richard Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the antiwar protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcoming America's deserters by the thousands.

Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion is a punishable crime for good reason. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that in a time of war put other soldiers' lives at risk," he says. "Not only do these crimes go against Army values, they degrade unit readiness."

Hall questions why soldiers would enlist voluntarily and only later, once receiving orders to deploy, change their minds and cite political or philosophical reasons for deserting. The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam—33,000 in 1971 alone—were running from a compulsory draft while today's deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans. Rivera has been called a "parasite" and a "traitor" in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States that not only call the recent deserters "pussies" and cowards who abandoned their brothers in arms, but also fools who enlisted deliberately only to shirk their duty.

Some sociologists point out that unlike the draft-dodgers and resisters who fled north decades ago, many of whom were well-educated and had been able to put off the draft for several years by attending college, most recent deserters come from impoverished backgrounds and joined the military because it was the only way they could find to get an education and an above-minimum-wage job.

"What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement. "A lot of people from rural areas or inner cities who simply don't have job opportunities or money for college—and the Army promises that." Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, who were often politically liberal and opposed the war to begin with, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. The majority of the dozen or so young resisters at the Toronto rally, for example, had begun their journeys as eager, patriotic recruits, only to undergo wrenching changes of heart.

Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, Key, 30, grew up admiring his grandfather who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and two children on his earnings from KFC. Key never dreamed that after a tour in Iraq he'd be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter's Tale.

Ryan Johnson, a slight, bearded 25-year-old from California's Central Valley who looks more like an organic farmer than a soldier, says he enlisted because he was tired of working factory jobs at places like Frito Lay and couldn't afford college. His mother, a homemaker, and his stepfather, a UPS driver, kept yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on their cars and voted Republican.

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