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

This time they picked the wrong country

Another difference in the deserter generations seems to be their level of combat experience. John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University and the author of Northern Passage, a book about the migration of Americans to Canada during Vietnam, says 80 percent of the 25,000 draft-aged men who fled to Canada bailed after receiving draft notices and never actually fought. Now, while the Army's Hall maintains that most deserters are junior troops who leave their units early in their military careers for personal, not moral or philosophical, reasons, the Toronto deserters don't fit that description. Most served for at least two years. Patrick Hart, a former sergeant from New York who served with the 101st Airborne Division, was an active-duty soldier for nearly 10 years and did one tour in Iraq, while Dean Walcott, of Connecticut, served the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Unlike soldiers in Vietnam, who only did one tour unless they re-enlisted, today's troops are deployed multiple times, which is making for a new, more battle-tested type of war deserter.

Regardless of differences between the deserter generations, today's deserters in Canada have a similar unwillingness to fight in an unpopular war. To Zaslofsky, they are even more courageous than he and his peers were. "In a way I value them a lot more than my generation," he says. "We had this vast antiwar movement to support us and inform our decisions. They don't have that. They've come to this individually, not because of some mass political indoctrination."

JOSHUA KEY'S UNEASINESS about the Army's presence in Iraq began in the first months of the war in 2003 as he served with Fort Carson's 43rd Combat Engineer Company in Ramadi. His platoon would raid one to four houses each night in search of insurgents or evidence of terrorism, but night after night all they found were tidy, middle-class homes filled with terrified families, he writes in The Deserter's Tale, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. Drawn from his recollections and with little or no corroboration from other soldiers, the book is a haunting chronicle of the mounting disillusionment that led him to desert. As his unit stormed through Iraqi homes, he recounts, they'd shout at the inhabitants to "Get down!" and "Shut the fuck up!" in English, then knock the men to the ground, often beating them before hauling them off for transport to a detention facility. "We tore the hell out of those places," Key writes, "blasting apart doors, ripping up mattresses, and ripping drawers from dressers. From all our ransacking, we never found anything other than the ordinary goods that ordinary people keep in their houses." He also tells how the soldiers—him included—would steal from families during the raids, making off with knives, jewelry, gold, cash and, once, a television.

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

Parts of the book read like scenes out of Apocalypse Now. One chapter tells of an Army specialist who liked to release aggression by body-slamming corpses in a shed, while another shows members of Key's unit coming upon the bodies of dead Iraqis near the Euphrates River and kicking their severed heads around like soccer balls. Perhaps most traumatic for Key was watching, helpless, as a young Iraqi girl he'd befriended while guarding a hospital was felled by M16 gunfire from an unknown location. All this, he writes, led him to conclude that the American military "had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine."

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE legality of the Iraq War were an integral part of the initial case for deserters pursuing asylum in Canada. When they began arriving in 2004 and 2005, their lawyers filed claims for refugee status based on the Geneva Conventions and the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees handbook says a deserter is entitled to asylum if he has refused to participate in a war judged to be unlawful by the international community. But Alyssa Manning, the attorney representing at least a dozen of the deserters, including Rivera and Key, explains that the Canadian courts have declined to consider the legality of the Iraq War in their rulings.

"When they were first coming, the idea was that the war itself was illegal so they shouldn't have to fight in it," Manning says. "Jeremy Hinzman's 2004 refugee claim was based on that, but the refugee board, the federal court, and the federal court of appeal refused to consider that." Key is the only one still waiting on a pending refugee claim, since he and Manning are arguing that he merits asylum not because the war itself is illegal but because he was ordered to commit acts—such as the house raids—that have been condemned by the international human rights community.

In most of the cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That requires showing that the deserters would face hardship if they returned to the United States to apply from afar. So far, the immigration ministry has denied all of the requests and Manning has requested judicial review. Three of her petitions for judicial review have been granted, and more are pending. If the federal court reviews a case and finds fault with the decision, rather than reversing it, the court's ruling signals a chance to start the process anew and maybe get a different outcome.

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