During the height of the Iraq War, more than 200 soldiers and marines deserted and fled to Canada, a war-resister haven during the Vietnam War. These aren’t draft dodgers, though; many are veterans of combat who could no longer serve in a conflict they couldn’t believe in.
By John Rico
The American war resisters are fighting a losing battle for asylum against a conservative Canadian government determined to make life as hard as possible. For instance, it’s difficult for Joshua Key to find work. Key was a welder in Oklahoma before the war, and he’d like to get his welding certification; the Canadian government continues to refuse him. The government also requires Key to pay hundreds of dollars each year to renew his work permit, a lengthy bureaucratic process that takes months, which results in as many months of unemployment. Recently, believing the annual permit to be too lenient, the government decided to require a new permit every six months. Not that it makes a difference; no one wants to hire someone who might be deported at any moment.
And then there’s Operation Bulletin 202, an executive order requiring asylum decision-makers to defer to top government officials, which ensures the war resisters have no legal victories. Since Bulletin 202 went into effect in July 2010, every deserter has been decided against in court at every juncture. There’s also a new omnibus budget plan to cut all social assistance, which would deny the deserters access to Canada’s world-famous socialized health care.
The goal is to make things as difficult as possible, to force Key and the other resisters to give up and go back to the United States, where federal officials would take them into custody immediately and escort them to prison to await court-martial hearings for desertion at a time of war.
Key is used to tough times, however. Becoming a war resister meant embracing a life of punitive action, a life of consequences, and a life of insults. He claims he’s already endured one attempt by Army Criminal Investigation Command agents who were working with Canadian law-enforcement officials to force him back to American soil. Web pages call him out as a coward, and the fiery rage in the comments sections argue for him to be killed.
Not to mention that five years ago his wife took their children back across the border to the States, then divorced Key and moved away with the kids. Key’s wife, who had been understanding in the beginning, simply couldn’t handle it any longer. Key hasn’t heard from or seen his children since they left. He wants to go looking for them, but, of course, he can’t. They’re in America.
That was a particularly raw wound, given that Key already had been effectively disowned by aunts and uncles and cousins who are ashamed of him for fleeing his country, for being a coward, for being a goddamn yellow-bellied deserter.
Except Key isn’t a coward; he’s a combat vet—one who has endured more blood, bullets, and death than a lot of soldiers, and most certainly one who’s endured more than the civilians from whom the calls of cowardice are greatest.
Like a lot of young soldiers, Key joined the U.S. Army in 2002 to provide for his family. His recruiter enticed him with the idea of health care for his family and a nondeployable position, which would ensure he would be home each night to care for his children. Key says he was told he would build bridges in the continental United States; he never built a single bridge. Instead, a year after his enlistment, he found himself working as an infantryman for the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment in the initial invasion of Iraq, kicking in doors and getting in firefights. He says he’s not quite sure how he ended up in that position, except that the early part of the war was chaotic. Water-purification specialists became truck drivers, supply clerks pulled security for convoys, and bridge builders became infantrymen. This was a twenty-first-century Army, and that meant it was an adaptive Army.
Key tells me over the phone that the violence was raw in those early days. No one was counting dead civilians yet or worrying about offending Muslim religious customs. He claims you could pretty much shoot whomever you wanted, and U.S. soldiers made full use of that freedom. His initial support for the war, deposing Saddam Hussein, and finding weapons of mass destruction slowly waned as he saw the process of radicalization in front of him: American soldiers kicked in doors, frightened children and women, humiliated men, and killed civilians (sometimes accidentally, sometimes not). “How would Americans react to an occupying army doing this on American soil?” he asks me. “We just took all males [taller than] five feet into custody. They just disappeared somewhere. You started to see people get angry at us.”
I know exactly what Key is trying to say, because I experienced it during my own combat tour in Afghanistan. When asked what I did there, I often just reply, “Killed a bunch of farmers that were pissed at us for being in their country.” I usually assume that the soldiers who replaced my outgoing unit in mid-2005 ended up fighting the families of the Afghans we killed in 2004. It’s the sort of endless cycle that ensures we never run out of bad guys.
Key is still haunted by some of the violence he tells me he witnessed: Soldiers kicking around and playing soccer with the decapitated heads of Iraqis at a military checkpoint. A young Iraqi girl Key had befriended, who provided for her family by looking cute and negotiating for food from soldiers, getting her head blown off right in front of him.
And to top it off, there weren’t even any weapons of mass destruction. “I came back half the man I was,” Key explains. He chose not to participate any longer in a war that was being waged without purpose, where he was forced to participate in acts he felt to be morally compromising. It was a war that the American people were manipulated into supporting, one in which the people being saved didn’t want our help. Key wasn’t afraid of dying, but if he was going to die, it was going to be protecting his children, or doing something honorable. He didn’t want to die for George Bush’s lie.
Dean Walcott was a marine posted to a surgical hospital in Germany, where he witnessed the results of war delivered straight to his door. The burned marines and soldiers with missing limbs he could handle—they signed up for it. But the Iraqi children who were airlifted in … they got to him. Walcott completed his deployment and returned home, where he started going crazy, spending hours in a dark room. Everywhere he went, he smelled bandages and tape and antiseptic cream. (It should be noted that the hospital tour was his second; Walcott had already served in Iraq, performing combat operations as a military police officer.) Walcott wanted to see a doctor, but says his command structure refused him, telling him to toughen up. He fled to Canada in the hope of getting treatment.
A soldier who wishes to remain unidentified explained his combat tour in Afghanistan over email: “We had a change of command mid-deployment, and that saw us go from a bookish captain to a bat-shit-crazy Delta Force guy. We took over new battle space north of the K-G Pass [Khost-Gardez Pass, a treacherous main connecting route]. That’s pretty much when people started dying and we started killing folks.” He completed his full 18-month combat tour before he fled to Canada. Like Key, he simply couldn’t entertain the idea of a second tour in a war he felt was morally wrong.
American war resisters fled to Canada throughout the 2000s for all sorts of reasons. One was tired of having his active-duty service involuntarily extended. As the story goes, his tour was over but he was stop-lossed and sent back to war. When he came home with just a month left of service, he returned to a unit that was ready to deploy and was again sent back to war. This soldier, who had long ago finished his tour of duty, was forced to serve multiple deployments without break. He left for Canada so he could finally get out of the Army.
Others left because they signed up to fight in Afghanistan and, before they deployed, their government had fabricated claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, made a global pronouncement at the UN, and begun an invasion against a country that had never attacked us.
And yes, others left because of cowardice.
“You cowards signed a contract!” That’s the argument the war resisters hear most often. But a “contract” also means that the government has to hold up its end of the bargain. That means not lying about the reasons the war is needed. That means not lying about being able to build bridges. It means providing medical assistance when required. Key and Walcott might have broken a contract, but so did their government.
Key, Walcott, and others are still fighting, although their available legal maneuvers are winnowing, their appeals running out. Their hope is that they can wait it out until the next election, when there is a widely held belief that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his conservative party will be voted out of office. The political left has been more vocal about its support of American war resisters. There’s still a dormant pride in Canada about providing refuge to tens of thousands of American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, most of whom were given refuge and residency.
The current Canadian government’s hope, apparently, is that it can make life so difficult in the interim that Key and the others will go back to the States of their own volition. Now 36 years old, Key realizes that his decade-old decision to not return to Iraq has become the defining event of his life.
The standard penalty in America for those who have already returned or been deported is around 15 months. I asked Key if he thinks about just doing the 15 months and moving on. He says he investigated it at one point, had a lawyer begin negotiations. The lawyer came back and said Key could end up serving a lot longer than 15 months. The American government is going hard on those who spoke up against the war, and Key has been a frequent public speaker. Besides, he reminds me, he has a new wife and children; Canada is home now.
The author was an infantry soldier and served in Afghanistan. His wartime memoir, Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, was published in 2006.
From the March 2015 issue of Penthouse