An American Deserter in Canada

“Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war. . .have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.” — Pierre Trudeau

By Jeremy Hinzman

More than 50,000 Americans came to Canada during the Vietnam War to avoid serving in that conflict. They were called "draft dodgers." However, nearly half of these men did not dodge the draft, but deserted after having already been on active duty.

Once again, America is in a conflict that was not based on its being under imminent threat. What is at stake is geopolitics and ideology. At this point in the Iraq War, more American soldiers have died than at the same point during the Vietnam conflict. While being vastly superior in technology and manpower, America faces an enemy that has an unconventional way of fighting. A growing number of American soldiers have decided that they are unwilling to kill or be killed without a tangible reason. This is remarkable in a period when, unlike the late sixties, not every facet of society is being questioned.

However, one issue in the current discontent was not present 30 years ago: America no longer has a draft. Except those who have served extraordinarily long, every American soldier who now serves had freely signed a contract for a specified length of time. Because no state coercion was involved, many who would otherwise be sympathetic argue that these soldiers, unlike draftees, have lost the right to question orders, no matter how moral or immoral, legal or illegal they may be.

I say this is not so. A contract is an agreement by two sides that certain acts will be performed under certain conditions. There is a quid pro quo involved. Boundaries surround the playing field. But as a deserter, my bias may keep me from writing about it objectively.

Why Soldiers Refuse

There has been press coverage of soldiers who have deserted to avoid serving in Iraq. Most of the soldiers who are now making their way to Canada have already served in Iraq and cannot in good conscience go back. Most reportage fails to report the circumstances that lead a soldier to sever his bonds with his country. Whether the quest for refuge succeeds or fails, the consequences of such a decision will last for the rest of his life.

There are financial factors too. In this era of outsourcing, the stability that comes from having a trade or an education is no longer guaranteed. The Horatio Alger myth of the common man climbing the social ladder is just that -- a myth. Sure, every able person who is accepted to university can obtain the means to attend. But except those from privileged backgrounds, it is commonly necessary to incur loans to study and gain the ticket to a better life. Because astronomical sums are involved, one may become a serf, with debts that have no end.

In addition, America lacks the universal health care that is available in every other industrialized country. Millions of responsible Americans are one illness away from bankruptcy. Though many companies offer health insurance to their employees, it is not free. Organized labor in United States is becoming a relic and many youths grow up in broken homes, without religion -- except for the rigid, divisive mega-churches that dot the American landscape.

Coming of Age in America

Economic factors propel most youth to join the military, but many are also motivated by the ostensibly higher meaning that the military offers. Service, sacrifice, teamwork, the good of the nation, health care, and money for college are all things that the military stands for. This offers an easy solution to problems facing those coming of age in today's service economy. Why not enlist?

This was my experience in the winter of 2000-2001. I had been out of high school for nearly three years. Although my marks were not atrocious, they would not have put me in contention for many scholarships. When I explored the possibility of financial aid, I learned that my family made too much money for me to qualify -- but they did not make enough to help with tuition. I came from a broken home. Although I was able to hold down a job, it was leading nowhere. Walking into the recruiter's office, I told him to not bother with the sales pitch.

I believe that what differentiates humans from animals is our ability to tell right from wrong. While we vary somewhat in our conceptions of good and bad, unless we are psychotic we are all endowed with an ability to discern. Whatever evolutionary urge we have to conquer and dominate is tempered by this morality and by the ability to empathize with others.

Training Us to Kill

One of the first things a drill sergeant explains -- or barks -- to new recruits, is that he is going to break his soldiers down from their pitiful civilian ways and build them up again to be disciplined killers. A soldier is to follow orders, except ones that are obviously illegal or immoral, without question. Whether it be cleaning a latrine at two in the morning or cleaning rocks with a toothbrush, a person is instilled with unquestioning obedience, geared toward making them carry out, without question, the ultimate act -- the taking of another human life or the sacrifice of one's own.

It is not easy to convince human beings that killing is okay. More is involved than just ordering them to do so. The very qualities that make us human must be eliminated: our ability to discern good from bad and our ability to empathize with the other. This is accomplished by systematic desensitization on both an individual and collective level. Its aim is to break down the inhibitions that would ordinarily make us recoil in disgust from taking a life.

For desensitizing to be effective, it must be methodical. Whenever we do something over and over, it is easy to lose sight of the essence of the act. The increasingly heinous display of violence in popular culture is an example.

Recalling my experience as a soldier, I'll illustrate in terms of rifle marksmanship training. Shooting another person is not as simple as encountering him on the battlefield and firing away. In studies of soldiers who served in World War II, the Army found that an overwhelming number of them did not shoot at the enemy. Instead, they aimed high or did not fire at all.

To counter this tendency the Army devised a training program that emphasizes reflex and repetition. Basic Rifle Marksmanship training or, in Army parlance, BRM, has three phases. First, soldiers learn the basic mechanics of firing a rifle and employ them while shooting at black circles from close range. Second, the circles morph into torsos and are fired at from a greater distance. Third, the torsos, or targets, pop up repeatedly from different ranges so that soldiers reflexively fire at them. Saturation is used so that, by firing over and over again from different distances, the soldier is able to eliminate the target without pausing to think about it.

Getting groups to act in a violent manner also requires planning. During our adolescence, there were probably times when, with friends, we did things of which we would be ashamed if our families knew. The military exploits this aspect of the human condition so as to build cohesion. Soldiers do things for which they would be incarcerated in the civilian world. The anonymity of a group setting allows a soldier to act violently, yet absolve herself of guilt. She can rationalize that the act would have been committed whether or not she had participated.

Finally, for persons to be able to kill, they have to hate the enemy. Unlike love, which is instinctive, hate has to be taught. To hate another human being it is necessary to dehumanize and objectify him, whether along racial, religious, class, or national lines. When soldiers are repeatedly told that members of a specific group live meaningless lives, it becomes easier to look at them through the sights of a rifle as an object, rather than as a person like oneself who breathes, eats, hopes, and dreams.

The military's indoctrination of soldiers is usually effective, but some soldiers cannot convert from civilian to killer. In fact, there is a provision to accommodate such soldiers: conscientious objector status. After a year and a half of serving in the infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army, I applied for this status.

Though my doubts about soldiering began early in my training, I made every effort to cast them aside, hoping to adjust to military ways. I excelled in the everyday aspects of soldiering, was promoted ahead of schedule and given positions of high responsibility relative to my rank. I felt a strong sense of being "one of the boys." Still, I could never be convinced that killing was justified. I went through the motions during training exercises, but I could not consider another human being as I would a table or refrigerator.

Fortunately, being in an airborne unit gave me the insight to overcome an obstacle to following my conscience. This was the romanticized notion of brotherhood -- camaraderie. Statistically, when 100 people jump out of an airplane, each loaded down with 75 pounds of equipment, almost certainly a couple of them will break something. Whether they were stellar soldiers or problem kids, the moment they ceased serving a function they were no longer one of the boys. It became apparent that, in order to be a successful soldier, not only did I have to objectify any potential enemy, I had to do the same thing to the people I worked with.

Having been a good soldier who showed no outward signs of my inward struggle, I surprised and enraged my chain of command when I submitted my conscientious objector application. In fact, it was thrown away without my knowledge. When I became aware of this I had to resubmit it on the eve of a deployment to a combat zone in Afghanistan. It did not matter to the officer who evaluated my application that I had turned it in prior to any knowledge of a deployment. All he had was the official paperwork, which led him justifiably to question the timing and hence the sincerity of my application.

In addition, during the hearing to determine my conscientious objector status, I was asked what I would do if our camp in Kandahar were attacked. I replied that if my house were being burglarized I would try to restrain the burglar. However, I would not use the same logic to commit premeditated first-degree murder, which is what the infantry does when conducting a raid or an ambush. The military's criteria for conscientious objector status require that an applicant renounce participation in violence in any form, under any circumstances. To be at the level of a Gandhi or Christ requires a level of renunciation that I hope one day to achieve. When I was asked that question, I was not at that point. I am still not at that point. Hence my application was denied.

The proper thing to do just then would have been to shed my uniform and refuse to comply with any order. Because I was in a war zone, my sense of self-preservation suggested that this would be unwise. Upon returning to the United States, I resumed normal duties with my unit. When it became apparent that I was going to be deployed to Iraq, my son Liam, wife Nga, and I decided that our only option was for me to leave the military.

Why Canada?

We chose Canada because we took Trudeau's words at face value. In addition, Canada, although one of America's most important allies, refused to contribute soldiers to the "coalition of the willing." Because of stricter immigration laws, our only choice was to apply for refugee status once we arrived here. The Geneva Convention on Refugees, to which Canada adheres when evaluating refugee claimants, states that when a soldier refuses to participate in a war that has been condemned by the international community and faces prosecution for that refusal, it amounts to persecution on the basis of political opinion.

Sensing a political headache, the government of Canada intervened in our case, asserting that the legality of the war in Iraq was irrelevant to our refugee claim. Unfortunately, the Immigration and Refugee Board concurred and we were unable to argue the crux of our case. Our application was denied and is now under appeal .

It is reasonable to ask why I did not instead "face the music" and accept the incarceration. All I can say is that just because a person signs a contract, it does not mean that one abdicates the right and duty to be moral. I did not simply wake up one day, decide I could no longer do the job, and flee to the Great White North.

I used provisions the army made for people in my situation. My case was not handled fairly and I was unwilling to lie about defending myself if I were to be attacked. My country was, and is, committing systematic war crimes in a war that lacks justification. As an infantryman, I probably would be party to it, were I to participate.

Victors Are Never Charged

In the film Fog of War, Robert McNamara recounts a discussion he had with General Curtis Lemay following the fire-bombing of Tokyo. McNamara asked Lemay whether, given the barbaric nature of the indiscriminate bombing, there was not a possibility that they could be charged as war criminals. Lemay quickly replied that war criminals never come from the winning side of a conflict.

History is the result of individuals making their own choices. If we know something is wrong, as moral agents with free will, we are obligated to act. We cannot simply claim that we are victims of time and place or that we are simply following orders.

Given America's superiority in war-making, I am not going out on a limb when I say that America will probably, in the end, prevail in Iraq. Because of this, it does not matter how many atrocious acts I may have committed there, I probably would never have been prosecuted. But I would have been prosecuting myself for the rest of my life.

My family has made a home in Canada. Although it would be horrible to have to leave, we don't need the approval of this country to know that we made the right decision. We have been able to preserve our dignity and humanity without becoming complicit in a barbaric act that has robbed generations of a chance to live a good life.

While appealing his case, Mr. Hinzman lives in Toronto with his wife and son.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2005

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2005, page 25. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Jeremy Hinzman here

Peace Magazine homepage