More than 25,000 American soldiers have deserted the American Army since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of them have taken the road to Canada.
by Alec Castonguay / Le Devoir / 4 June 2008
Ottawa – Back from Iraq in November 2003 for a few days of leave, 24-year-old American soldier Joshua Key took to the hills and deserted his unit. There could be no question of returning to the hell of Baghdad as far as he was concerned. For months, he laid low in a Philadelphia suburb with his wife and three children. “The Army doesn’t actively seek out deserters because there are too many of them and it doesn’t have the necessary resources,” Joshua Key tells Le Devoir. “But it issues arrest warrants. At the slightest infraction, even a parking ticket, the police track us down and it’s a court-martial. It’s not pleasant to be on a short leash all the time.”
In March 2005, he couldn’t take being an illegal in his own country any more. So he crossed the Canadian border and headed for Manitoba, where he requested refugee status.
According to the American Department of Defense, close to 25,000 soldiers have deserted the Army since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003, or an increase of 80 percent compared to the 1998-2003 period.
The vast majority of these “conscientious objectors” have chosen to stay in the United States and remain invisible. Others, like Joshua Key, have taken the road to Canada. According to the coalition War Resisters Support Campaign, based in Toronto for the last four years, there are at least 225 deserters in Canada. Of that number, about fifty have undertaken legal measures to remain in the country.
“It’s very difficult to know precisely how many Iraq war resisters are in Canada, since the federal government refuses to grant them refugee or permanent resident status. Most prefer to hide. There are probably many more than 225,” explains coalition spokeswoman Michelle Robidoux, who has her antennae in most big Canadian cities, but not in Quebec.
Joshua Key enlisted in the American Army after September 11, 2001, to defend his country. “In the beginning, I believed in the mission in Iraq,” he says. “Saddam Hussein was a monster and we had to take away his weapons of mass destruction. But those were all lies. No one found anything in Iraq.”
While he was posted to the restless village of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, in 2003, he decided never to return to that hell. Joshua Key asserts that he participated in over 200 raids on Iraqi homes and witnessed an incalculable number of unjustified murders. “I witnessed so many atrocities in a few months. I saw American soldiers play soccer with the head of an Iraqi,” he says, still revolted. “I wanted to protect my country, not kill innocents.”
An Illegal War
The arguments the deserters evoke to stay in Canada are simple: the conflict in Iraq is not only illegal – the UN Security Council never approved it – but immoral. Canada, which refused to participate in this war, should help those who do the same, they say.
That’s what Chuck Wiley, an engineer in the US Navy for 14 years, believes. The 35-year-old first mate is the oldest of the American deserters who have requested refugee status in Canada since 2003.
Between May and November 2006, he was on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, deployed to the Middle East to support the operation in Iraq. “I was supposed to prepare airplane motors, so I saw all the mission orders,” he relates. “Nothing justified our presence there. I began to ask myself a great many questions and I had problems with my superiors.”
Back in the United States, Wiley asked to be transferred to a ship that would not be deployed offshore Iraq. “We have boats everywhere in the world, so I thought it would be easy,” he says. But rather than respond to his request, senior American officers transferred him to a ship that was returning even sooner to Iraq.
Then he consulted with a US Navy attorney who broke the bad news: he could not claim the status of conscientious objector to leave the armed services because he didn’t oppose all wars, but only the conflict in Iraq. Since his case had been documented by his superiors, it was too late. “I had the choice of prison or flight,” says Chuck Wiley.
American courts-martial have already sentenced deserters to a 12-to-18 months term of imprisonment. But some have seen time up to five years.
February 11, 2007, in the small hours of the morning, Chuck Wiley and his wife discreetly left Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. Twelve hours later, they arrived at the Canadian border near Niagara Falls in their little Toyota Celica. Like other deserters, they told the border agent that they were coming to Canada to spend a few days on vacation. It was in Toronto, the place where the vast majority of Iraq war resisters have come to crash since 2004, that he finally requested refugee status.
Chuck Wiley and Joshua Key assert they have chosen Canada because they can speak their own language here. “It’s easier to melt into the landscape in Canada than in Mexico,” says Chuck Wiley.
But the two men also had the Vietnam War era (1965-1973) in mind, when Canada received 50,000 American deserters. In 1969, Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau declared that Canada “is a refuge against militarism” and granted conscientious objectors permanent resident status.
But the times have changed, beginning with the color of the Ottawa government. The Conservatives maintain that deserters are not persecuted in the United States and that there’s no reason to grant them authorization to stay in Canada. Immigration Minister Diane Finley asserts that, “Canadians want a system that helps real refugees.”
The American Army has also become a volunteer army, and conscription is no longer in force. Before becoming soldiers, they should have considered the consequences of their acts, say those who oppose governmental intervention.
An argument Michelle Robidoux rejects. “Most enlisted before the war in Iraq and wanted to remain in the Army until this conflict arose. But they were lied to about the reasons for that war, as the American people were lied to and they have been forced to go to Iraq.”
The Judges Say No
Consequently, the resisters have addressed themselves to the courts, but without success. All judgments have been unfavorable to them and the Supreme Court has refused to hear their case. Toronto lawyer Jeffry House, himself a former Vietnam War deserter in Canada, is busy with the cases of 35 resisters.
“Since the beginning of the trials in 2004, the judges have found the argument that the war is illegal and immoral unacceptable per se,” explains Jeffry House. “The judges assert that it’s not within their purview to decide whether United States foreign policy is acceptable. In short, they tell us, it’s a political debate, not a legal one. Our only hope at this point is that the federal government does an about-face.”
Not one of the American deserters in Canada mentioned the conflict in Afghanistan as a motive for their defection. “The arguments that we are raising before the courts concern Iraq and do not apply to Afghanistan, which is a war approved by the UN,” Jeffry House explains. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist camps were in Afghanistan, so the American deserters do not generally have a problem with that conflict.”
The debate moved onto political terrain yesterday. Under the initiative of the New Democratic Party, the three opposition parties asked the government to allow “conscientious objectors who refuse military service or who have left the armed forces to avoid participating in a war not approved by the United Nations […] to request permanent resident status and remain in Canada.” The non-binding motion passed with 137 votes versus 110. The Conservative Party opposed it.
Eight deserters have exhausted all legal recourse and are waiting for completion of the investigation of their risks, the last bureaucratic stage before expulsion. At this point, 98 percent of people are sent back.
“Minister Finley can still intervene. We hope the Harper government will change its mind,” says Michelle Robidoux.