A headline this week was somewhat jarring. It read, “Canada moves to be less inviting to U.S. military deserters.”
The story was about the federal government making it more difficult for American soldiers to seek refuge in Canada to avoid fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.
According to The Canadian Press, “There are up to 40 self-styled war resisters in Canada, according to figures from a support network. How many of them are actual deserters is not clear.”
The word “deserters” is an outdated throwback to a bygone era, like “trench warfare” or “cavalry charge.”
Imagine this version of the headline: “Canada moves to be less inviting to soldiers who flee trench warfare.”
As is commonly said, our society’s technological advances far outstrip social advances. Many of the weapons used in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t exist a generation ago. Unmanned drones and satellite tracking didn’t play a role in the Vietnam War.
Yet we cling to generations-old concepts such as “military desertion.”
The easy and superficial response to American soldiers seeking refuge in Canada is to say we can’t, or shouldn’t, let them stay because the U.S. is our ally. Sheltering an ally’s soldiers who don’t want to fight seems incongruous — refugees usually come from repressive countries, not from states holding themselves up as beacons of freedom.
But far more incongruous and nonsensical is the fact that the people doing the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq — ostensibly in defence and promotion of freedom and democracy — are denied a fundamental personal freedom. They are not allowed to say, “I quit.”
Of course, to paraphrase the old military recruiting slogan, it’s not just a job. But if the adventure — or the venture — doesn’t meet a soldier’s expectations or approval, they’re trapped and are forced to fight anyway.
Conscientious objection, based on religious or moral grounds, gives soldiers some leeway. But that is different from a right to quit. We have yet to read about a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan or an American soldier in Iraq who has declared to a superior officer, “Sir, this war is a futile quagmire. I quit.”
Supporters of those two wars might be inclined to repeat the banal assertions of various generals and politicians that military members fully support the war effort. Some of them probably do. Maybe most of them do. But there are likely a few who don’t. The irony is that they’re supposedly fighting for freedom and democracy, but they don’t have the freedom to walk away from it.
Supporters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars hate any mention of Vietnam. Comparisons to that war are invalid, they say — more strenuously if the word “quagmire” is involved.
For one thing, their line of argument goes, soldiers are fully behind today’s war efforts — it’s not like in the 1960s and ’70s, when thousands of young Americans fled to Canada to avoid military service. Today, they are a mere handful.
But an essential difference is the U.S. government used conscription during the Vietnam War. Those young men who fled to Canada were draft dodgers who refused to be forced to fight.
Forty years later, they can provide us with an instructive lesson.
Imagine for a moment that the federal government announced it was instituting conscription to draft young Canadians into the military to serve in Afghanistan. Imagine that the U.S. government announced it was bringing back conscription to draft young Americans into the military to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Envision the public response. Support for those futile wars would drop faster than Rick Hillier could say, “Scumbags.”
The war resisters, whether American or Canadian, are absolutely right, even if the generals say they can’t quit.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.