Walking away from war

Brian Jones
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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The word “deserters” is an outdated throwback to a bygone era, like “trench warfare” or “cavalry charge.”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.”

Saying no

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.

Learning lessons

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 bjones@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Canadian Press, The Telegram

Geographic location: Canada, Iraq, Afghanistan U.S. Vietnam

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Recent comments

  • Lee Zaslofsky
    August 08, 2010 - 16:13

    As a deserter from the US Army during the Vietnam War, I was welcomed when I came to Canada in 1970 because I could not in good conscience take part in an immoral, futile, aggressive war. The Iraq War is just such a war. It was started on the basis of lies, waged with cruel tactics that wrecked the country it was supposed to help. In the US, most people join the military not out of a desire to fight, but from simple economic necessity or a desire to get an education closed to them because of high costs. Many join to get health care for their families, which they cannot afford in civilian life. Some people seem to think that soldiers are just robots. you point them in the right direction and press the button, and off they go, This is demeaning and false. Soldiers are capable of seeing through the lies, they can't ignore the suffering their actions cause. Too many of them become burdened with PTSD, too many become suicidal because of this. Canada was right to stay out of Iraq. The war resisters have taken the Canadian view of that war. Now they need a chance to live in peace in Canada. Let's welcome them, as I and so many others were welcomed during Vietnam.

  • Ed
    August 07, 2010 - 06:11

    That is part of what you sign up for when you "volunteer" for the armed forces. It is not "just" another job. No more than being a policeman, fireman etc is just another job, when you sign up you agree to take the risk that the job has inherent in it. If you don't like that - don't join, these jobs are all voluntary. Having said that we should as taxpayers pay these people well and take good care of them. They are the one's we call on the expect to show up when we are in trouble.

    • Carole S.
      August 09, 2010 - 06:48

      At least with the police or fire departments you can resign and you are *expected* to refuse to participate in illegal activities and report them.

  • Eugene from Town
    August 06, 2010 - 08:53

    Go halfway around the world to fight proxy wars that seek to destabilize entire regions and try convincing your citizens, and those charged with doing the killing and dying, that it is all an effort to promote 'democracy' and 'human rights'. Ask the Iraqi children growing up (if they are lucky[?] enough) under occupation and constant threat how they enjoy their 'democracy'. The former regime may have been flawed (even deeply) but still offered stability and more freedom than our 'friends' in Saudi Arabia. Objectors to these neo-imperialist ventures, within the armed forces, are some of the most admirable people to poke their heads out of these quagmires. I think we owe them some assistance toward seeing that those heads remain united with the rest of their bodies.

    • Ed
      August 07, 2010 - 05:24

      Who in Iraq would you ask? The Kurds? The Shiites? The only group that "might" agree with you would be the Sunni minority because they were much better off then the others and effectively controlled much of the government..

  • Politically Incorrect
    August 06, 2010 - 08:03

    So, rather than participate in a theatre where NATO atrocities against civilians are commonplace and increasingly common knowledge throughout MOST of the world (thanks Wiki leaks), these soldiers are following their consciences and refusing to participate in potential criminal activities. At least if, hypothetically, the chief architects of this violence were brought to Nuremburg-style justice, these ex-soldiers wouldn’t have to claim that, as accomplices, they were "just following orders." At one time Canada was considered a progressive, civilised society, now we’re just a pathetic lapdog to US imperialist policies.