Thursday, May 3, 2007

If Only They’d Known

Salon.com has a piece by Gregory Levey about soldiers who go AWOL and end up in Canada. They may think that they are out of reach of U.S. law, but some law enforcement officers, including some Canadians, are making it tough for them.

With the Iraq war in its fifth year, an increasing number of American soldiers have been going AWOL and fleeing to Canada, particularly over the last six months. One lawyer who works on their behalf puts the number of American war resisters currently living in Canada at 250 or more. Advocates for them here talk of a kind of “underground railroad” that has developed south of the border to help war resisters make their way north.

Ever since the Vietnam War, many Americans have viewed Canada as a liberal oasis, ready to welcome those who no longer want to take part in Uncle Sam’s wars. But the reality is more complicated these days, especially with the conservative Harper government in power since 2006. Although the Canadian people are still largely welcoming, some war resisters say they have faced hostility here. And all of them who are seeking refugee status to remain in the country face complex legal obstacles, according to experts on Canada’s refugee laws. Meanwhile, the alleged cooperation between Canadian and U.S. law enforcement authorities to track them down raises thorny legal questions of its own.

Speaking by phone recently from an undisclosed location in the Canadian prairies, Key told Salon that he generally feels safe in Canada, although he said one person threatened to “put him on a boat and take him back to the U.S.” and another told him that his daughter “deserved to be shot in the head.” He said that he was unnerved after he heard about Snyder’s arrest in B.C. in February. “After what I saw in Iraq,” he said, “I know that a snatch-and-grab operation doesn’t take long.”

It would be illegal under Canadian law for U.S. officials to make an arrest on Canadian soil, according to Audrey Macklin, a professor at the University of Toronto Law School. “U.S. law enforcement officers have no jurisdiction here,” she said. The picture gets murkier, however, with the prospect of Canadian police working on behalf of U.S. officials. “Sometimes officials cooperate in cross-border criminal investigations,” Macklin said. But the incidents involving Snyder and Key, she said, didn’t strike her as typical cross-border cooperation. “It’s sheer conjecture on my part, but I do wonder if it is more about intimidation.”

For those of us who were of draft age during the Vietnam war and were opposed to the war, and certainly for those of us who grew up near the Canadian border, the lure of making the trip across the Ambassador Bridge was tempting if that letter from Selective Service arrived. I knew of several people who made the trip, and it was not an easy choice for them to make. Giving up home and country and moving to a foreign land, even if it was remarkably similar and welcoming, was a frightening thought, especially when there was, at the time, no likelihood that they could return without the possibility of being arrested hanging over them. But they believed that it was more important for them to avoid involuntary service in a war that they didn’t believe in, and they made the choice to go when they felt that they did not have the option. The liberal government of Pierre Trudeau eased the transition to Canadian citizenship, and at least one of my acquaintances has never looked back in spite of the amnesties granted by Presidents Ford and Carter. He has a life, a family, and a country that chooses its battles carefully.

These soldiers today face a different world. First, they volunteered to serve; they made the conscious choice to put on the uniform. And while I fully support the idea of being a conscientious objector — I was one and still am — making the transition to C.O. status or going AWOL after joining up begs the question: if you object to the war in Iraq, why did you join up in the first place?

There could be a lot of reasons. For many young men, the military provides the only opportunity for advancing their education. There’s also the sense of duty and patriotism that honestly comes from the heart, and serving in the military is a part of that as well. However, there is also the stark reality that the mission of the military is to defend the country — either reactively or preemptive — by means of force. That, apparently, was not taken into account when they took the oath.

But it’s not like they were told what really would happen when they enlisted. Recruiting has become a Madison Avenue sell job that is impressive in its ability to hit all the right notes that appeal to their target: the testosterone-laden 18-25 year-old males. The Army is running a commercial on Spike TV where two young men are playing a video game and one of the soldiers inside the game taps on the screen and says “You two look like you’re ready for real action.” Aside from the borderline rough trade gay porn aspects, the ad is creepy in that it implies that killing is just a game and you can always hit the Reset button. There are no pictures of the wounded soldiers lying in their own feces at Walter Reed, put there because they were ill-equipped to go to war. There are no pictures of the car bombs that are exploding every day and the Americans caught in the cross-fire of the civil war between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. And there is no chart that shows that the number of soldiers being sent back to Iraq for their fourth or fifth tour who are not combat ready.

If the soldiers who have gone to Canada had known what they were getting into, would they have still signed up? Are they allowed to have a change of heart and an awakening of their conscience once they have seen the harsh reality? (Apparently our culture of violence — TV and video games — doesn’t truly reflect that. What a shock.) Each one has a different answer. But it’s not a heck of a lot different than the same question being asked of presidential candidates, especially those who were in the House or Senate when the vote to go war in Iraq was taken in 2002: if you knew then what you know now, what choice would you have made? Both must answer for their choices, and it tells us a lot about them in their answers.