Gimme Shelter

U.S. military deserters once again flock to Canada to avoid war. Looks like this time they picked the wrong country.

On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustached 60-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, "Stop the deportations now" and "War resisters welcome here." Another advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the flyers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and 1-year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada.

The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant, keeping tabs on one another's court cases, and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent email from a soldier at Fort Knox.

"I've been having some problems with what my military does, and while I've put in for conscientious objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot," the soldier writes. "I can't talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I'm trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it's advisable to do this."

Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq war deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto.
Ian Willms
Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq war deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto.
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters.
Ian Willms
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters.

Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?

"I'll advise him to call," he says. "You never give up hope. We're not discouraged; we're angry." Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here. This isn't how Canada is supposed to be."

The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. He reported for basic training, but when news of the My Lai massacre broke, he asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the slaughter of more than 300 unarmed civilians. "In war, bad things happen," he recalls the man telling him. In January 1970, he drove into Canada. While President Richard Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the antiwar protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcomed American deserters by the thousands.

It's unclear whether today's deserters will be affected by the fact that President Obama says the Iraq War is illegal. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement, says Obama is unlikely to make war deserters a priority. "I can't imagine he'd consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term," Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters, it remains a crime to desert one's comrades in a time of war.

Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, says desertion constitutes a punishable crime for good reason. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that in a time of war put other soldiers' lives at risk," he says. "Not only do these crimes go against Army values, they degrade unit readiness." Hall questions why soldiers would enlist voluntarily and desert only after receiving orders to deploy.

The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam were running from a compulsory draft while today's deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans. Rivera has been called a "parasite" and a "traitor" in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States that call the recent deserters "pussies" and "cowards."

Yet Zunes and other sociologists point out that many of the Iraq War deserters come from impoverished backgrounds. "What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," Zunes says, "a lot of people from rural areas or inner cities who simply don't have job opportunities or money for college, and the Army promises that."

Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. Take Joshua Key, who lived in a mobile home in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, the 30-year-old grew up admiring his grandfather who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later, he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and children on his earnings from KFC. He recalls his wife saying, "You get 'em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it's a kid. They're terrorists too." Key never dreamed that after a tour in Iraq, he'd be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter's Tale, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill.

Ryan Johnson, a slight, bearded 25-year-old from California's Central Valley who looks more like an organic farmer than a soldier, says he enlisted because he was tired of working factory jobs at places like Frito-Lay and couldn't afford college. His mother, a homemaker, and his stepfather, a UPS driver, kept yellow ribbon bumper stickers on their cars and voted Republican.

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