The number of soldiers deserting the U.S. Army is rising. A defense lawyer discusses what they’re saying about leaving their posts-and whether they’re likely to find sanctuary in Canada.
By Sarah Childress, Newsweek
March 27, 2007 – Why are so many soldiers deserting their posts? This week, the Army announced that 3,301 active-duty soldiers had deserted the Army in 2006— over 800 more than had been previously reported. (The initial figure, the Army said, had been tallied incorrectly.) It’s hardly at Vietnam-era levels, but it’s still a significant number given that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are being fought by an all-volunteer military.
From the American Revolution through World War II, U.S. Army deserters, defined as those who abandoned their posts without permission for at least 30 days, faced harsh penalties if they were caught. Death is still the maximum penalty for deserting in wartime, but no one’s been executed for leaving the current conflicts. They’re more likely to face up to five years in jail and a dishonorable discharge or another deployment into a combat zone, as commanders are more focused on filling their ranks than punishing prodigals. Still, the 101 convictions last year were at the highest they’ve been in nearly a decade. “It’s a more serious offense during a time of war,” says spokesman Robert Tallman in an e-mail. “A soldier who deserts the Army and thus his or her fellow soldiers, has a negative impact on unit readiness and morale.”
Today’s deserters are different than their conscripted counterparts from previous wars. According to Jeffry House, one of the most well-known defense lawyers for these cases, the troops usually have served a term or two in Iraq and Afghanistan already, and don’t want to go back. A Vietnam-era draft-dodger now living in Toronto, House currently represents over 30 American military personnel who are seeking refugee status in Canada to escape prosecution for desertion. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Sarah Childress in between cases. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why are so many soldiers deserting?
Jeffry House: The common idea is that the war in Iraq is going nowhere, and it’s bogus, as I’ve been told [by soldiers] many times. In other words, there was no justifiable reason to attack Iraq in the first place. People are now telling me stuff like, “We clear out a section of Baghdad, hand it over to the government, and the next day 70 bodies would appear.” They feel like they’re helping the Iraqi government, which [they feel] actually is a bunch of death squads in disguise. So they begin to feel responsible. People can’t justify to their own selves what they’re doing there, it just seems wrong, wrong, wrong to them. I have a couple of guys who actually finished a six-year commitment. They were given an honorable discharge. They got nice medals and a nice party, and when they drive up in their driveway at home there’s somebody giving them a stop-loss document, which means you’re back in [the service] at the [military’s] pleasure. People are very disheartened.
Have you been seeing more since the war began?
We did have a surge at the same time that President Bush announced his surge [in troop numbers]. We had 15 within two weeks. I’d say it’s just steady. I wouldn’t say it’s gone up. The raw number goes up but that doesn’t mean that we’re getting vast new flows.
The soldiers who flee to Canada claim refugee status. What’s the argument there?
They’re arguing that it is persecutory—it is persecution—for them to be jailed for refusal to serve in Iraq. That is so if either the war itself is illegal—that’s our argument—or if they’ve come too close to violations of the Geneva Conventions. Joshua Key [one of the deserters], in his testimony, he said they were raiding houses at night, they’d take all men over five feet tall, hood them, handcuff them and throw them on a truck. They’d be taken to Abu Ghraib prison or Camp Bucca and never be heard from again.
Have any of these soldiers tried to claim conscientious objector status?
It is possible to claim conscientious objector status. Unfortunately the way the U.S. system works, it depends in part on the army’s manpower needs. If you read the actual policy, it says at the very end, subject to needs for soldiers. Now they have this incredible need for soldiers… The other thing is the conscientious objectors have to object to all wars. If your real objection is to this war—say you’re somebody who’s served in Baghdad—you’re really not objecting to all wars.
What’s your sense of what these soldiers are going through mentally?
It’s very wrenching for them. A lot of them had a certain concept of what a soldier is, and that concept has been blown sky high. I have one fellow here who was educated at the Citadel [military school.] He says when he went overseas to Afghanistan, he was given an axe handle and told to beat prisoners. [His commanders told him,] ‘These guys caused 9/11, so don’t hit them in the back of the head ’cause you’ll kill them, but give ’em a good beating.’ It’s contrary to any traditional understanding of what a soldier is supposed to do. It ruins their mental image of themselves. They no longer know who they are because they had some idea that they were going to fight for truth, justice and the American way.
What happens when a soldier asks you to defend him?
I’d like to know why. If they tell me, “I’m now opposed to all wars,” I tell them they do have a possibility of making that claim in the U.S. and should make that claim there, as a first step. If they say, I’ve been too close to war crimes, I feel like I’m a war criminal, I’ve seen too many things and I feel the war is illegal, I’ll say many people are making refugee claims. We’ll see how that goes. I tell them I can probably assure them a number of years here, and at the end of that process I believe we have the stronger argument, but it’ll be determined by the Supreme Court of Canada. It’s a hard decision for lower courts to make, to say, “Yep, the war in Iraq is illegal so therefore, all American soldiers can come here.” They seem to be hesitant to make that call. We often talk about other possibilities. Some people do university educations that will keep them here for four years. Others try to get work permits, which are harder to get but if you have a specific skill you can get them. Some have married Canadians. I believe a chunk are just here illegally. The reality is that it’s quite easy to meld into the background in Canada if you’re white, English speaking from birth. This is all illegal and I’m not saying I’m telling them to do this, but it’s openly known.
You’re waiting for an appeals court ruling on two cases right now. Do you think you can win by arguing that the war is illegal?
I believe everyone will eventually stay [in Canada] if they want to. It’s certainly not 100 percent, and I tell people that. Right now it’s being done through the courts, and if they can’t decide whether the war in Iraq is illegal or not, I think it will become a political issue. We’ll see who wants to be saddled with the burden of being a George Bush supporter. I don’t think too many of our politicians are comfortable with that.
So if you succeed, any American soldier could be granted refugee status in Canada.
That’s their fear. That’s why the lower courts have been dancing around the issue. I would think you’d have to establish some basis to show that you actually thought the war was illegal. You’d have to show, in the same way a conscientious objector has to show a history of conscientious objection. Obviously it would open the door to a lot more people.
What happens if you lose?
If we can’t make the argument legally then it’ll be a political argument and that depends on the politics of the day. Right now we have a minority conservative government but they’re trying to distance themselves from the U.S. conservative government, so it’s an open question what they would do… Losing your refugee case does not necessarily mean you’ll be removed from Canada.