(By Nelson Wyatt, originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard (Ontario) September 5 2006)
Kyle Snyder just wants to live like a regular 22-year-old.
But right now he's fighting to gain asylum in Canada after deserting from the U.S. military in Iraq because he felt he was fighting an unjust war.
"I would rather take jail than go back to Iraq and fight for something that I don't believe in," he said in a telephone interview from Alberta where he is awaiting his first refugee board hearing.
"If I could avoid jail, that's what I'm going to do and I'm going to do whatever it takes to do that."
Snyder is one of the deserters profiled in Breaking Ranks, a new documentary by Vancouver-based filmmaker Michelle Mason, which looks at the lives of four Iraq war resisters who want to be taken in by Canada.
The film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and will be shown in Calgary and Vancouver before being broadcast on Global TV on Oct. 7.
Mason got the idea for the documentary while promoting her last film The Friendship Village, which was an account of reconciliation between American and Vietnamese veterans.
She had planned to do a film about draft dodgers in the Vietnam War but that project was turned on its head when Jeremy Hinzman became the first deserter from Iraq to seek refugee status in Canada in 2004, just as she began her research.
"I realized that was the story to pursue," she said.
Hinzman is also profiled in her film along with Snyder and fellow deserters Joshua Key and Brandon Hughey.
During the year that she followed the four men around with her camera crew, Mason found that things have changed since Canada welcomed tens of thousands of draft dodgers and deserters during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s.
Opinions may be just as polarized over Iraq as they were over Vietnam but immigration rules are tighter and Canada has troops backing U.S. forces in Afghanistan, making the crisis of conscience of deserters a black and white issue to some.
While the political element is key to Mason's film, its main objective is to put a human face on the war resisters.
"It seemed like the best way through was really just to tell their story in their words and kind of leave it to the audiences to determine what they thought about it all," said Mason.
Snyder was trained as a landscaper after a troubled and abusive childhood that landed him in foster care. After completing his high- school equivalency, he was recruited for the U.S. army, which he thought would have him serving in the engineers as a heavy construction equipment operator.
"I originally joined because I wanted to start a family, I wanted to basically start a life," he said.
"I couldn't start a life in the military. I wanted to reconstruct roads, I wanted to build foundations for the country that we had bombed and it was nothing like that.
"I always tell people if I wanted to be an infantryman, I would have signed up as an infantryman."
Instead of driving bulldozers, Snyder found himself behind a .50- calibre machine-gun in the turret of a Humvee.
Snyder said he heard fellow troops raising questions about the war as he headed to Iraq in 2005 and said when he got there he found a bunch of twentysomethings who didn't know why they were there or what they were supposed to do.
Those questions deepened when the soldiers found themselves fighting heavily armed teenagers or people Snyder described as protecting their homes against occupiers.
"Every time we were told to talk to the media or something like that we would have to tell them our mission in Iraq is to liberate the Iraqi people," he said. "It kind of got old, really old when you're explaining that to people and you don't really believe it yourself."
Snyder quoted Pentagon figures saying that about 40,000 of the United States' 200,000-person military have deserted.
Mason said people's views of why they serve their country is one of the key aspects in the film.
"We have a very altruistic notion of military service but what I found in the course of researching and making this film is that things aren't so cut and dried in terms of why people enlist to serve in the military," said the filmmaker whose husband was a conscientious objector during the Cold War. He was released from the U.S. military during troop reductions after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"The reality is that most of them come from poor and working class backgrounds and the military in the United States is really the only form of universal health care and education so that kind of starts to call into question the notion of the all-volunteer military."
Snyder, who says he has received support from some of the members of his unit, hopes to get other people to speak out against the war. And he denies he's a coward.
"I think everybody's scared out there," he said. "I would be lying to you if I said I wasn't scared. But the reason for me coming to Canada had nothing to do with that. I would be willing to fight in a different war if I believed in it."
And he can see the other side.
"I just want to show people that I'm a human being and I should be able to make moral decisions. Anybody should be able to make moral decisions.
"Basically all I'm trying to show people is, look, just because I don't believe what you believe doesn't mean I'm the scum of the earth."