(By Vince Beiser, originally published in the LA Weekly)
On the night of January 2, 2004, Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper with the United States Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division, loaded his wife, their 1-year-old son and some clothes into his Chevy Prizm, drove out the gates of his base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and fled the country. The family barreled north for 17 hours and crossed into Canada the next day, posing as tourists.
“Once we were across the border, it was a load off my mind,” says Hinzman. “Though I knew it would be the beginning of a whole new chapter.”
That day, Hinzman left his life in America behind, perhaps for good. He had become a deserter from the U.S. military — a crime punishable by prison, or even death.
Just a couple of weeks before he bolted, Hinzman had learned that his unit was to be shipped off to Iraq. He’d already spent eight dispiriting months in Afghanistan — and more important, he had become convinced that Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unjustified attack aimed more at gaining control of foreign oil fields than defending the United States.
“This is a criminal war, and I’m not going to be part of it,” says Hinzman, 24, a rail-thin native of South Dakota with close-cropped hair and a purposeful expression on his angular face. “My wife and I wrestled with what to do — go the martyr route and go to prison, or leave the country. Prison could have meant a long sentence, and I’ve already spent enough time away from my family.” So the Hinzmans now live in a basement apartment in central Toronto, surviving off their savings and waiting for the Canadian government to decide what to do with them.
It may be premature at this point to call Iraq America’s new Vietnam, but it’s also getting harder to ignore the symptoms of that ill-fated conflict that are presenting themselves anew. One of the least noticed is the growing numbers of GIs who are either refusing to fight or who are having increasing doubts about doing so. Some are acting out of principle, others perhaps out of fear, many undoubtedly out of a combination of both. But they seem to agree with Hinzman on one thing: The war the Bush administration started in Iraq is not worth dying for.
At least three other American soldiers besides Hinzman have fled to Canada to avoid being sent to Iraq. A handful of others have been jailed for refusing to go; just this August, police in Rhode Island nabbed an Army recruit who ran off his base when he learned that he would be sent to Iraq as soon as his basic training was complete. There are certainly more who are quietly looking for a way out. According to the Army’s own statistics, the number of soldiers applying for conscientious-objector status is running double its prewar levels. Hinzman’s lawyer, Jeffry House, says about 60 GIs have contacted him about the prospects of finding refuge in Canada as deserters. And the GI Rights Hotline, a volunteer network that counsels soldiers considering leaving the military, is currently logging nearly 3,000 calls a month, almost twice the number that were coming in before the war.
“It’s been crazy,” says Hotline spokesman Bill Galvin. Calls are pouring in both from reservists who are afraid they’ll be called up and torn away from their families and jobs, and from active-duty servicemen and women. “We hear from a lot of people who have already served in Afghanistan or Iraq, saying they’ll go to jail before they’ll go back,” says Galvin.
Theoretically, deserters in wartime can be punished with execution. But in practice, that hasn’t happened since World War II. A long stretch in a military prison, however, is a real possibility. Camilo Mejia found that out the hard way.
Mejia, who emigrated from Nicaragua with his mother to Florida in 1994, joined the Army a year later at the age of 19. A Burger King cashier at the time, he was enticed — like many recruits — by the military’s offer to help pay for college. After his initial three-year stint, he stayed on with the Florida National Guard while he went to school. He was just finishing up a degree in psychology and Spanish in the spring of 2003 when his unit was ordered to Iraq.
For six months, Mejia led a squad in the volatile Sunni Triangle town of Ramadi, surviving roadside bombs, firefights and ambushes. But he also saw civilians — including children — killed by U.S. fire, and prisoners being cruelly abused, even before news of Abu Ghraib hit the headlines. In October, he was allowed home on a two-week furlough — and refused to go back. Instead, he began speaking out to the press, declaring his conscience would not let him return to fight what he called an “oil-driven war.”
“I cannot say that I [went to war] to help the Iraqi people. I cannot say that it was to make America and the world safer. I cannot say that it was for democracy. I cannot say that it was to prevent terrorism. I could not find a single good reason for having been there and having shot at people and having been shot at,” Mejia told 60 Minutes late last year. Shortly thereafter, he turned himself in.
At his desertion trial in May, he was unrepentant. “Putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being,” he declared. Unimpressed, the tribunal stripped him of his rank and sentenced him to one year behind bars in an Army brig in Oklahoma. His case has drawn the support of Vietnam-era luminaries including Daniel Ellsberg, and Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.
From his cell, Mejia has applied to be reclassified as a conscientious objector, which the military defines as someone whose beliefs don’t allow him or her to kill other human beings and is therefore excused from duty. It may seem odd that anyone choosing to join today’s volunteer armed forces would have such beliefs, or would be able to get a discharge because of them. But even the Pentagon recognizes that people change, especially under the stress of combat. It’s one thing to think you’re prepared to kill when you’re just pretending to do it in video games or training exercises; it’s another when, like Mejia, you’re confronted with real human beings blasted into gory shreds as a result of your actions.
David Sanders had never even heard of conscientious objection until he had already run off his Navy base in Florida and wound up in Canada. A skittish, doe-eyed, acne-ravaged 20-year-old, Sanders enlisted to get money for college — something he couldn’t afford as a high school dropout working at a pizza parlor in Bullhead City, Arizona. “I’m not a violent guy. I hate guns. I’ve never been in a fight in my life,” he says. When word came early this year that his unit was to be sent to Iraq, he simply walked off the base and got on a bus to Toronto. He’d never been out of the country before and knew no one in Canada’s biggest city, but had heard it was a nice place. He wound up on the streets, too frightened of being deported to tell anyone what he was doing there until he contacted House this summer after reading about Hinzman’s case in a local newspaper. “I don’t want to kill innocent people, and I believe that’s what I’d be doing if I’d stayed,” he says, his leg vibrating nervously as we talk in a tiny office in the homeless shelter where he’s been staying.
Some Iraq War deserters, however, would have no problem killing and risking their lives for their country — they just don’t believe that this war has anything to do with keeping America safe. Daniel Felushko, 23, who drove off his California Marine Corps base bound for Canada just before the Iraq War started, looks like the kind of Marine you see in the movies: a solidly built, wide-bodied guy with buzz-cut blond hair and a sunny farm boy’s demeanor. Nursing a beer in downtown Toronto, he’s wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt that says, “It’s All Good.”
Felushko says he decided to run as soon as word came down that his unit would be sent to Iraq. “If it had been Afghanistan, I would have gone, because there was a direct relationship with 9/11, between the Taliban and terror,” he says. “But beyond Saddam and Bush’s grudge, there’s no reason for us to go to Iraq. If I’m going to give my life, that’s not a good enough reason.”
Brandon Hughey, a 19-year-old Texan who deserted from the Army earlier this year and is now being sheltered by a Quaker couple in the town of St. Catharines, Ontario, has a similar take. “If enemy troops were landing on our shores, I’d pick up a rifle and defend home and family,” he says. “But this was an act of aggression, not defense.”
The number of Iraq War deserters is so far relatively small — certainly compared to the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands headed for Canada to duck the draft. Some 1,076 grunts deserted the Army in the first three months of this year — a rate only slightly higher than that in 2002, before the war began. Army soldiers make up the vast majority of all American military personnel in Iraq, with Marines constituting most of the rest.
“AWOL [going absent without leave] and desertion are self-centered acts that not only affect the soldier but also in a time of war may put other soldiers’ lives at risk,” says Army spokesperson Major Shawn Jirik. But, he adds, the brass isn’t concerned about current desertion levels. “The overwhelming majority of our soldiers are serving their country admirably,” she says. “We’re looking at relatively minute numbers of deserters, less than 1 percent of the total. I can’t imagine it’s going to increase dramatically. I think if people were going to walk, they would have done so already. ”
But as the daily drip of U.S. casualties continues unabated, it certainly seems possible that more soldiers will get the urge to walk, if not run. In a survey of soldiers serving in Iraq released by the Army itself last March, more than half of those questioned said their own morale was low or very low, and nearly three-quarters said the same of their unit’s morale. A poll last year by Stars and Stripes, the semiofficial armed-forces newspaper, reported that 31 percent of responding soldiers in Iraq thought the war there was of little or no value. Considering also that many of those currently serving in Iraq are being kept there on extended tours of duty, it’s likely some of them may decide to go AWOL once they’re finally allowed back stateside.
Meanwhile, the first waves of Iraq War veterans have begun returning home — and some of them are deeply disillusioned. Early this summer, Michael Hoffman, a 25-year-old former Marine, founded Iraq Veterans Against the War — a group of some two dozen service members whose name speaks for itself. “We were given three reasons for this war: weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s support of terror and Iraqi democracy,” says Hoffman, who fought with an artillery unit in the initial invasion. “All three have fallen through. Eventually you start to put two and two together, and you realize that you’re there for oil and companies like Halliburton. People are starting to figure it out. There will inevitably be more deserters. We’re set on the same course as Vietnam if this continues.”
Hoffman himself is still in the Individual Ready Reserve, meaning he could be called back to duty. What will he do if that happens? “I have my own free will” is all he’s willing to say. His caution is understandable: The Marine Corps announced in July that it has opened an investigation of Lance Corporal Abdul Henderson, the Marine reservist who appears in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 declaring that he won’t go to Iraq if his unit is called up. The Army is already having enough trouble keeping its ranks filled. In August, it announced plans to put hundreds of new recruiters to work around the country, and jacked up the cash bonuses offered to those they sign up, in an effort to boost enlistment for the increasingly unattractive job of soldiering.
Outspoken deserters like Hinzman and Mejia have become heroes to the anti-war movement, but they have plenty of critics, to put it mildly. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has several times threatened to launch a boycott of Canadian goods if Ottawa doesn’t send the deserters back to face trial. Hinzman keeps a collection of some of the most lurid hate mail he has received via his Web site. Sample sentiment, sent in by former Marine Corporal Mike Chappina: “If you’re ever in New York, please let me know, so I can punch a fuckin’ screwdriver through your eyes, you pile of garbage.”
A constant theme of the abuse, of course, is the charge of cowardice. Admittedly, it’s a little tough to picture Hinzman as a rough-and-ready paratrooper. Deeply earnest and given to grad-schoolish digressions on political and social theory, he’s wearing green corduroys, sandals and a blue track jacket as he sips a smoothie at a sidewalk café.
But he bridles at the accusation of cowardice. “It’s not a matter of fear, though of course there’s some,” he says. He never saw combat in Afghanistan — he spent his tour doing kitchen work on a base near Kandahar — but, he says, “I’ve jumped out of planes, done all kinds of wazoo stuff. If my unit called me tomorrow and said, ‘Come to Iraq, you can do nonviolent stuff, carry supplies, be a human shield,’ I’d do it in a minute. I’d have problems supporting the war, but I’d do it, as long as I’m not shooting people.”
Hinzman, Sanders and Hughey have all applied for refugee status to enable them to stay in Canada. (Felushko is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, and so can stay in the Great White North without trouble; he just can’t go back to the U.S.) Under Canadian immigration law, that requires proving that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if they are sent back to the their home country. Jeffry House, who is representing all three — and who was himself a Vietnam-era draft dodger — is arguing that the legal punishment they would face for deserting amounts to persecution for their political beliefs. Even he admits it’s a long shot. “There’s a lot of resistance to the idea that anyone can be a refugee from the United States,” he says. But the legal proceedings could drag on for years, and since desertion is not an extraditable offense, his clients are safe for some time.
Their choice, however, does mean they are cut off from family and friends in the U.S. for many years to come. “I won’t be able to go to my grandmother’s funeral when she dies, or to my sister’s wedding,” says Hinzman. “That’s the hardest consequence of all this.” He wishes his former comrades in the 82nd Airborne well, he says, and wouldn’t preach to them to follow his example. “It’s a very personal decision,” he says. “But if I’m going to commit to killing people, there had better be a good reason. Not for the right of someone to drive an SUV with cheap gas.”