Brassed Off: War Resisters In Toronto
Down in the basement of a typically plush Toronto public library, residents from the Davenport Neighbors for Peace group, several US soldiers that had jacked in active service and their partners gathered to sketch plans for their fight for sanctuary. A palpable disappointment dripped – really this was a meeting borne from desperation, some weeks prior the Canadian Supreme Court had rejected refugee status for American troops refusing to serve in Iraq.
One of those present, Kim Rivera, a red head in her early twenties, served in an Artillery unit in Baghdad from August 2006. Not long there she’d hear tales of gore, IED’s and guts through the combat zone grapevine. It wasn’t the “gory part of war” that changed her mind on the mission but the dehumanisation of Iraqi workers forced to etch out employment inside military compounds.
“We checked the vehicles, the civilian personal for things they couldn’t have, like audio players. Things you take for granted every day.”
She peppers her sentences with references to pacifism, all a total repudiation of her previous belief in just wars. Her direct experience of the quagmire of operation enduring freedom, makes it all the harder to endure the flag hugging jingoism back home.
“I could honestly say that I was a murderer. That’s the hardest thing to have in your psyche. When you come home they celebrate you and call you a hero – you hear it on the radio and they don’t even know what’s going on in your mind.”
After attending several pro-military events while on combat leave, she became wracked with depression, “I felt like a roller coaster going off its track, I would go up and come straight back down.”
So she made her decision to opt out of the war. Along with her partner she drove straight back to her home in Mississippi, packed her bags and decided to “leave everything we had established life upon.”
Her reasons for hitting the north could have been lifted from the Canadian cliches that pepper a Michael Moore script, she just felt it was a place where she could live out her life in “peace and happiness.”
Another of the Toronto based war resisters is Phil McDowell from Rhode Island. A former sergeant in the United States Army, he joined straight after the September 11th attacks during his senior year. As part of the First Cavalry division he served in Iraq from March 2004 to March 2005, after that tour he was discharged in June 2006.
Months later and mid-way through a “typical quarter life crisis traveling thing,” he got notification he was due to be snatched back for yet another deployment to Iraq under the Stop-Loss policy.
The notorious Stop Loss policy, designed to off set the ebb and flow of recruiting, allows the military to forcibly re-enlist soldiers or involuntarily extend their tour of duty in a war zone – its a virulent source of antagonism for soldiers.
His partner Jamie Aponte, dressed like any other professional in their mid-twenties, describes how her whole first generation American identity was based on loyalty to both regime and mission. That was until Phil was recalled.
Watching gnawing thoughts of a return to the desert devastate him, she came to realise “how worthless and insignificant the government views the people of the country, how it uses and recycles its soldiers – how it ignores its veterans.”
She breaks her sentences with gulps from a water bottle, it’s an attempt to wall back tears – a trick gleaned from more experienced public speakers, she explains. “The moment that I realized the government couldn’t care less about me or my family was quite a day for me” she says.
Phil and her “fumbled over the idea of coming to Canada until the last minute.” Originally it had started as a joke, something they’d tell people in work. But shortly after Phil’s return to his unit, they turned their back on the illegal war. He pegged it to Canada in October ’06 and she joined him just over a month later.
Someone in the front of the room asks “why the hell did they join the army in the first place?” A tattooed war resister, called Dale Landry is quick to pipe up – he’d probably come across as a bit of a nu-metal kid were it not for the United Food and Commercial Union shirt on his back.
“The only way you’ll get sound advice is if your dad is a lawyer and he goes to the recruiting office with you – but if your dad is a lawyer then why would you join the military?”
His point cuts to the core of a discourse on America’s social chasm that springs through a damn lot of what the war resisters have to say. Jill Hart, the wife of another war resister Patrick Hart has his back on it as well.
“Its like buying a car – no one reads the print at the bottom. Apparently within that it says that the US government can change it at any time they want. The recruiters just go ‘sign here and here – oh ignore that – that doesn’t apply to you.’”
Aside from policy around stop loss, people like Hart are pissed off with what they feel is a de facto economic draft. With recruiting costs around $15,000 per troop, the military hierarchy pushes its press gangers into areas where socio-economic background thwarts the ambitions of youth. They offer enticements like college money, scholar ships and career training – then there are benefits, like healthcare. Jill Hart knows all about that.
Her boyfriend Patrick had been in the military for three years, and opted for re-enlistment – getting routed to Fort Riley, right in the centre of Kansas – the middle of nowhere US. She’s full of cheer and sarcasm describing how “it just took for ever to get there – and then all of a sudden it came up, and there was all these fields and I thought “my god, what prison is that?”
She quickly became immersed in army culture, working as a conduit between army family members and the command structure as part of the Army Family Team Building programme.
“I was very surprised by some of the things that I was asked to do. What the army lacked as far as counseling younger soldiers. Several times I’d run into a situation where some one would enlist at 18, and they would get married right away and they come go to post and they had no idea, I’d have to show spouses how to write cheques and things like that.”
During that time they had a son called Brian, when he was almost 10 months old he had a seizure and was medi-vaced from the base to a children’s’ hospital about three and a half hours away.
“I was told on the tarmac, that I was luck – lucky- that my husband wasn’t in Iraq because you would have to have dog tags to fly in a military helicopter. So my response was ‘I’ll go to the mall and get some made.’ So they flew away and I drove like a lunatic and got there.”
Her husband was then deployed with the Iraqi build up, back home her son’s condition worsened with a string of seizures leaving him on drips in intensive care. She tried to keep the illness from her husband, “afraid that if he finds out that my son is in hospital or dead who knows? He’ll go and shoot himself to sent home” but word leaked through from the military.
“It became clearer to me still that the army would consistently fail me, but it didn’t matter because I believed in our solders and I believed in the president, and I really believed that somebody somewhere knew what they were doing.”
Jill imagines that her husband spent half of his tour of duty standing in line making phone calls to her, hinting that he wanted out of the military. “And I said you “have to re-enlist – we need the health care. What do we do if Brian has another seizure? How are we going to pay for it?”
When her husband disappeared on a weekend away, intuition told her he’d made it to Canada. She’d eventually follow on, disgusted by the military polices’ suggestion she tell her AWOL husband she’d been severely sexually assaulted and that he’d have to return to face punishment and care for the kid.
“I think the soldiers that came to Canada from the US because of this war are heroes. They are some of the bravest people I have ever met.”
The conversation soon moved from the stories of the war resisters and their partners to a discussion on tactics for the campaign. Most were gearing up for a road trip to Ottawa the next week, where a Citizenship and Immigration Committee were meeting, and the political route of getting that lot to side with war resisters was one of few left to the campaign.
If today’s discontent in the military is driven by the costs of Bush’s surge, a different surge went north during the Vietnam era. That was an era of mass immigration and by 1972 Canada’s Immigration Appeal Board faced a huge backlog. In a single weekend in October ’72, 4,500 arrived at Pearson airport seeking landed immigration status. To clear it, a Change of Status Program introduced an amnesty. About 28% of those that took it were in Canada illegally as Vietnam draft dodgers. Some of those military run aways are now offering support to this newer generation of war resisters.
One of them is Tom Riley, small and real quite, but still capable of a sharp joke – he almost blames me personally for his tomato faced Irish heritage. His partial timidity makes it dead awkward to pull a tape recorder on him as we do coffee, but I do. Later, I battle to hear his voice above the swirl of club hip-hop and radio friendly regaeton that sonically wall papers Portuguese joints near my neck of Bloor St.
He’d just returned from the immigration hearings in Ottawa, the stop lossed Philip McDowell, testified so powerfully that the committee voted for a recommendation orchestrated by the NDP’s Olivia Chow that the Canadian government come up with a program similar to the seventies to allow Iraq War resisters and families to stay.
Tom Riley’s story of coming to Canada as a political exile in the 1960′s, started with a visit to Toronto for university and the discovery he was eligible for citizenship through his father. Even if he used just his college network to help him settle, he couldn’t avoid coming across other draft dodgers.
“I’d run into people in bars and find out that that was the reason they had come up as well. They had great networks of people up here for finding houses and that.”
Once he made the decision to run out on his draft, he couldn’t return to the states for six years. “It was very hard for a lot of people because the FBI used to show up at people’s funerals to see if any of the draft dodgers or deserters would show up so they could nab them or whatever. I was like “wow” – that was pretty sad.”
The NY Times estimated that something like 25,000 war resisters are still in exile in Canada. Some like sci-fi don William Gibson are famous, others more occasionally still get arrested. A Richard Shields that went AWOL in 1972 from a base in Alaska was arrested in March 2000 crossing the border with a lumber truck, taken to a military base, given an “other than honorable” discharge and released.
Programmes were eventually established in the seventies to bandage over the effects of South East Asia’s war on the home front. One programme ran under Ford demanded alternative service and an oath of loyalty from draft dodgers. Later under Carter, a full blanket amnesty was given while military deserters could appeal for pardon.
Riley is aware of the differences of scale between today and then. “Compared to Vietnam it’s very small. We have about 45 resisters up here right now across the country. There could be a lot more underground that come up here but don’t want to be on the radar right now.”
Lobbying the opposition Liberals and gaining the support of his generation of political exiles may be key to the pressure required to force the legislative change needed at this stage, so he’s working on Theyletthemstay.ca a website aimed at awakening the memory of his own generation’s struggles.
“We’ve had a really hard time trying to tap into Vietnam deserters and resisters as I’m sure there must be a thousand or more around the Toronto area but we only get out about fifteen.”
If the war resisters are a strong public voice outside the US military, then a few well phrased Google searches returns a litany of similar dissent within it. As a result the command structure’s now much stricter on use of the net. Back in April Wired magazine obtained a copy of new rules governing “milBlogs.” Commanders now must be consulted before every posted update. Later in the summer sites like Myspace were banned to users of military networks.
The net is a terrain where the truth of war is most contested and also where serving troops that want to quit can come in touch with anti-war networks, as Riley explains.
“Basically we tell people they need to check out GI rights, that they need to make an informed decision and also we can’t counsel people to come up here. All we can do is tell them that if they make it here there is a group of people to help them.”
Yet even an anti-war optimist like David Ziger, award winning director of Sir, No Sir is skeptical of comparisons between Vietnam resistance and now. Over a Skype call he tells me back then there was over 300 anti-war GI papers circulating on the bases under the nose of command, with names like Last Harass, Fatigue and Open Sights. For him what’s happening on and off-line has yet to reach such critical mass.
“There’s this isolation to it because everyone is sitting at their terminal doing this. So far it hasn’t at least helped build that sense of an actual community of opposition. I think it is in a certain sense, but not in the sense of the physical opposition that it is going to take to really do something about the war. ”
Last year, Ronn Cantu gave a live phone interview to the massively syndicated radical online radio show Democracy Now. He’s currently on service in Baghdad, and at the heart of this most wired of wars he still manages to run an online gateway for dissident troops called Soldiersvoices. We entered into an exchange through Myspace, where he told me some of the consequences of speaking out on Democracy Now.
“I received a reprimand in the form of a Letter of Admonishment from my chain of command. He wanted to give me a harsher punishment, but the military lawyers had stated that I had done nothing wrong. As for possible consequences? During Vietnam, soldiers engaged in the same activity faced charges of mutiny and 30-year jail sentences.”
On the site he kept a section where he posted every bit of news he could find proving that 18-month extensions were coming. “The posts caught media attention and I was even credited anonymously with breaking the story of the “Second Surge” though that was as much a surprise to me as anyone.”
There are other sites like Vetvoices that are more patriot driven, dashed with anger over the lies sold to the American people by politicians, and scornful of what they call “chicken-hawks.” A mirror image of our war resisters, these are the civilian architects of war that avoid donning uniforms but daily play dice with the lives of troops for political capital.
Despite the technical language of “OPSEC violations,” when it comes to banning bloggers and social networking sites, Ronn tells me that “what the Army is really afraid of is blogs affecting public sentiment and harming enlistment numbers. As enlistments and re-enlistments decline, the only thing the Army can do is hold on like a vice to the service members who are already in. The new 15-month tours is a direct result. ”
Stateside war resisters, dissident troops and Iraq veterans groups are bracing themselves for a Winter Soldier 2008, a facsimile of a 1971 event where anti-war veterans testified to war crimes they’d participated in. Exhausted and unable to cope with the logistics of more AWOL soldiers turning up, Canadian groups like Toronto’s War Resister hope things soon take on at least some of the colour of the sixties GI revolt and it’s support movement. As Tom Riley says:
“One scenario is that someone will have to be deported, and I’d hate that to happen but it could create a real movement of people being on the street of people saying this is crazy. Canada didn’t even support the Iraq war how can you send these people home to be punished?”
This article first appeared in Totally Dublin magazine, it’s published here alongside two of the interviews used in researching it.
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