Conscientious Objectors in the U.S. Military go to Canada

Facing Iraq duty, two U.S. G.I.’s head north to seek asylum: Soldiers Choose Canada

by Alisa Solomon
Village Voice, April 6th, 2004

TORONTO – Army private Brandon Hughey got in his silver Mustang around midnight on March 2, rolled past the gates at Fort Hood in Texas, and headed northeast. All he had to guide him was a deepening dread and principled objection to the war in Iraq and a promise of help from a complete stranger he’d found on the Internet. His unit was deploying to the Middle East the next morning and, as Hughey, 18, wrote in a February 29 e-mail to the stranger, an anti-war activist, “I do not want to be a pawn in the government’s war for oil, and have told my superiors that I want out of the military. They are not willing to chapter me out and tell me that I have no choice but to pack my bags and get ready to go to Iraq. This has led me to feel hopeless and I have thought about suicide several times.”

His heart pounding to the hip-hop beat on his radio, Hughey drove for 17 hours straight, keeping an anxious eye on the speedometer, panicked that he might get pulled over. The activist met him on March 4 in southern Indiana, stashed the Mustang (with Hughey’s dog tags in the trunk) in Indianapolis, and took the wheel behind his own car for a 500-mile trip to the bridge at Niagara Falls. He gave Hughey a New York Knicks cap to pull on over his crew cut so the guards at the Canadian border would believe they were on their way to see a Toronto Raptors game.

Hughey did watch New York shut down Toronto in a fourth-quarter comeback that night — but on TV from St. Catharines, Ontario, where a Quaker couple has taken him in. He is the second American soldier who opposes the war to have applied for refugee status in Canada. As the occupation in Iraq drags on, morale among soldiers plummets, and talk of a post-election draft heats up, their cases will determine whether Canada will once again welcome young Americans resisting a questionable war.

The first was Jeremy Hinzman, a private first class with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, who arrived in Toronto on January 3 with his wife, Nga Nguyen, and their 21-month-old son, Liam. In contrast to Hughey, Hinzman engaged a lengthy process of pleading from within his unit for non-combat duty as a conscientious objector (C.O.). After his request was denied, Hinzman faced orders for Iraq. He and his wife crammed what they could into their Chevy Prizm and headed north, with their son, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Hinzman, 25, understood what he was risking: if he wins his case, never being able to visit the U.S. again; if he loses, being deported, going directly to jail with a harsh sentence. Desertion during wartime is a capital offense; though the last execution for a runaway soldier was in 1945, Hinzman worries that the penalty could be revived. “The Bush administration has done so many unprecedented things,” he notes. Nonetheless, seeking sanctuary in Canada looked better than any alternative. Hinzman reasons, “I thought of refusing orders and turning myself in [as Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia did last month]. But because of how they had handled my C.O. application, I wasn’t sure I would get a fair shake. Anyway, I don’t feel I should be incarcerated for following my conscience.”

To win refugee status, Hinzman and Hughey will have to demonstrate that they are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution in the U.S. — an extremely tough claim. What’s more, notes a former member of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, refugee law specifies that “prosecution is not persecution”: Punishment for breaking a law is not grounds for asylum unless the law itself — China’s one-child policy, for instance — is deemed a form of persecution.

That is the kind of argument Hinzman and Hughey’s attorney, Jeffry House, will make before Canada’s immigration board about eight weeks from now. Essentially, House will be putting the war itself on trial by contending that the U.S. wants to send these young men to jail — or worse — for choosing to comply with international law. “Rather than do something unthinkable or horrible as soldiers,” House says, “they came to Canada. That’s a huge step.”

House knows the feeling. As a college student in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late ’60s, he concluded that the Vietnam War was wrong and that he would not participate. The day he got his draft notice, he went to Canada.

Canada has a long tradition of providing safe haven for dissenting Americans: Loyalists during the War of Independence, refugees from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, so-called “skedaddlers” deserting from Civil War battalions, and, most famously, some 60,000 men and women resisting the Vietnam War.

Unless there’s a draft, no one expects a flood at the northern border nowadays. But the trickle could certainly swell. According to a U.S. Army survey released last week, 72 percent of soldiers report that morale in their unit is low or very low. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among service members is at an all-time high. From April through December last year, 23 killed themselves while on duty in Iraq or Kuwait; at least seven more did so after their return home.

Thousands are seeking less dire means of escape. Calls to G.I. Rights Hotline, which answers questions from recruits trying to leave the armed forces, shot up to 28,822 in 2003, from 17,267 in 2001. Meanwhile, though the Pentagon will not confirm figures, military attorneys, activists, and the European press have estimated that 600 to 1,700 soldiers have fled to avoid service in Iraq. Most are likely living underground in the U.S. — going AWOL, even for long periods, is a far less serious offense than actually applying for refugee status in another country — which clearly demonstrates the intent to desert. Nonetheless, the peacenik grapevine in Canada began buzzing on Wednesday with news that a female deserter is on her way.

Canada itself has resisted the war in Iraq. Backed by overwhelming public sentiment, its government officially refused to join the “coalition forces.” But much has changed in the 35 years since a draft dodger or G.I. could simply present himself at Canada’s border and sign up for landed-immigrant status. “In the ’60s, we didn’t have a refugee determination system,” explains the former Immigration and Refugee Board member, Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto. “The war resisters who came were not required to jump through any hoops. Now we have a rigorous one-by-one approach and more complex and narrow regimes for permitting entry.”

Besides, notes law professor John Hagan, who himself went to Alberta to beat the draft and recently wrote Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, “The door didn’t really open until 1969, and that was in the context of very high levels of casualties — far, far higher than are involved in the current situation. The pressure was immense and took a long time. Neither of those variables is operating now.”

Even in the Vietnam War era, U.S. policies and public sympathies judged those who had enlisted and then abandoned their posts more harshly than those evading the draft. Indeed, a blanket pardon President Jimmy Carter granted the day he took office in 1977 applied only to draft dodgers, not to deserters. Hinzman and Hughey hear the same criticism today. “My grandpa was against the war and can’t stand Bush,” Hinzman says, “but he has firm notions of duty. I think it might be a little humiliating for him to see my name in the media.”

Still, as House puts it, “No one has to give up basic moral principle because he signed a contract. Even the U.S. military recognizes that people can become conscientious objectors after enlisting.”

Brandon Hughey was 17 when an army recruiter called him at his home in dry, hot, and heavily Republican San Angelo, Texas, to invite him to join up. “I wanted to go to college, and they offered me a $5,000 signing bonus,” he recalls with a smile that pulls dimples into his boyish cheeks. “That really caught my attention.” Hughey’s dad, a computer programmer, had to sign the enlistment papers for his underage son. Then, last summer, shortly after his high school graduation, the teenager left west Texas for Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Hughey trained in bayonets, rifles, and hand grenades, and he learned to drive a tank. At the same time, figuring he should know what he was going to war for, he started to give himself an education in affairs of state. “It wasn’t until I joined the military that I began to form political views,” he says. On the base, Fox News blared everywhere, but Hughey began reading AP and MSNBC stories online. “When I learned that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, I began to doubt things,” he says. He brought questions to his officers, but they told him it wasn’t his job to do the thinking. He didn’t even know that applying for C.O. status was an option. His first one-month leave came, and Hughey had earned enough cash to finance the Mustang.

By the time Hughey reported to Fort Hood in mid December, he had read what international law has to say about wars of aggression and sensed he had made a terrible mistake. As the days ticked by, he dutifully carried out his orders — spraying insecticide on uniforms, packing gear to be shipped to Baghdad — but at night he surfed the Net, feeling increasingly frantic to get out of serving in a war he couldn’t believe in. Hughey didn’t feel he could turn to his pro-war family. (In fact, he hasn’t called them from Canada.)

Then he found the stranger: One evening he stumbled on an article that quoted one Carl Rising-Moore calling for a new underground railroad and saying it would be better for suicidal soldiers to desert, as George W. Bush had done, than to take their own lives. He dashed off an e-mail with the subject line “Please help a desperate serviceman.”

Carl Rising-Moore, 58, who describes himself as having been “a brainwashed young man” who enlisted during Vietnam and has been a peace activist ever since, says he couldn’t help responding to Hughey’s plea — even though it’s a felony to assist a deserter. With only hours to go before Hughey was to report for baggage drop-off, Rising-Moore made arrangements with the Quakers. When Rose Marie Cipryk and Don Alexander agreed to receive Hughey in their St. Catharines home, it was déjà vu all over again: They had sheltered resisters in the late ’60s. “Simplicity is a value for Quakers,” says Alexander, “so there’s a debate raging in the community over whether the Internet is good or bad. I think it’s obvious which side wins in this instance.”

Jeremy Hinzman also figured that the army was his most direct route to college. “I guess I made a Faustian bargain,” he says, characteristically flashing both a literary reference and a wry smile. He enlisted on January 17, 2001, shortly after his marriage — and many months before Bush decreed a policy of preemptive war.

Hinzman excelled at the drills and enjoyed the camaraderie, but, he says, “I started to question things as it became clear that basic training is all about breaking down the human inhibition against killing.” In rifle training, he says, “You start out with targets that are black circles. Then the circles grow shoulders and then the shoulders turn into torsos. Pretty soon they’re human beings.”

The chanting was worse. One day, during bayonet training, when the instructor would holler, “What makes the grass grow?” Hinzman caught himself joining in the response: “Blood, blood, blood.” Aghast, Hinzman asked himself, “What am I doing?”

He was a novice practitioner of Zen, and when he got to Fort Bragg in July 2001, the closest thing he could find “that wasn’t too New Age-y” was the Quaker House in Fayetteville. He and Nguyen started attending in January 2002, and felt at home with its philosophy of nonviolence. Over time, Hinzman began preparing an eloquent application for C.O. status. “Although I still have a great desire to eliminate injustice,” he wrote, “I have come to the realization that killing will do nothing but perpetuate it. Thus, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve as a combatant in the Army.” He submitted it that August.

At the end of October, the army claimed it had never received his application. (It suddenly turned up in the army’s files almost a year later.) He submitted it again, just as his unit was being deployed to Afghanistan. While the application was pending, he slogged through eight months of KP duty in Afghanistan — in punishing 14-hour shifts, seven days a week. In a hasty hearing in Kandahar last April, his request was turned down because Hinzman admitted he would fight in self-defense. That month, his unit returned to Fort Bragg, and on December 20, the orders came for Iraq. He knew he would not be accommodated with non-combat duty again, so in January he and his family fled to Toronto, where they were sheltered by Quakers and then moved into an apartment.

While it will be months before their refugee claims are decided — possibly years if there are appeals — Hughey and Hinzman have already been embraced by Canada’s anti-war movement. On March 20, they were featured guests at Toronto’s “The World Still Says No to War” rally, which brought out some 7,000 students, trade unionists, religious peaceniks, and lefty sectarians despite a relentless cold, thin rain.

Hinzman addressed the crowd. Though he had never given a speech at a demonstration before, he was a high school debater in his hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota, and for as long as he can remember, he has been an avid reader — later, he comments that the rally reminded him of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power — so he knows how to turn an oratorical phrase. He told the demonstrators, “I could not simply claim that I was merely a victim of the times or that I was just following orders. Had I taken part in the occupation of Iraq, I would have been making myself complicit in a criminal enterprise.”

Hughey stood quietly next to him, soaking up everything but the downpour. “I had no idea so many people think this way,” he said later. “It’s good not to feel so alone.”

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