By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.