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
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 cafĂ©.
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.”