Page 4 of 9
On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed 60-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, “Stop the deportations now” and “War resisters welcome here.” Another advises, “Cut and run. In an immoral war, it’s the thing to do.” Amid the fliers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota, who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and 1-year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada. Nearby is a picture of Joshua Key, a welder and father of four from Oklahoma, who served seven months in Iraq with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company and deserted in 2004. A photograph of a smiling Robin Long before he was deported and imprisoned serves as a sobering reminder of what’s at stake.
The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant near the office, keeping tabs on one another’s court cases and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children, and he doesn’t want any of them jailed. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent e-mail from a soldier at Fort Knox.
“I’ve been having some problems with what my military does and while I’ve put in for conscientious-objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot,” the soldier writes. “I believe what the Army does is to commit murder ... unfortunately, the Army treats anyone with my feelings poorly. I can’t talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I’m trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it’s advisable to do this.”
Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?
“I’ll advise him to call,” he says. “You never give up hope. We’re not discouraged; we’re angry.” Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. “We have a Rush Limbaugh government here — this isn’t how Canada is supposed to be.”
The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories soldiers returning from Southeast Asia told. When news of the My Lai massacre broke, Zaslofsky asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the mayhem that had led American soldiers to slaughter more than 300 unarmed civilians and toss them into a mass grave. “In war, bad things happen,” he recalls the man telling him. “I asked myself, ‘If I were in a situation like that, would I be the heroic guy who says, ‘Hey stop, this is terrible,’ or would I join in because I was experiencing the same rage and frustration they were?’ I felt I couldn’t be sure.” When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious-objector status but was denied. In January 1970, he drove into Canada. While President Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the antiwar protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcoming America’s deserters by the thousands.
It’s unclear whether today’s deserters will be affected by the fact that America now has a president who campaigned on his conviction that the Iraq War was illegal, which is precisely the refrain of most war resisters, many of whom volunteered to go to Afghanistan but refused to serve in Iraq. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, who has been active in the peace movement, says President Obama is unlikely to make war deserters much of a priority in the near future. “I can’t imagine he’d consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term,” Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters about the unfounded case for war in Iraq, he’s still the commander in chief, and it remains a crime to desert one’s comrades in a time of war.