Sunday, August 27, 2006

You wouldn’t catch me dead in Iraq

You wouldn’t catch me dead in Iraq

Scores of American troops are deserting — even from the front line in Iraq. But where have they gone? And why isn’t the US Army after them? Peter Laufer tracked down four of the desertersThey are the US troops in Iraq to whom the American administration prefers not to draw attention. They are the deserters – those who have gone Awol from their units and not returned, risking imprisonment and opprobrium.

When First Lieutenant Ehren Watada of the US Army, who faced a court martial in August, refused to go to Iraq on moral grounds, the newspapers in his home state of Hawaii were full of letters accusing him of “treason”. He said he had concluded that the war is both morally wrong and a horrible breach of American law. His participation, he stated, would make him party to “war crimes”. Watada is just one conscientious objector to a war that has polarised America, arguably more so than even the Vietnam war.

It is impossible to put a precise figure on the number of American troops who have left the army as a result of the US involvement in Iraq. The Pentagon says that a total of 40,000 troops have deserted their posts (not simply those serving in Iraq) since the year 2000. This includes many who went Awol for family reasons. The Pentagon’s spokesmen say that the overall number of deserters has actually gone down since operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is no doubt that a steady trickle of deserters who object to the Iraq war have made it over the border and are now living in Canada. There they seek asylum, often with the help of Canadian anti-war groups. One Toronto lawyer, Jeffry House, has represented at least 20 deserters from Iraq in the Canadian courts; he is himself a conscientious objector, having refused to fight in the Vietnam war – along with 50,000 others, at the peak of the conflict. He estimates that 200 troops have already gone underground in Canada since the war in Iraq began.

These conscientious objectors are a brave group – their decisions will result in long-term life changes. To be labelled a deserter is no small burden. If convicted of desertion, they run the risk of a prison sentence – with hard labour. To choose exile can mean lifelong separation from family and friends, as even the most trivial encounter with the police in America – say, over a traffic offence – could lead to jail.

Many of the deserters are not pacifists, against war per se, but they view the Iraq war as wrong. First Lt Watada, for instance, said he would face prison rather than serve in Iraq, though he was prepared to pack his bags for Afghanistan to fight in a war that he considered just. They don’t want to face the military courts, which is why they have decided to flee to Canada. A generation ago, Canada welcomed Vietnam-war draft dodgers and deserters. Today, the political climate is different and the score or so of US deserters who are now north of the border are applying for refugee status. So far, the Canadian government is saying no, so cases rejected for refugee status are going to appeal in the federal courts.

But there is no guarantee that these exiles will ultimately find safe haven in Canada. If the federal courts rule against the soldiers and they then exhaust all further judicial possibilities, they may be deported back to the United States – and that may not be what the Americans want. Their presence in the US will in itself represent yet another public-relations headache for the Bush administration.

Full article from UK "Sunday Times" here

markfromireland

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