The rate of desertion from the US armed forces has been rising every year since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Most deserters remain in the United States, hiding out from police. But some choose exile.
An estimated 200 US deserters are living in Canada. Forty or so have joined up with a group of Canadian activists called “War Resisters”, which does not see the former soldiers as deserters, but rather as resisters to a war they consider unjust. The group includes many so-called “draft-dodgers”, the 50,000 Americans who moved to Canada 40 years ago to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
Many of the deserters have asked for refugee status, but have had their requests turned down by Canada’s Immigration Board – and their appeals to the Canadian Supreme Court have also been rejected. Immigration Minister Diane Finlay justifies the rejections on grounds that the Americans were not drafted but volunteered for service.
The deserters have been in the spotlight in recent weeks because one of them, a 25-year-old native of Indiana named Corey Glass, has been issued a deportation order saying he must leave Canada by June 12 (a date later changed to July 10).
Corey joined the National Guard hoping to do humanitarian work, but ended up being sent to Iraq to work in military intelligence. To his critics, who call him naïve, he says military recruiters deceived him: “Maybe they should start training their recruiters better in the military – to tell the truth. Because then they'll get people who actually agree with what they're doing, as opposed to guys who get there and are like 'Whoa, wait a minute, this isn't what they told me I'd be doing at all'. If it's such a great organisation, why do they have to trick people into joining it?”
The deserters are a heterogeneous group. Kevin Lee, 26 years old and a New York native, spent a full year on the front lines – where he decided the Iraq war was based on false premises. Chuck Riley, 37, served in the navy for 17 years before deserting because of what he calls a callous lack of concern for the lives of Iraqi civilians.
Glass’s deportation order has disheartened many of the deserters. But they are not without hope: Canada’s opposition parties have succeeded in getting a motion supporting the deserters before parliament. The motion states that Canada should be a haven to all soldiers refusing to participate in a war not authorized by the United Nations.