Opinion

U.S. military deserters don't deserve refugee status

They broke their contract. Even Canada gets that.

By

American military deserter Robin Long may well have reasons to think he should not serve in Iraq. That said, I was relieved to hear he had been deported from Canada – where he had lived since June 2005 – to the United States on July 15.

The Boomer generation got its wish for a volunteer army after the draft of the Vietnam War. And that is a good thing, for myriad reasons. A volunteer military is more effective and professional, and it certainly makes the matter of deserters an open-and-shut case.

Quaint notions of integrity, duty, and honor aside, cases such as Mr. Long's boil down to a simple contract matter, not one's opinion of a particular war. A volunteer army renders moot the idea that Canadians should provide a haven to those who wish to break their contract with the US military.

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One could be forgiven for concluding otherwise.

Since 2004, US deserters have been trickling into Canada – today there are about 200 – to praise from aging Vietnam draft dodgers, the chattering classes, Canada's literati, and the overlap of the three. These sympathizers refer to the deserters as "resisters." A stroll through upscale Toronto neighborhoods isn't complete without seeing "War Resisters Welcome Here" stickers in the windows of homes far beyond the financial reach of most of the deserters.

Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has not been so welcoming. The IRB has turned down applications for refugee status from several American deserters, most of whom are still here, running down whatever legal avenue they can find. Refugee cases in Canada can take years, thanks to an accessible appeals system and a lumbering bureaucracy.

Broadly speaking, refugee status in Canada is reserved for people who have fled from unfree countries and who might reasonably fear for their safety should they be returned home. As the days of the draft are long gone, so are the days of Eddie Slovik the World War II private who was the first deserter since the Civil War to be executed.

In some cases, it's not clear what the deserters are seeking refuge from. Corey Glass, who faces deportation, was discharged from the US military some time ago, according to ABC News. In other words, he's free to go – but might he miss the sight of those antiwar protesters carrying placards in his defense?

There has also been a sea change in attitudes and behavior toward veterans themselves. Try to imagine the reaction to someone spitting on a soldier returning from Iraq or calling him or her a "baby killer." Public condemnation has been replaced with public sentimentality, even, oddly enough, from those who claim to abhor the policies that the soldiers they now "support" have been carrying out.

With desertion rates up significantly since 2003, one imagines the US Army won't risk being mired in more battles at home. Indeed, a cursory look at the punishments meted out to deserters who have voluntarily faced military justice reveals relatively mild prison sentences. Most have run from two to 15 months, along with dishonorable, bad-conduct, or other-than-honorable discharges.

Whether their desertion was motivated by ideology or fear, these men and women have accepted the consequences of their decisions. Most of us would consider that more honest than running away. Not to mention that having the courage of one's convictions merits respect, even from opponents. Deserter Jeremy Hinzman, in Canada since 2004, is not Muhammad Ali.

But staying in Canada has its benefits. Attention, fundraising concerts, book deals (in the case of Joshua Key, in Canada since 2005), fawning interviews on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and pundits bandying your name about. In June, a nonbinding resolution that would allow "conscientious objectors ... to apply for permanent resident status" passed in the House of Commons.

It's a symbolic poke in the eye of President Bush, but it's hardly meaningful legislation. After all, there's a big difference between conscientious objectors and deserters. The former have long been accommodated by US law – but the key word is "conscientious."

As the US Selective Service asserts: "...a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims." If the deserters don't meet that test, why should Canada welcome them?

In a sense, that has already happened. In October, 2006, deserter Darrell Anderson, who spent nearly two years availing himself of Canadian naiveté, returned home – where he faced no prison time, no court martial, and only an other-than-honorable discharge. In an impressive display of ingratitude, he took the time before leaving to harshly criticize Canadian involvement in Afghanistan.

Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.

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