Canada's romance with US military exiles

When I was very young, during the Vietnam War, there was an American draft dodger in our rural Canadian community who had tie-dyed clothes, a guitar, stories to tell, and a number of young followers. They thought him romantic.

But my father - an anti-Vietnam war liberal and big Richard Nixon basher (he brought a TV to our rustic cottage the summer Nixon resigned so he wouldn't miss a glorious minute of the downfall) - was disgusted.

This boy, he said, was no hero. Look up to Muhammad Ali, and to others with the courage of their convictions, he suggested. Look up to the soldiers who are in Vietnam. But you should not look up to a draft dodger, my dad admonished.

He'd be disgusted again, if he saw Canadian reaction to Privates Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey. Both are US soldiers gone AWOL in Canada - Private Hinzman, 25, lives in Toronto and Private Hughey, 19, lives in St. Catharines. Both say they can't participate in what they believe is an illegal war. But their values do not, apparently, extend to facing the legal consequences of their beliefs.

Both say they joined the Army to pay for their education. Many others have as well, but have accepted that the military is, first and foremost, about war. But they chose to run from war, in contrast to Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, who turned himself in to the US for refusing to fight in a war he opposes - a move that may earn him respect even as it earns him a court-martial.

Both Hinzman and Hughey are being treated with kid gloves and tepid questioning from media. But this wouldn't have been the case 30 years ago, as the intervening years have seen Canada become more isolationist and Euro-smug. The result is predictable: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), not known for objectivity when reporting on the United States, has barely been able to contain its glee over the problems in Iraq.

So it should not come as a surprise that the baby-faced Hughey has already been featured on two CBC shows, with promos declaring, "For more than 200 years, Americans have been escaping war and strife in the US by heading north," and, "They came during the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Vietnam War ... and now there's that other war in Iraq. It's only a trickle, but it's starting to happen again."

More disturbing still, some have drawn a comparison between these two and slaves traveling the Underground Railroad - as though someone who voluntarily signed up for military service could rightly be compared to human beings bought and sold as property.

Other news stories claim that both young men "escaped" from the US, that they were "lured" into joining the Army. No one appears interested in the matter of free will, that they joined the Army of their own accord.

Hinzman joined in January 2001 and says he was amazed when he realized he was being trained to kill. He served in Afghanistan, but, pending decision on his application for conscientious objector status, in a noncombat capacity. That status was denied, according to information on his website, when he admitted he would fight in self-defense.

Hughey joined after 9/11 - knowing full well the US had declared war on terrorism. He abandoned his unit just before they were deployed to Iraq.

Both men are refugee claimants, meaning they can stay in Canada if they prove they will be killed or persecuted - not prosecuted - once back in the US where they'd face military prison. The burden of proof is high.

Both men are being represented by the same lawyer, Jeffry House, an American draft dodger who came to Canada in 1970. Mr. House was one of an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 draft dodgers to come here. But it should not be so easy now.

After 9/11, Canada and the US signed a "Smart Border Declaration" meant to tighten up our long, shared, porous border. It was still porous enough, however, for Hughey to get across in March saying he was going to a Toronto Raptors game, and for Hinzman, along with his wife and young son, to get across (without the Raptors excuse) in January, shortly after his unit received orders for Iraq.

One Canadian paper referred to Hughey as "a mere boy." This mere boy, and the slightly bigger boy, Hinzman, are savvy enough to use the Internet and the political atmosphere that surrounds them. Both were trotted out as "featured guests" at a recent "The World Still Says No to War" rally in Toronto.

Both have websites soliciting sympathy and donations. Hinzman's features a letter of support from foreign policy and ethics expert Susan Sarandon. Hughey's promises us good karma if we contact our member of Parliament on his behalf.

Hinzman - who has a publicist - would like us to go straight to our prime minister, and he encourages us to read Erich Fromm's "Escape From Freedom," in which the social philosopher examined the illness of modern civilization and the roots of authoritarianism.

Hinzman implies the points Mr. Fromm makes will help explain why he joined the Army. Hinzman's site also includes a fawning paragraph about Canada's "cultural diversity" and its "wonderful social safety net" (though he says he hopes never to use it).

It is a line from exile Hughey's site, though, that says it best: "Picture being 1,500 miles from everything and everyone you know." Better yet, I say, picture being 7,000 miles from everything and everyone you know, in unthinkable conditions, under fire, doing the duty you signed on for, while former comrades update their websites in Canada.

Rondi Adamson is a writer in Toronto.

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