Posted: July 30, 2009
by Matt Gurney
Kimberly Rivera, a U.S. soldier, was sent to Iraq in 2006. Like many
other American soldiers deployed since 9/11, she eventually came to
have doubts about the mission. In February of 2007, while on a
two-week leave home from Iraq, Rivera and her husband packed up their
children and drove to Toronto.
There, they found a small but welcoming group of natural allies.
Rivera is not the first American soldier to desert the military and
seek asylum in Canada. The fate of these errant soldiers has stirred
controversy here, with many recalling the tens of thousands of draft
dodgers that fled north to escape the Vietnam War. Many of those
Americans have lived productive lives in Canada ever since. This,
plus the distaste felt by many Canadians for any military mission
nastier than peacekeeping, has led some to conclude that Rivera and a
handful of others like her should be permitted to remain.
Last June, opposition parties combined to pass a motion urging the
Harper government to let American deserters stay in Canada. The
motion was reaffirmed after last fall's election, but Immigration
Minister Jason Kenney has been less than impressed, deeming the war
resisters "bogus refugee claimants."
The Conservatives must consider the practical cost of accepting U.S.
war resistors: provoking the United States at a time when the Harper
government is doing its best to keep the borders open and defeat Buy
American sentiments. Now is a poor time to antagonize the Americans,
and accepting the war resistors would be fairly considered in
Washington to be a slap to the face.
While there are enormous diplomatic considerations, the deserters'
right to remain in Canada is fundamentally a legal issue and must be
decided in the courts. Upon return to the United States, soldiers
absent without leave face trial by courts-martial, and, if convicted,
would likely be handed bad-conduct discharges and prison sentences of
approximately one year. (Supporters of the resistors' right to remain
point out that the more public noise a resistor makes, the longer his
or her sentence.) While bad-conduct discharges and possible prison
time are certainly unpleasant, it is hardly torture or risk of
execution. Canadian courts must decide whether or not that
constitutes sufficient reason to permit the resistors to remain.
It's a messy issue, to be sure. No one wants to force the unwilling
to fight, but the American military has been all-volunteer for a
generation. These people, whatever their moral and legal qualms with
the war, have at the most basic level broken a legally binding
contract and, in so doing, have violated military law.
Moreover, it is difficult for many Canadians to accept that these
soldiers are genuine refugees. As likable as they may be as
individuals, it's hard to condone desertion from the American
military at a time when other American soldiers are backing up
Canadian troops, also volunteers, in Afghanistan.
The story of American soldier Victor Agosto makes an interesting
comparison to the war resistors residing in Canada. The Iraq veteran,
a non-combat computer technician, was due to leave the military but
was stop-lossed and ordered to deploy to Afghanistan. His experience
in Iraq soured him on the war on terror and he decided he could not
go. Rather than fleeing to another country, however, Agosto (who did
not return calls seeking comment) notified his commanding officer in
writing that he would not deploy to Afghanistan, and refused, again
in writing, a subsequent direct order to ship out with his unit. He
remains on duty pending trial, and has stated that a year in prison
is a price worth paying to live within the dictates of his conscience.
Even while refusing a direct order, Agosto is able to embody the
stoic self-sacrifice we expect from soldiers. Besides, as he himself
concedes, his likely term in prison is about as long as his
deployment to Afghanistan would be, and he'd rather be in jail than
fighting a war he doesn't believe in.
One doesn't have to agree with Agosto's politics to respect his
determination. Under military law, soldiers have a duty to refuse
orders they consider unlawful, and Agosto is doing that while fully
aware of the probable consequences. The story of this man casts the
war resistors in a different light. Their objections are the same,
but how they've conducted themselves does much to set them apart.