June 21, 2008 – The federal government has ordered a deserter from the U.S. Army to return to the United States by July 10. If he doesn’t leave voluntarily, the government will deport him.
Either way, Corey Glass, a former sergeant, would become the first Iraq war resister to be booted out of Canada – thereby setting a precedent for other U.S. war resisters who are seeking refuge in this country.
A majority of the House of Commons voted 137-110 two weeks ago in favour of a motion urging the government to refrain from ousting war resisters; about 100 of whom are believed to be in the Canada. All three opposition parties supported the measure, sponsored by the New Democrats’ Olivia Chow. The Conservatives dissented.
Yet the motion seems futile. Nothing obliges Prime Minister Stephen Harper to respect it – it’s non-binding. And while polls suggest that most Canadians support the resisters, as do such organizations as Amnesty International and the United Church of Canada, the issue is largely out of the public eye. This month’s parliamentary motion, for example, received scant news coverage.
This general apathy seems paradoxical. The Iraq war is, if anything, even more unpopular among Canadians than was the Vietnam war. Tens of thousands of U.S. draft dodgers and deserters fled to Canada during that conflict, and the government and the public received them well.
Why shouldn’t Canada be as open to resisters today as it was a generation ago? The political answer, of course, is that Harper is less willing to ruffle Washington’s feathers than were the prime ministers of the day, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.
The legal answer is that a well-founded fear of persecution is one of the base criteria for granting refugee status, and the Immigration and Refugee Board, the courts and Immigration Minister Diane Finley have all rejected the resisters’ claim that they would face persecution if they returned home. I agree with Finley and company. The U.S. military typically sentences Iraq war deserters (that is, those who have not left the country) to jail terms that run to about a year, and that’s hardly a harrowing fate.
Yet the weakness of the persecution argument doesn’t justify Canada’s rejection of the kind of people it once accepted. After all, the U.S. didn’t really persecute Vietnam war deserters either, and yet Canada gave them asylum.
Those who want to expel the resisters make two moral arguments. Let’s look at each.
The first argument is that volunteers make up 100 per cent of today’s U.S. armed forces, which wasn’t the case during ‘Nam. “Why,” the National Post’s Jonathan Kay asks in regard to Corey Glass, “should Canadians help this deserter go back on his freely given word?” That’s technically true: Guys like Glass signed army contracts of their free will. Yet they were deceived. The contractor – the U.S. government – assured them this was a just war. The premises – that Saddam had WMD and that he was in bed with Al-Qa’ida – turned out to be bogus.
Some deserters also claim, plausibly, that glib recruiters promised them non-combat jobs if they signed up with the army. Wrong. More false pretenses.
Finally, the army has called still others back into additional tours of Iraq under the Stop-loss program. That’s like a back-door draft.
Free will? Come on.
The second moral argument is that the resisters are unjustly claiming to be conscientious objectors. Real CO’s are against all wars, say the critics, and the resisters are against only this one war.
Yet to grant asylum only to those who are against all violent conflicts is to set the bar unreasonably high. Most soldiers don’t think in terms of absolutes. They think in terms of their own direct experiences.
In court testimony and interviews, those resisters who have served in Iraq suggest that the unjust war means there can be no excuse for the horrors they have seen. That’s a true show of conscience.
Critics of the resisters make one last argument, this one less moral than practical. They say that giving asylum would be bad for troop morale and thus undermine the U.S. war effort.
Think about that. If politicians knew that the citizenry would refuse to fight if the reason for a war was not persuasive, they might embark on fewer unjust wars – or, they might end such wars more quickly, as was the case with the Vietnam conflict.
There aren’t many checks and balances against military recklessness, but easy asylum can be one of them.