Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Opting out of state crime," May 14, 2007.

Back in March 2005, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board denied Jeremy Hinzman's application to enter Canada as a refugee. Hinzman was the first deserter from the American military's current campaign in Iraq to apply for sanctuary in Canada. As a deserter myself from the Vietnam era, I was following the case and was struck by three points of the Board's finding.

First the IRB declined to rule on the legality of the war, a key point in Hinzman's thinking. This was entirely predictable and different in no significant way from the experience of a broad range of draft dodgers, deserters and political rejectionists regarding the Vietnam War.

Second, the Board did not find Hinzman's objections either to war in general or to the Iraq war in particular were insincere or of no consequence because he had volunteered. It will be worth lingering on this point in a moment because it is one on which some members of the Canadian public are far more hardnosed and extreme than either the Immigration and Refugee Board or the American military-- and that is both a surprise and a major change since the Vietnam era.

Third, Hinzman was applying to be treated as a refugee, and this was the central mandate of the IRB. In my day, I had applied for a work permit and standing as a landed immigrant.

In my experience, each of these points is highly political. In other words, as far as I can tell, each point is far more dependent on which way the political winds happen to be blowing than on any long-standing, unalterable matrix of legal precedent and opinion.

For instance, the attachment of war crimes to a court is relatively new. The idea that a middle- or low-ranking soldier is responsible for his or her own actions and that having been ordered to commit crimes against humanity is not an excuse for actually committing them—this idea is firmly linked to the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany after World War II.

Canada has generally gone along with this. Beyond that, it's not at all clear that a strictly Canadian institution—like Parliament or the Supreme Court of Canada—has the authority to reverse this finding without incurring unacceptable political consequences—both domestically and internationally. Certainly, that would be no task for the Immigration and Refugee Board. As Brian Goodman who presided over Hinzman's hearing, writes, "my authority does not include making judgements about US foreign policy, including the legality or the wisdom of the US government's decision to authorize its military to enter Iraq."

No doubt we can imagine other reasons why the IRB refused to rule on the legality of the Iraq war—nearly all of them political. Maybe the rest of that discussion will make more sense later under the heading of what can be done.

But what has created the paralysis around the second point, i.e., that Hinzman, Joshua Key, Kyle Snyder or others making similar cases must be insincere in their objections to war or are only getting what they signed up for and should have known in advance because they volunteered for military service?

For instance, last May, in a comment on an article by Heather Mallick, Marcus Sterzer of Ottawa states his belief that “The act of enlistment means you can no longer act on your political opinions; you have volunteered to become a mechanism of the will of the democratically elected state.”

The IRB did its homework on this and found that “US AR 600-43 sets out the policy, criteria, responsibilities and procedures to classify and dispose of military personnel who claim conscientious objection to participation in war in any form or to the bearing of arms. The policy applies regardless of whether a soldier volunteered for, or was drafted into, the army.”

Sterzer, like most Canadians and probably even the vast majority of Americans appears not to know that the American military has a long tradition of non-combatant service, rooted in the freedom of religious expression. Typically, the individual serves as a medic or an ambulance driver. Historically, the option of non-combatant military service was reserved for lifetime members of 5 pacifist churches—the Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of the Brethren.

Many protestant groups emphasize a relation to the Supreme Being that is individual, direct, and one-on-one, rather than being mediated through the official ecclesiastical authority of priests and bishops. So occasionally individual members of the eligible five churches objected to military service of any kind and were allowed to perform alternate service—for example in a social agency or a civilian hospital. These two options—alternate service and non-combatant military service—are known by the generic name “conscientious objection.”

In the mid-60s, a pair of US Supreme Court decisions removed, first the requirement of membership in one of the prescribed churches and finally the belief in a Supreme Being as prerequisites for status as a conscientious objector.

In the first case, it was clear that some mainstream monotheistic religions such as Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism have significant pacifist traditions and the means to tie up the courts making their point. In the second case, the same turned out to be true of Buddhism which is generally understood to be a non-theistic religion with significant though not universal pacifist content.

Then in 1971, the Court interpreted the existing American law for conscientious objectors as applying to those who oppose participation in all war, but not to those who oppose participation in a particular war only, even if the latter objection is a religious one.

Beyond these philosophical considerations, proponents of the view that volunteer soldiers become mindless robotic instruments of the democratic state might be interested to learn that militaries are moving in the other direction.

Col. Chet Richards (USAF ret) writes frequently about issues associated with Third and Fourth Generation Warfare, which are the kinds being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Citing the US Marine Corps Doctrine Publication on "Command and Control" doctrine, Richards says that what today's military seeks is "not tight 'command and control,' where we know where all our forces are every minute of the operation and send out a stream of orders to move them around the map like chess pieces. Instead, here is how the premier US maneuver warfare force describes 'command and control':

"’It is not more command and control that we are after. Instead, we seek to decrease the amount of command and control that we need. We do this by replacing coercive command and control methods with spontaneous, self-disciplined cooperation based on low-level initiative, a commonly understood commander’s intent, mutual trust, and implicit understanding and communications’" (Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 6, Command and Control (Republished by Wildside Press, 2005), p. 6)

That explains why morale is so important in this kind of warfare. It’s also why morale has to be based on a realistic orientation toward the situation. When troops at the low end of the command structure lose faith in the master project and feel that their own participation was secured through seduction and fraud, then even soldiers change their loyalties.

William Lind, another American military strategist, believes that the military's greatest challenge is to get beyond the robotic hype associated with second generation warfare. He writes, for instance,

"In the latter half of the 18th century, the Royal Navy developed and institutionalized what we now call maneuver warfare or Third Generation war. By the Napoleonic Wars, it was all there -- the outward focus, where results counted for more than following orders or the Fighting Instructions; de-centralization (Nelson was a master of mission-type orders); prizing initiative above obedience; and dependence on self-discipline (at least at the level of ship commanders and admirals) . It is often personified as the "Nelson Touch," but it typified a whole generation of officers, not just Nelson. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy lost it all and went rigid again...."

That's it for World Report from Nelson, BC. Next week will bring us back to institutionalized conflict of interest again, this time as it applies to the experience of American military refusers. We'll see that even volunteers may honestly reject the bearing of arms because military life is nearly always—at least at the beginning—an educational experience.

When I served in an army largely of draftees, still more than a third of the men in my units were volunteers, and most of the ones I knew had stories about being lied to by their recruiters. That has led to a whole new movement this time around and to a growing perception that the system—from recruitment to post-service benefits is badly broken—and that after a major period of post-Vietnam repair.

We'll consider why the objection to specific wars has been practically unthinkable, why a whole new class of military refusers both in the US and in Israel have emerged, and what options are still within reach of the contemporary nation-state and everyday citizens as well.

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