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Monday, May 21, 2007

"Volunteers, not slaves," May 21, 2007.

In a letter about deserters to the Nelson Daily News on May 1 07, Robert Leggatt of Castlegar concludes from “their choice to volunteer for military service” that

“it was when their situation became too real and the novelty of military service wore off did they find their 'high ethical standard' instead of using these ethics prior to enlisting.”

It's hard to believe from this comment or even others in this letter or other letters Leggatt has written on the same subject that he has ever met and talked to an American deserter/war resister or that what he is talking about is actually a person at all.

I don't know many who have experienced military service—even those for whom it was positive and meaningful--who would refer to it as a “novelty,” but peoples' tastes are practically infinite.

I would suggest as a starting place that we keep in mind many American military volunteers have just recently survived the follies of high school graduation night. Some, as we shall see, have stumbled into the jaws of the courts and jails.

Occasionally, I find myself humming the opening lines from Paul Simon's “Kodachrome”: “when I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.”

Most of us looking back on that long post-adolescent period of our lives might also remember a certain fading idealism, a trust in others, a belief that if our heart was pure, we worked hard, made the necessary sacrifices and didn't quit, our lives would bear the promised fruit.

As a deserter from another era, I don't recognize myself in Legatt's description. Brian Goodman, who presided over the application of Jeremy Hinzman and his family for refugee status in Canada, gives a more knowledgeable and empathic account of Hinzman's ethical quest.

Brian Goodman, who presided over deserter Jeremy Hinzman's hearing for refugee status in Canada, describes a period of self-questioning, which began during the training period, in which Hinzman doubted his ability do the necessary killing. At that time Hinzman also learned that “the army made provision for personnel to apply for conscientious objector status, in which the options of a complete discharge from the army or remaining in the army in a non-combatant role were available” (Hinzman Decision IRB Hearing Mar 16 05).

Hinzman was eventually to apply twice for the latter, i.e., for non-combattant status within the army. Goodman summarizes the first application as follows:

In his application, Mr. Hinzman asserted his belief that war in any guise is wrong, and that he felt that he could no longer be a part of a unit that trains to kill. He states that, over the past few years, he had been discovering a world-view framed by the teachings of Buddhism. He proceeds to outline how some of the core teachings and concepts of Buddhism led to his decision that he was unable to kill.

In his application, he explained how his beliefs had changed from the time of his enlistment, and when and why these beliefs became incompatible with military service as a combatant. He made reference to his experiences and feelings during training, including the dehumanization that, while necessary, “makes one no different than an animal.” He referred to the intensification, since the beginning of 2002, of his meditation practice, which led him to see himself and everything else in the world as interconnected. He came to the realization that killing will do nothing but perpetuate it, and that an act of violence towards another human being would be an act of violence towards all. He did not feel that he could remain as a combatant in the army, whose express purpose is to bring harm to others” (IRB Mar 16 05).

Even the Army found that Hinzman “sincerely opposes war on philosophical, societal and intellectual levels” (Qtd IRB Mar 16 05). It is no surprise that the army found other reasons to reject Hinzman's application. The application was adjudicated by a first Lieutenant who had been appointed by Hinzman's commanding officer. There is no indication that this lieutenant had any special knowledge of either the Buddhist or the Quaker traditions in which Hinzman's pacifism was grounded.

Did he inform Hinzman that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), an American soldier is obligated to disobey unlawful orders even if they come from the president if those orders are in violation of the Constitution and the Uniform Code? Was the lieutenant aware that if the war was judged to be illegal, Hinzman and others have the right, and in fact are required, to resist illegal orders?

There is no indication that the lieutenant attempted to elicit any response at all from Hinzman concerning the questionable legality of the war—an issue that didn't appear in the formal documentation until after Hinzman had been able to talk to someone outside the military chain of command.

For those who have been following this discussion on World Report, this may appear to be another example of institutionalized conflict of interest. The job is being done be the people from the institution which should have been last on the list to provide the candidates to do it. Least qualified, least objective, least likely to be fair and complete no matter how much good will.

It should be said that the illegal war issue, which is one of the strongest concerns in the public debate, is weak where it counts the most—in court.

Sometimes journalists attempt to try cases in the press as happened recently, for example, with both the Litivenenko case and the case of the Iranian capture of UK sailors in the Persian Gulf. I am not a lawyer, and this is not a trial. But there is information that should be part of the commonly understood context to the accusation that the war in Iraq is illegal. It seems intuitively obvious that the war in Iraq was a war of choice, not of self-defense—and for most of us, that's enough.

The negotiations that eventually led to the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court and which established as its scope the trying of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, considered other possibilities as well. International negotiators debated including terrorism, drug trafficking and aggression in the court's mandate. Unfortunately, in the case of aggression, they were unable to agree upon a definition.

In their support of the Bush Administration's agenda, academic and legal minds have consistently attacked past practice and intuitive justice on the level of definitions. Terrorism for example has been defined at the convenience of whoever happened to be using the term at the time. The Bush administration clearly does not understand torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to mean what seems clearly to be meant by them in the Geneva Conventions. Past practice was scoured for exotic exceptions to the common understanding for prisoner of war in order to open the door for Guantanamo Bay. And so on. With the definition of aggression in dispute, the question of whether the Iraq war is legal of not becomes primarily a political and not a legal question. It's not likely to be a strong point in a formal hearing, nor is it likely to come up in a process adjudicated by the military. That's my opinion.

In reading the Hinzman decision, I was interested to see that the procedure hasn't changed much since my time in the US Army. But a final point does stick in my memory on the issue of whether or not being a volunteer makes a significant difference.

During the Vietnam era, about half the men in my units were volunteers. And most of the ones I knew had stories about being lied to by their recruiters.

As Jorge Mariscal put it in an article for the leftwing newsletter CounterPunch, "Young people are intelligent and have many dreams. What they lack is sufficient life experience to handle high-powered salesmen disguised as amiable mentors" (Mariscal CounterPunch Sep 21 05).


Chris White is an ex-Marine infantryman with experience as a recruiter-assistant. He served from 1994-98, in Diego Garcia, Camp Pendleton, CA, Okinawa, Japan, and Doha, Qatar. He is currently working on his doctorate in history at the University of Kansas, and he tells this story:

"...on the first day at recruiting school, a recruiter friend of mine was told to come up with a gimmick for selling a pen. What business does the military have teaching recruiters to sell anything? Are the lives of America's youth just another commodity for the government to exploit? If the war is justified, then why do recruiters have to exist at all? Why do they even have to sell the military to young people? Why do they have to use manipulative sales techniques to convince young, uneducated minds to carry out the dirty work of war? As an assistant recruiter, I witnessed first hand how recruiters manipulate the poor and young into fighting for the rich" (White CounterPunch Jan 6 03).

There's more to tell about recruiting and about high-level military refusal, but there's not much time left today. Before it's over, we have to come back to the questions we began with:

When Canada sends police advisors to Afghanistan in the spirit of exporting a Canadian values like the rule of law, what exactly do they teach about the handling of complaints against the police? What do they disclose about the use of official secrecy and the pretext of national security to cover up their own mistakes and wrong-doing? What informalities do they teach about the risks and rewards of racism? The Afghan detainee issue and the Air India Inquiry are raising a host of questions we never dreamt of after Maher Arar.

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