We did betray them, after all. As a veteran of an illegal war, I feared that Canada would do this. But I’d hoped otherwise.
On November 15th, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected bids for asylum from two American war resisters, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey. When deported to the U.S., they both will face up to five years in prison and ongoing persecution. And this case will likely open the floodgates for deportation of other American war resisters from Canada.
This, despite the fact that the UN Secretary-General explicitly declared the U.S. war in Iraq to be illegal under the UN Charter, and despite the fact that the Canadian government refused to participate in that invasion in the first place. And at the time, 79% of Canadians agreed with this decision.
Today, I feel for Hinzman and Hughey, and I’m sad for my adopted home of Canada. I am a former Soviet soldier who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and I know first hand how hard it is to walk away from a war, because one faces prison, frightening uncertainty, and social condemnation.
Unlike today’s American resisters, I didn’t have enough wisdom or courage to openly refuse deployment to an illegal war. Many didn’t. Some Soviet draftees to the Afghan war I knew tried to make themselves sick, and they got out. The less lucky ones turned to self-mutilation as a last resort: a soldier in my training camp chopped off his “trigger” finger with an axe shortly before deployment. Another one, after arriving in Afghanistan, wanted out but had no way of doing it legally. He shot himself and nearly died while bleeding in my hands.
Are these the options we are now leaving American war resisters with?
It wasn’t always this way in Canada. During the 1960s and 70s, Canada became home for 50 000 American war resisters who did not want to participate in the illegal U.S. aggression in Vietnam. This, among other things, contributed to a genuine respect for Canada around the world, including in the former USSR. Indeed, back then, many of us Soviet soldiers had heard about those American war objectors finding refuge by escaping north, and some longed for their own Canada nearby.
Unfortunately, now, it seems, American resisters are losing their Canada, too.
What has changed? After the Vietnam War, the Canadian government changed our immigration laws, which now prevent any American war resisters from claiming refugee status in Canada. Very few Canadians are aware of that fact, but it’s what has allowed current Immigration Minister Diane Finley to tell Hinzman and Hughey to “respect our laws and leave Canada.”
How ironic, then, to reflect that on November 26, 1986, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario welcomed five Soviet war objectors from Afghanistan. The Assembly described them as “heroic individuals” and “conscientious objectors in refusing to be partners in crime.” The soldiers were given asylum in Canada, and they were praised for refusing “to be part and parcel of a butchering machine âe¦occupying Afghanistan” (Transcript of Debates). Ontario’s MPPs “gave them a standing ovation” (The Globe and Mail, November 27, 1986).
It’s been said the nine-year-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan caused the deaths of 1.5 million Afghans, displaced millions more, and ultimately left the country in ruins. The latest reports out of Iraq state that some one million Iraqis have died, 4.2 million have been displaced, and a civil society that managed to survive even under Saddam’s brutal rule has been utterly destroyed. Where’s the difference?
Yet, for Canadians, the Soviet deserters of the 80s represented the “best in humanity,” while today’s American war resisters don’t even merit our sympathy, let alone refuge.
Some argue that today’s U.S. soldiers volunteered, and therefore can’t be treated like the respected draftee-resisters of the past. The U.S. Consul General to Canada recently stated that one couldn’t “claim conscientious objector status after signing up, taking the benefits and salary,” and many Canadian politicians have echoed this sentiment.
But again, this isn’t the position Canada and the U.S. took in the 1980s. Then, professional Soviet officers who deserted were as welcomed and praised in the West as those who’d been forced into service.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq is as illegal, immoral and destructive as was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yet, we are about to start deporting soldiers who refuse to participate in the violence in Iraq. How are we going to be judged by history, and by our children?
The only hope now lies with us, the Canadian people. On December 6, Canada’s Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration will be holding hearings on the issue of allowing U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada. Canadians should urgently encourage their government and MPs to create a provision that would allow American war resisters to stay in this country. Doing so would return to us all the great Canadian tradition of protecting people seeking peace.
And it could also give us back our humanity.