By Jim Schutze
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The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant near the office, keeping tabs on one another's court cases and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children, and he doesn't want any of them put in jail. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent e-mail from a soldier at Fort Knox.
"I've been having some problems with what my military does and while I've put in for conscientious objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot," the soldier writes. "I believe what the Army does is to commit murder...unfortunately, the Army treats anyone with my feelings poorly. I can't talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I'm trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it's advisable to do this."
Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?
"I'll advise him to call," he says. "You never give up hope. We're not discouraged; we're angry." Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here—this isn't how Canada is supposed to be."
The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories he heard from soldiers returning from Southeast Asia. When news of the My Lai massacre broke, he asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the mayhem that led American soldiers to slaughter more than 300 unarmed civilians and toss them into a mass grave. "In war, bad things happen," he recalls the man telling him. "I asked myself, 'If I were in a situation like that, would I be the heroic guy who says, "Hey stop, this is terrible," or would I join in because I was experiencing the same rage and frustration they were?' I felt I couldn't be sure." When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious objector status and was denied. In January 1970 he drove into Canada. While President Richard Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the anti-war protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcoming American deserters by the thousands.
It's unclear whether today's deserters will be affected by the fact that America now has a president who campaigned on his conviction that the Iraq War was illegal, which is precisely the refrain of most war resisters, many of whom volunteered to go to Afghanistan but refused to serve in Iraq. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement, says President Obama is unlikely to make war deserters much of a priority in the near future. "I can't imagine he'd consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term," Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters about the unfounded case for war in Iraq, he's still the commander in chief, and it remains a crime to desert one's comrades in a time of war.
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion constitutes a punishable crime for good reason. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that in a time of war put other soldiers' lives at risk," he says. "Not only do these crimes go against Army values, they degrade unit readiness."
Hall questions why soldiers would enlist voluntarily and only later, once receiving orders to deploy, change their minds and cite political or philosophical reasons for deserting. The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam—33,000 in 1971 alone—were running from a compulsory draft while today's deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans. Rivera has been called a "parasite" and a "traitor" in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States that not only call the recent deserters "pussies" and cowards who abandoned their brothers in arms, but also fools who enlisted deliberately only to shirk their duty.
Yet Zunes and other sociologists point out that unlike the draft-dodgers and resisters who fled north decades ago, many of whom were well-educated and had been able to put off the draft for several years by attending college, most recent deserters come from impoverished backgrounds and joined the military because it was the only way they could find to get an education and an above-minimum-wage job.
"What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," Zunes says, "a lot of people from rural areas or inner cities who simply don't have job opportunities or money for college—and the Army promises that." Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, who were often politically liberal and opposed the war to begin with, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. The majority of the dozen or so young resisters at the Toronto rally, for example, had begun their journeys as eager, patriotic recruits, only to undergo wrenching changes of heart that landed them in a foreign city that they'd hardly imagined, much less considered inhabiting.