By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, Key, 30, grew up admiring his grandfather who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and children on his earnings from KFC. A country boy who recalls his wife saying, "You get 'em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it's a kid. They're terrorists too," Key never dreamed that after a tour in Iraq he'd be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter's Tale.
Ryan Johnson, a slight, bearded 25-year-old from California's Central Valley who looks more like an organic farmer than a soldier, says he enlisted because he was tired of working factory jobs at places like Frito Lay and couldn't afford college. His mother, a homemaker, and his stepfather, a UPS driver, kept yellow ribbon bumper stickers on their cars and voted Republican.
Dale Landry, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area who deserted in 2007, joined the Air Force his senior year of high school. Besides the fact that it would enable him to go to college, he figured the military could be a good path out of low-income, red-state America and into a career in Democratic politics. His mother was a waitress who raised him alone except for a series of husbands who came and went, and he wanted his life to look as different from hers as possible. It does, but he couldn't have predicted that would mean watching from Canada as the first Democrat to win the presidency since Landry was 11 years old took the oath of office.
Another difference in the deserter generations seems to be their level of combat experience. John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University and the author of Northern Passage, a book about the migration of Americans to Canada during Vietnam, says 80 percent of the 25,000 draft-aged men who fled to Canada bailed after receiving draft notices and never actually fought. Now, while the Army's Hall maintains that most deserters are junior troops who leave their units early intheir military careers for personal, not moral or philosophical reasons, the Toronto deserters don't fit that description. Most served for at least two years. Patrick Hart, a former sergeant from New York who served with the 101st Airborne Division, was an active-duty soldier for nearly 10 years and did one tour in Iraq, while Dean Walcott, of Connecticut, served the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Unlike soldiers in Vietnam, who only did one tour unless theyre-enlisted, today's troops are deployed multiple times, which is making for a new, more battle-tested type of war deserter. Phil McDowell of Rhode Island, for example, joined the Army in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and fled to Canada in 2006 because he received stop-loss orders back to Iraq after he'd already done one tour there and had been discharged.
Regardless of differences between the deserter generations, today's deserters in Canada have a similar unwillingness to fight in an unpopular war. To Zaslofsky, they are even more courageous than he and his peers were. "In a way I value them a lot more than my generation," he says. "We had this vast anti-war movement to support us and inform our decisions. They don't have that. They've come to this individually, not because of some mass political indoctrination."
Joshua Key's uneasiness about the Army's presence in Iraq began in the first months of the war in 2003 as he served with Fort Carson's 43rd Combat Engineer Company in Ramadi. His platoon would raid one to four houses each night in search of insurgents or evidence of terrorism, but night after night, all they found were tidy, middle-class homes filled with terrified families, he writes in The Deserter's Tale, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. Drawn from his recollections and with little or no corroboration from other soldiers, the book is a haunting chronicle of the mounting disillusionment that led him to desert. As his unit stormed through Iraqi homes, he recounts, they'd shout at the inhabitants to "Get down!" and "Shut the fuck up!" in English, then knock the men to the ground, often beating them before hauling them off for transport to a detention facility. "We tore the hell out of those places," Key writes, "blasting apart doors, ripping up mattresses and ripping drawers from dressers. From all our ransacking, we never found anything other than the ordinary goods that ordinary people keep in their houses." He also tells how the soldiers—him included—would steal from families during the raids, making off with knives, jewelry, gold, cash and, once, a television.
Parts of the book read like scenes out of Apocalypse Now. One chapter tells of an Army specialist who liked to release aggression by body-slamming corpses in a shed, while another shows members of Key's unit coming upon the bodies of dead Iraqis near the Euphrates River and kicking their severed heads around like soccer balls. One day, while riding through Fallujah atop an armored personnel carrier, the sergeant next to him grew annoyed when a pickup swerved in front of their vehicle. Without missing a beat, Key writes that the sergeant "let loose with his .50 caliber machine gun." The bullets tore into the truck's gas tank, transforming it into a fireball and prompting "hollers of delight" from some of the other men. Perhaps most traumatic for Key was watching, helpless, as a young Iraqi girl he'd befriended while guarding a hospital was felled by M16 gunfire from an unknown location. All this, he writes, led him to conclude that the American military "had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine."