Last week, the War Resisters Support Campaign and the Council of Canadians brought US peace activist Cindy Sheehan to Ottawa to speak at a news conference, appealing to the government to offer sanctuary to American war resisters.
Now, nobody is expecting this endeavour to bear fruit any time soon.
Stephen Harper is as likely to don a tutu and perform Swan Lake as he is to open the borders to US military deserters, and no one knows that better than the Council of Canadians.
The point in bringing in a celebrity activist like Cindy Sheehan is to get public attention to your cause, and to get people to consider it as a real alternative, because once a notion takes hold in the national consciousness it can easily outlive recalcitrant governments.
The issue Sheehan raises is an emotional one for Canadians.
Most oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iraq, and the torture in Bagram, Abu Graib, and Guantanamo, and many are of us are appalled at the trickery and the aggressive campaigning the US military uses to recruit kids in poor neighborhoods with few other prospects in life, and at the imbalance of poor and black Americans who end up in the army.
A lot of Canadians are old enough to remember the draft dodgers from the Vietnam War, and how good it felt to be a safe haven for boys who were about to be shipped off against their will to drop napalm on villagers, how proud we were to be on the side of peace.
It would be great to feel the same about Iraq, but are the circumstances similar enough to justify opening the borders to war resisters again?
Every soldier knows the army isn’t a democracy, and you don’t get to pick and choose your battles.
If you sign up, you might have to fight, and you may not always agree with the war.
The argument against this is that Iraq is an illegal war.
It’s unsanctioned by the UN, and has involved the slaughter of innocents by their thousands, the bombing of schools and hospitals, the use of food and water as weapons against a civilian population, illegal detention, deaths in custody, and torture.
In a report released last week, Amnesty International says, “The US government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture, it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish.”
The AI report details horrendous abuse, sanctioned at the highest levels but punished only at the lowest, and then in the most lenient manner possible.
When soldiers at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan beat a “slight, 22 year old taxi driver” named Dilawar to death as he stood in shackles they “told investigators that the blows were standard operating procedure for unco-operative detainees.”
Seven soldiers were convicted of various offences in Dilawar’s death, and the most jail time any one served was five months.
None of their superior officers was charged.
Not every soldier adapts well to slaughter.
After one tour of duty, some simply refuse to go back. Most manage to hide out in the States, a few decide to escape.
Six thousand soldiers have deserted from the US forces since 2003.
One hundred and fifty of them are believed to be in Canada, presumably hoping for an amnesty. No doubt others are in Mexico.
But there’s a problem with the idea of war resisters flocking to Canada.
Canada is a lousy place from which to resist the war.
We’re thousands of miles away. If you’re in Canada and you can’t get back into the States, you’re in neither the invading country nor the invaded one, both of which are a lot better places to make your point.
It’s a mistake to confuse the current issue with the draft.
Draft dodgers had taken on no responsibility for the Vietnam war, were in fact refusing to get involved from the outset.
But volunteer soldiers have accepted a huge responsibility, and I don’t mean the responsibility to follow orders in blindness.
The enormous duty that a soldier accepts is to the victims of war.
The Geneva Conventions require a soldier to refuse to make war on civilians or to abuse prisoners, and to report such abuses when he sees them, and failure to do so is a war crime.
I sympathize with anyone who realizes he’s doing something evil and wants to stop.
I sympathize with young men and women who don’t to be killed in a pointless, fruitless, brutal imperialist adventure like the War on Terror.
But soldiers who are ashamed of their actions or their country’s actions in Iraq have a better course than seeking amnesty in Canada.
They can go back and try and change things.