‘No one should have to participate in the war if they don’t want to. I’ve been there and I did it. I shouldn’t spend a day in jail.’ JOSHUA KEY, U.S. ARMY DESERTER AND CANADIAN REFUGEE APPLICANT, TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HOW HE CROSSED THE LINE IN IRAQ
You were 24, with two children and a baby on the way when you joined the U.S. army in 2002. Why did you sign up?
A: It wasn’t so much to have money for college afterwards, I just wanted a steady paycheque, health care for my children and to be in something bigger, you might say.
Q: You’re talking about what the army could do for you. What did you think you were going to do for the army?
A: I was told I’d be building bridges, so I figured I would build bridges to the most extent that I could.
Q: In your book, you say you were promised you wouldn’t see combat. But this was after 9/11, when just about everybody in the world was expecting some kind of serious American military action. Why did you think you’d be exempted?
A: I guess, for the most part, because a person with a military suit and military credentials was the one telling me I’d go to a nondeployable base. I had my suspicions, because at that time there was a little talk of Iraq, but as far as I knew, I was coming from Guthrie, Okla., I never really watched the news or kept attention of exactly what was going on.
Q: After you finished boot camp and it was clear you were going to be sent to Iraq, you say you were ready to go to war. What had changed?
A: Weapons of mass destruction, I think that scared everyone. I was scared for my
family. Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant. Through the military, and even when I was a kid in the first Gulf War, I knew he was a person who needed to be dealt with. The way the military made it sound, the way it looked, was, I’d rather go take care of it now than when my kids get older, them have to go take care of it.
Q: You describe pretty appalling living conditions in Iraq for soldiers in your unit. You didn’t get to sleep,you had outdated equipment, there wasn’t enough food or water. What had you thought war would be like?
A: Going into it, I had a completely different representation of what would happen and how it would be. I didn’t think that we’d be living in the middle of cities, bombed out palaces, and just making a place to lay your head. I didn’t think we’d be living in the Marriott either, of course.
Q: You grew up poor, watching your mother be beaten by your stepfather, and feeling quite at home with guns and fighting. Given what you knew of the world and human behaviour, didn’t you expect some pretty bad behaviour from your fellow soldiers?
A: To an extent. We were all trained in the same way, you’re taught things, just very vaguely, about the Geneva Convention. Just even from watching movies, some things do happen in war, but some things are not supposed to. There’s a line, and a lot of people crossed that line in Iraq.
Q: You served 6V2 months in Iraq, then deserted when you were back in the U.S. on
leave, and came to Canada. Last November the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) rejected your claim for asylum, and you’re appealing that ruling. Where does your case stand now?
A: The paperwork has been filed, the appeal is in process, and I stay hopeful. I’m more hoping for a provision for all of us deserters to stay. I don’t know exactly what steps follow the appeal, but if it’s denied, I’ll still keep fighting.
Q: You told the IRB that you witnessed and participated in atrocities in Iraq. Civilians’ homes being ransacked and destroyed for no reason. Children being killed. And you say you saw U.S. soldiers who’d decapitated four Iraqis kicking their heads around like soccer balls. The IRB decided those were “isolated excesses.” Were they?
A: No. I wouldn’t say isolated at all.
Q: So how are all these atrocities being covered up?
A: Of course some of them have not been. They’ve been coming out, I would say. But a lot of them, there are no records, a lot of people don’t say anything.
Q: Why didn’t you report those soldiers kicking the decapitated heads around?
A: Every time I did ask questions on other incidents, I was told, “Oh, it’s none of your concern, don’t worry about it.” I didn’t have the rank, you might say. What could I do? I was just a private first class.
Q: If these events aren’t isolated, there must be a lot of other soldiers who’ve witnessed
similar things. Why are relatively few of them deserting the army?
A: It’s like another world. I guess a lot of people when they come back from war never talk about it at all, then they start having symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which I would say 98 per cent will, especially if they’re in a combat area. And a lot of times it’s easier to try to forget.
Q: A lot of Canadians have sympathy for your views on the illegitimacy of the war, but nevertheless would say, “Well, you signed up for the army, you weren’t forced into it, and therefore you have a duty either to complete your contract or take the consequences you agreed to when you signed up.”
A: Well, it’s an unjustified and immoral war. Of course, to myself, there was nothing but lies and deception from the start [when they told me I wouldn’t see combat]. But when I went to Iraq I was willing to go and I was ready to go defend my country. [What I did there was] not defending my country. That’s doing
‘I love my country and 1 love my people, that's never been my problem. But 1 don't get along with the government.’
nothing but creating more problems for my country in the future. And I see it as, I should be able to walk away from it. Back home, the senators, the congressmen, the President, they don’t send their children to go fight.
Q :Alot of members of your own family have called you a coward and a traitor.
A: Most of them won’t listen to the whole story, I guess that’s one of the problems, they just listen to the news. The whole country, the whole media, the President is telling them things different from what I’m telling them, from actually being on the ground. My family just thought it was like the first Gulf War. To them it’s just, “No, you should’ve went back.” Q: The maximum sentence for desertion is
five years. Why not just return to the U.S., turn yourself in, and take your chances? Other deserters have gotten off lightly, like Darrell Anderson, who was held for three days, then given a less-than-honourable discharge.
A: I know it goes case by case, so what happened to him might not happen to another one. Second of all, I just think it would be immoral for anyone to have to sit in jail for something they believe is morally wrong. No one should have to participate in the war if they don’t want to, especially not myself. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and I did it. I shouldn’t have to spend one day in jail.
Q: If you had an iron-clad guarantee that the U.S. military would not make you serve time, would you return to the United States?
A: I would still have to say no. I was in a contract [with the army] that was based on lies. Whatever they said to me, I don’t know if they’d follow through or not. Of course I would love to go see my mother and my brother, but as far as living in the country, I
would never do that. For everything I’ve learned, everything I witnessed in Iraq, everything I’ve been through, I would say that a lot of changes would have to be made, and I don’t see none of them changes happening. I have faith in the Canadian government, and I think they’ll do the right thing.
Q: Why do you have faith in the Canadian government?
A: I guess you would have to say I more have faith in the Canadian people. I think there’s a lot more alertness here and people know a lot more about what’s going on in the world in general. The Canadians fight for what they believe in. Back home, people seem to more believe what their government says and not really ask no questions, sure not as much as they should.
Q: You’ve seen quite a bit of Canada. You lived in Toronto, then B.C., and now you’re in Saskatchewan. Why all the moves?
A: I’m looking for the place that reminds me of home.
Q: So there is something about the United States that you miss.
A: Oh yeah, I love my country and I love my people, that’s never been my problem. It’s just that I don’t get along with the government. In Canada I’ve just tried to find that equal place. Saskatchewan is more like Oklahoma, terrainwise and people-wise, though of course the winters are a lot different.
Q: How are you and your wife supporting yourselves?
A: You get a work permit, you get health care through the federal health. I work half the time as a welder, sometimes I slaughter animals. I stay busy.
Q: You have to be one of the few welders in Canada who’s written a book. What do your co-workers think?
Alt one in is your different, asks you spare what when you time, someand do you say, “I’ve been working on a book.” It’s quite shocking to some. I don’t answer unless the question is asked.
Q: Typically Canada accepts refugee claims from deserters who’ve been conscripted into armies rather than volunteered for them. Why do you think an exception should be made in your case?
A: I know it looks weird, I’ve felt it myself when I go places and tell them I’m applying for refugee status and they look at me like I’m crazy because I can speak perfect English. Of course, they want to know why and ask questions and things. Some understand and some don’t. I think every person should have the right [to seek refugee status]. Just because I volunteered into it, still everything was lies and I went to an illegal and immoral war, they should take all of it into account.
Q: The IRB said while it’s true you’ll likely be court-martialled in the U.S., you won’t be persecuted, you won’t face cruel and unusual punishment.
A: There’s nothing to put that in facts. I don’t know exactly what would happen or what wouldn’t happen.
Q: The IRB ruling also said that because you didn’t know what wasgoi?ig to happen to the menyou captured in your house raids, you weren’t complied in torture, as you’d said in your refugee claim.
A: I think that I was completely complicit and involved, regardless of if I was sitting there and being the one doing it, or if I was just the one that took them from the home and made them get on the truck.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in five years?
A: Oh, man. I just want to live a nice, peaceful life, and I hope that I can obtain that. Fiere in Canada. M
U.S. army spokesperson John P. Boyce Jr. queried why Joshua Key had not reported any crimes he witnessed, and encouraged him to do so: “Over 600 investigations examined allegations of detainee mistreatment and other battlefield operations to date.
The army is ensuring that all soldiers live up to the army values and adhere to the Law of War.” For an excerpt from Key’s book, The Deserter’s Tale, seepage 32.
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