WINNIPEG, MB, Mar 2, 2014/ Troy Media/ – The situation for war resisters in Canada has changed since the Winnipeg-based War Resistor Information Program (WRIP) used to arrange bus tours from Toronto to Fort Dix, New Jersey so that a rare, compassionate base commander could arrange Chapter 10 discharges for busloads of Vietnam War era military AWOLs who could “resign for the good of the service”.
After a weekend of volleyball and beer, a “let’s agree to disagree and part ways amicably” kind of deal was reached.
Since all of these expatriate Americans have since found new homes and families and careers (and eventually citizenship) in Canada, most were just trying to make sure they could attend their kid sister’s wedding (or perhaps a parent’s funeral) stateside without being thrown into the brig. While the actions of draft and military resistors were controversial, we came to reconcile their opposition to the Vietnam War.
There are plenty of similar objections to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but any member of the U.S. military who expresses their opposition to current policies isn’t finding the same level of support.
The biggest difference nowadays is that they’ve gotten rid of “the draft” – a Selective Service system which made all able-bodied, 18-year-old men eligible for two years of military service if their names were called. Americans now maintain an all-volunteer army, which seems to make the obligation which comes from signing a contract trump any misgivings like conscientious objection or otherwise changing your mind. Those who leave the military without authorization are labelled as deserters and all the negative implications which go along with that.
The big difference in Canada is the lack of support for AWOLs who arrive nowadays to evade prosecution. The federal government orders them to leave the country, and the Canadian public, despite polls which indicate a majority supports providing permanent resident status for such refugees, does not show the same amount of support as it did during the 1960s and 70s.
There are no mass rallies like we used to see in front of the former U.S. Consulate on Donald St. in downtown Winnipeg. And we don’t maintain a list of about 50 “instant families” (wife and two kids, cat or dog etc.) which could be used to help a war resistor cross the border innocuously when he attempted to visit the U.S. for an emergency.
Yet there really isn’t much difference between the legal and political situations that American war resistors from these two different eras face.
The biggest bugaboo seems to be the fact that all of today’s AWOLs are breaking a contract they signed voluntarily which commits them to a period of military service. The prevailing logic seems to be that, no matter if you change your mind later on, you should at least fulfill your obligations.
Today, government officials on both sides of the border are ignoring plenty of arguments and legal precedents that would allow military personnel to leave before their hitch is up.
An enlistment contract, after all, is more complicated than a basic labour agreement. Politics play a huge role in the former, which can lead people to a change of heart.
WRIP once counselled a black kid from Harlem who had signed up to “be all he could be” in the U.S. Army, but instead of finding training and a career he found himself fighting against people halfway around the world his superior officers called names as bad as the n-word. There was the guy who went AWOL after troops he entrusted to secure a Vietnamese nursing station entertained themselves by inserting shells inside the nurses and blowing the tops of their heads off.
There has to be an allowance made for such changes of heart, especially with some of the atrocities American troops have witnessed in Iraq.
But no matter the American military attitude to resistors, where is Canada when these people, facing five years in prison for a justifiable change of mind and/or heart, need us?
The majority of Canadians object to American policies in the Middle East. So how come we won’t provide aid and comfort to people who are in total agreement with us and need our help?
Troy Media’s Eye on Manitoba columnist Don Marks is a Winnipeg-based writer.
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