A soldier's fight against an unjust war
The Deserter's Tale: Why I Walked Away From the War in Iraq
By Joshua Key
Text Publishing, 2007
224 pages, $32.95 (pb)
Private First Class Joshua Key watched with gut-twisting disgust as his fellow soldiers kicked around the heads, for sport, of four Iraqi civilians, decapitated by a deluge of gunfire, in Ramadi. The strange feelings, moral doubts and unanswered questions of his six-month tour of Iraq in 2003 straight after the US-led invasion now came to a head. He would, for the time being however, soldier on, staying disciplined and quiet, but inside he had crossed a line, nurturing a growing resolve to reject the war by deserting.
Key's biography, told with unadorned but compelling simplicity, follows the life-altering path of a US citizen who turned from super-patriot to war-resister. Born in 1978 in the small town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, Key lived in a trailer with his dirt-poor mother and wife-bashing step-father. Hard economic and health times on the minimum wage propelled Key to enlist in the US Army in what he now calls the "poverty draft".
The military's lies started straight away. The promises of no combat duty, rent-free accommodation, learning his dream trade of welding, 9-5 work as a bridge-builder able to spend each evening at home with his family — all evaporated from the first minute of boot camp to his deployment to Iraq as part of the "non-deployable" 43rd Combat Engineers Corps.
Still, he was buoyed by the cheers of the Iraqis who greeted him as a liberator from Saddam Hussein's tyranny, and he was eager to hunt for weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, as the US president had briefed him. Reality departed from the theory swiftly, accelerated by his military training in Missouri in which he was trained to see all Iraqis and all Muslims as terrorists, to bayonet and hate "rag-heads" and "sand-niggers".
In Ramadi, Fallujah and other postings, Key took part in violent house raids where his unit "blasted through the front door of a civilian home, broke everything in sight, punched and zipcuffed the men and sent them away" to detention and torture. Two hundred house ransackings and months of traffic checkpoint duty, however, turned up not a single hideous weapon or terrorist.
His fellow soldiers, frustrated by an unseen enemy whose mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks numbered all their lives, bashed, traumatised and murdered defenceless, innocent civilians. Key stopped short only of the killing. The victims included car drivers who didn't know where to stop, pedestrians who showed disrespect, the mentally disabled who did not understand shouted instructions and hungry schoolgirls beseeching food. "We, the Americans", writes Key, "had become the terrorists in Iraq".
Key's moral compass swung back to true values. He, "like most of my buddies", lost any belief in the cause and some, like Key, stopped the beating and looting. He felt degraded by his silence in the face of daily violations of basic human rights and breaches of the Geneva Conventions, particularly the sexual abuse of women and children in war. Key began to sympathise with the Iraqi resistance — he imagined himself doing the same if the US was militarily occupied under false pretences.
In February 2004, home on leave, Key made the decision to desert, running like a wanted criminal, suffering the blackouts, nightmares and panic attacks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Aided by the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto, he sought, and still awaits, refugee status in Canada.
Key did more than just opt out of the war, however, becoming an activist, telling his story in public meetings at churches, mosques, union and community halls. Disowned by his family, he refused to apologise for his desertion — "I deserted an injustice. I will never apologise for it, the only apology due is to the people of Iraq." Key swore off the shooting, fighting and drinking of his youth, also ditching the racist attitudes that sustained his early military abuses as he awakened "slowly to the humanity of the very people I was taught to despise".
The military is a hard machine, its soldiers as much as its weapons forged of steel and fire, but at its core it is soft. Its human material, like Key, is ever capable of redeeming the voice of conscience by speaking louder than the yelling of army commanders and the lies of their political masters.