The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Stop loss

A small but steady trickle of soldiers has made its way north from the United States, claiming refugee status. As enlistees in the United States military, they would be required to return to their military base at the end of their leave, and odds are very good that in time -- usually on the soon side of time, since that provoked their actions -- they would be required to serve in Iraq. Desertion is a serious crime in any military, moreso during a time of war. While it is unlikely that the death penalty would be evoked, they almost certainly face either jail time or an alternate military punishment: and they might still be shipped out to Iraq.

Many of those who oppose the Iraq war also support the efforts of these soldiers to remain in Canada, out of the reach of United States military law. In the endless battle to establish labelling and language, they have succeeded in broadly establishing the term "war resister", implying that in this context, desertion equates to a moral stand against the war.

Almost without exception the reason these men give for deserting the military is that the United States is currently prosecuting an illegal war and that they are conscientious objectors, thereby evoking the spectre of Vietnam-era draft dodging.

That the Iraq war is illegal under what passes for international law is true. There are legal ways that the status of conscientious objector can be pursued even within the military, although that status is extremely difficult to achieve for a soldier.

However, the United States domestic military situation is not parallel to that of Vietnam. While Selective Service registration still exists, there is currently no federal draft; and if the military has its way, there is unlikely to be. These young men entered the military of their own free will, subject to no more coercion than exists in any well-designed marketing campaign. They accepted freely all the benefits of military service. In almost all cases the war in Afghanistan had already begun by the time they enlisted, if not yet the war in Iraq: so they would have known military action was entirely likely. At no previous point have these young men taken part in any of the many acceptable variants of dissent to such military action. The idea of concientious objection seems to have arisen only when it came time for them to serve personally in Iraq, or when the rotation would have returned them to service in Iraq.

Yet the entire structure of every military is such as to seal in service for a fixed period of time, regardless of what that service might happen to be, precisely because sooner or later military service is going to require doing things the enlistee is not going to want to do. Thus to enlist is to cede a significant degree of personal judgement. To enlist is to accept obedience to the greater political and military will over one's own free will. Service is not and cannot be conditional on doing only those things one wants to do.

Failure to fully understand what this means is another variant of ignorance of the law: which has never been considered an acceptable defence. Legally a military contract requires only that the enlistee understand that he will need to serve a full term of service, which will require combat training and may require combat, in whatever capacity that branch of the military thinks he will be an asset. The individual may apply for transfer or promotion, but the decision is always the military's.

For this reason, the argument supporting deserting United States soldiers focuses solely on the moral ground of the war itself, avoiding entirely the nature of the contract or why such a contract is absolutely necessary to having a viable military: consequently making those who refuse to serve in that war into "war resisters".

Asylum is now sought on the basis that were these soldiers to return to the United States, they would face serious prosecution. Yet such has always been the nature of setting one's own values in opposition to an existing societal set of values. How can someone realistically expect that it should be the institution which gives way first? For every act where an individual chooses a stand which opposes existing a prioris, there will be consequences. In optimal conditions, such as those cultivated by Mahatma Gandhi, it is those consequences which can force change upon the greater institution, not individual conscientious objection in itself. Without the real possibility of significant consequences, conscientious objection means nothing.

Thus, while these soldiers claim to be making a moral stand, their refugee claim hangs almost entirely on Canada's unconditional acceptance of that stand, even to the point of subverting United States domestic policy. In other words, these so-called "war resisters" are not themselves prepared to accept the consequences of conscientious objection -- and for some self-defeating reason too many of those opposed to the war in Iraq agree with them.

The parallel ends here.

Invoking stop-loss laws, especially where the legislation has changed after the time of enlistment, alters what the enlistee has agreed to. In signing a contract agreeing to a fixed term of service, those who do not wish to continue in the armed services ought to have every right to leave the service after they have fulfilled that complete term. Invoking the stop-loss clause alters the terms of service from term volunteer to lifelong indenture: and then it is no longer the individual's free will which continues his service.

And that changes all the rest.


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