Disillusioned Soldiers in the US and Israel Are Refusing to Serve
November 30, 2014
Travis Lupick / Al Jazeera America & Joseph Dana / Al Jazeera America
Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in Gaza war face brief jail sentences, but they believe their small number will slowly grow as more young men and women refuse to be part of an army of occupation. Meanwhile, in Canada, former US soldier Rodney Watson has lived as a prisoner or more than five years, confined to a church that has granted him sanctuary for refusing to serve in the US occupation of Iraq.
Marked for Deportation,
Iraq War Resisters Fight to Stay in Canada
Travis Lupick / Al Jazeera America
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (November 29, 2014) -- For more than five years, former US soldier Rodney Watson has lived as a prisoner, confined to a church that serves a poor neighborhood here.
Wanted on charges of desertion in the United States and marked for deportation from Canada, he's invoked the protection of sanctuary. Following a tradition established in medieval times, the Canada Border Services Agency officers have refrained from entering the church. Watson is safe from arrest as long as he stays within its walls.
There are as many as two-dozen men and women like Watson living in Canada today. Self-described conscientious objectors or resisters to the 2003 Iraq war, they have applied to Canadian refugee and immigration boards, but their applications have been stalled in courts for years. They remain in various states of legal limbo.
Most live with their families and are awaiting the outcome of immigration appeals. A few have work permits, while others are forced to sit idle. Some have exhausted legal options and have gone into hiding.
Watson's lifestyle is among the most restrictive of any deserter from the 2003 war. He lives in a small room at the church; his wife, who is Canadian, and their 5-year-old son split their time between the church and relatives' homes in a Vancouver suburb. The building doubles as a shelter that takes in upwards of 200 homeless people, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addiction. Border security officers maintain a strong interest in his case.
In his room on the church's second floor, Watson said the extra scrutiny his immigration application has received stems from his anti-war views.
"I really believe that if I hadn't spoken out before I came in this church, I would never have had a target painted on me," he said. "But I came up here for a reason. I didn't come up here to be quiet. I came up here to make a stand, and I'm still taking a stand, even though it's been five years."
After moving to Vancouver, Watson voiced his opposition to US military actions abroad in numerous interviews with Canadian media, but he's grown quiet since the start of the year. Watson said he's discouraged. He noted that during the time he has lived in the church, the United States has withdrawn from one war in Iraq and entered another.
Today US forces are again bombing in Iraq and more than 3,000 American soldiers are deployed on the ground. Canada is also launching air strikes targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which began in early November.
"I lost a friend while I was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, and there's not a day that I don't think about why and for what?" Watson recently wrote on Facebook. "And here we go again."
The Canadian government says that American deserters are not legitimate refugees. Officials have stated publicly that war resisters' immigration applications are unlikely to be approved. In the United States, deserters who return from Canada face a higher risk of prosecution and jail time than if they'd never left, their lawyers say.
There is, however, a chance that war resisters' circumstances could soon change. Canada is scheduled to hold a federal election in 2015. Watson and deserters across the country are placing their hopes on two opposition candidates who are sympathetic to their cause.
Watson originally supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But during a 12-month tour that began in 2005, he said he witnessed US soldiers acting in condescending ways toward Iraqi civilians.
"Midway through my deployment, after I witnessed other soldiers doing certain things -- how they would take out their aggression on unarmed civilians -- it reminded me of how the police do us [black Americans] in our own country."
Watson's family moved to Kansas when he was 5, and he recalled that some people in their new neighborhood didn't take kindly to their arrival.
"We were just watching TV, me and my brothers and sisters," he said. "And all of the sudden, this brick comes through the window. Glass hits my brother in the face. I got hit in the face. Scratches on me and everything. My mom came running in and scooped us up and brought us upstairs. And all I heard was, 'N-----, n-----, n-----!' "
The war in Iraq brought back those memories, said Watson, except this time, as a soldier, he was a member of the group throwing bricks. "They would use the same word," he explained. "Calling them 'sand n------' when they would hit unarmed Iraqis."
As Watson grew disillusioned, a friend employed by a private security contractor was killed in an Iraqi attack on a helicopter. "That was the tipping point for me," he said.
He completed his tour. But when he was called for a second deployment to Iraq, in late 2006, Watson made the decision to desert. In November of that year, he moved to Vancouver.
One of the very first war resisters to move to Canada this century was Joshua Key, who entered the country in 2005. Today he lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his wife, whom he met in Canada, and their three children. "From my time in Iraq, I know that we created a whole generation of terrorists," Key said. "And now Canada is sending planes and advisers over."
Dean Walcott, who deserted in 2006, has it better than most war resisters. He has a work permit and lives with his family in Peterborough, Ontario. But after eight years, he still hasn't obtained permanent residency status. Like Watson, Walcott said his political activism has led Canadian authorities to stall his immigration application. He continues to speak his mind. "Once again, here we go," he said about the US-led fight against ISIL and other armed groups in the region.
Regardless of their reasons for leaving the Army, the soldiers who moved to Canada face harsh penalties should they return to the United States.
Cliff Cornell, who lived in British Columbia from 2005 to 2009, was sentenced to one year in prison after he returned of his own accord. Robin Long, who lived in B.C. from 2005 to 2008 before he was deported, was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to 15 months.
Kimberly Rivera lived in Toronto with her American family from 2007 to 2013. When she returned voluntarily to the United States, she was court martialed and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, she was denied an early release and gave birth in jail.
According to statistics supplied by the US Army, only a fraction of deserters -- 1,866 of 35,598 from 2001 to 2013 -- are prosecuted. But when individuals are selected for prosecution, they are very likely to be found guilty: During that same period, the conviction rate was 99 percent.
US Army representatives declined interviews for this story. Lieut. Col. Ben Garrett, a media-relations officer, wrote in an email that decisions regarding prosecution and punishment are made on a case-by-case basis: "Commanders have discretion to retain and rehabilitate, administratively separate, or court-martial a Soldier who was AWOL or who deserted."
James Branum, an Oklahoma City-based lawyer who has represented eight deserters, argued that politics is a factor. He said that roughly 50 percent of those who seek to emigrate are prosecuted. (The Army declined to comment).
"It depends a lot on the branch of service you're from, it depends on how political you were, and it depends on if you applied for asylum in Canada," he said. "Certainly, if you went to Canada, and the more politically you were in Canada, the more outspoken you were in the press, the more likely it is that they will get you."
Alyssa Manning, a Toronto-based lawyer who represents Watson and other war resisters, said deserters also receive special attention from authorities north of the border. For example, in July 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada issued an operational bulletin that instructs lower-level staff to forward to superiors any refugee claim that involves a military deserter.
"It's an unusual move for the minister to issue a directive that all cases of one particular type have to go to headquarters to be processed out of there," she said.
Representatives with Citizenship and Immigration Canada declined repeated requests for an interview. In an email, Kevin Menard, an agency spokesman, wrote that each claim is assessed on its individual merits. However, the email also depicts a government position that is unsympathetic to deserters' circumstances. "Military deserters from the United States are not genuine refugees under the internationally accepted meaning of the term," it states. "These unfounded claims clog up our system for genuine refugees who are actually fleeing persecution."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, which has led Canada since 2006, have maintained that uncompromising position. According to Menard, Canada's immigration and refugee board has rejected all of the cases it has heard concerning Iraq-war resisters.
But the Harper administration is unpopular and could be on its way out. And there is a well-known precedent for the Canadian government to grant safe harbor to US soldiers who refuse to fight.
In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of recruits for the Vietnam War fled north and were given legal status in Canada by a government that had declared itself "officially non-belligerent" in the conflict.
The two main contenders for Harper's job both oppose Canadian involvement in the fight against ISIL; war deserters hope that they will look more favorably on their cases. Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has not taken a stance on the war resister issue (and declined repeated requests for an interview on the topic). But it was Trudeau's father, Pierre Trudeau, who, as prime minister, granted permanent residency to Vietnam deserters in the 1960s and '70s.
The 2015 election could also bring to power Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, which has been sympathetic to conscientious objectors. NDP's Libby Davies, who represents the district in British Columbia where Watson lives, has befriended the Iraq-war veteran, even sharing Thanksgiving dinners with him and his family in years past.
Davies has tried to help war resisters obtain clemency in Canada. Her party has drafted and passed nonbinding resolutions to stop the deportation of war resisters. And Davies has repeatedly written every minister of immigration who has held power since deserters from the Iraq war began arriving in Canada.
"Whatever government it is, I want to see this young man be able to stay in this country with his wife and his son," she said.
The Canada Border Services Agency appears to have a long attention span for Watson and his case. Watson entered the church in September 2009, and three years later, in January 2013, he was nearly apprehended by CBSA agents waiting in an alley behind the building.
Watson leaned out of a door to say goodbye to a friend and officers attempted to grab him. The friend intervened, positioning himself in between the officer and Watson, who was able to maneuver back inside the church to the protection it afforded him.
Watson said he simply doesn't understand why war resisters like him are of such concern to the Canadian government. "We are here in Canada because of our conscience," he said. "We are here because we didn't agree with killing or dying for a lie. And look: Now we're back at it again."
The Lonely Path of
Israel's Military Dissenters
Joseph Dana / Al Jazeera America
(July 31, 2014) -- When 1st Sgt. A. received a second automated voice message from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) two weeks ago, he knew it was no longer possible to avoid the inevitable. The next day's call was not automated: A soldier, speaking curtly, told him it was time to report for duty at an Israeli military base in the south of the country.
A., who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of courting further punishment by speaking to the media, told the caller he refuses to take part in the Israeli army's current operation in the Gaza Strip. He questioned the ethics of an operation designed to root out Hamas infrastructure used to launch rockets on Israeli cities, citing the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza.
"All I know is that you have to show up to the base tomorrow," the caller told him. "Take it up with them."
Israelis like 1st Sgt. A. are a rarity. After more than three weeks of fighting that has cost the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians -- mostly civilians -- and over 50 Israeli soldiers, the Israeli public remains overwhelmingly supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
That's despite mounting Israeli military casualties; the negative images of the destruction wrought by Israel in Gaza that dominate international media; and tensions with its key ally, the United States, over efforts to broker a cease-fire.
In order to facilitate Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli army has called up as many as 85,000 reserve soldiers. In Israel, mandatory military conscription requires three years of service for men, and two years for women, from the age of 18.
The backbone of Israel's fighting force rests in the reserve of combat soldiers who are required to remain ready to serve when called up until the age of 45. For Israelis like 1st Sgt. A., when the country goes to war, life is put on hold and the fighting becomes an immediate reality.
Still, despite the public support for the war, a number of Israeli reservists have refused orders to serve in Gaza. Last week, more than 50 such soldiers publicly declared their refusal to join the war effort in an opinion piece in The Washington Post
"We found that troops who operate in the occupied territories aren't the only ones enforcing the mechanisms of control over Palestinian lives. In truth, the entire military is implicated. For that reason, we now refuse to participate in our reserve duties, and we support all those who resist being called to service ... to us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable," the soldiers wrote.
Despite the military's role as the central institution of national cohesion in Israel, the country has a long history of conscientious-objector movements such as Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit") and New Profile. Founded by Israeli combat veterans at the outbreak of the Lebanon war in 1982, Yesh Gvul is an organization that provides support for reserve soldiers who refuse call-up orders.
Yesh Gvul's activities have diminished since the 1980s, but New Profile, an organization that helps young Israelis avoid the draft, has filled the void. Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit that collects testimonies from Israeli combat veterans about their experiences but doesn't encourage refusal, has also facilitated a new conversation about the exact practices of the Israeli military in the occupied territories.
These organizations have been vilified by more hawkish Israelis, who see their work as a threat to Israel's national security. "These are not left-wing and human rights organizations, but terror groups and terror supporters," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in 2011 after the Israeli parliament debated setting up inquiry committees to probe a slew of left-wing groups, including New Profile and Breaking the Silence.
In April 2009, after Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, six members of New Profile were detained by Israeli police after their homes were raided and their computers seized.
Since its creation on the heels of the Holocaust, the Israeli military has cast itself as the most moral army in the world, and the Israeli government insists that an individual soldier always has the right to refuse orders deemed unethical. But refusers dispute the reality of that claim.
"The thing that is overlooked about the Israeli army," 1st Sgt. A. told Al Jazeera, "is the fact that you actually can't go to jail for conscientious objection [when refusing reserve duty]." Instead, he said, "you go to jail for disobeying an order."
So, when 1st Sgt. A. joined his unit at a southern IDF base more than two weeks ago, his commander was not pleased by his refusal to serve in Gaza. A.'s unit normally carries out reserve duties in the West Bank but also assists the national civilian defense.
"I had met with my commander before about refusing to serve a round of reserve duty in the West Bank," A. said. "Even though he strongly believed in the morality of our unit's mission there because of his strongly held Zionist beliefs, we worked out a situation in which I would serve a small sentence of two or three days for disobeying. But things have changed in the current war in Gaza."
This time, A. was sentenced by his commander to the maximum punishment of 18 days in a military prison. A. said a large number of soldiers from his unit also failed to report, although for the most part they did not share his principled objection to fighting in Gaza.
"Many Tel Aviv–type people that preferred partying over fighting in Gaza showed up to the base a week late, and were also put in jail. But they were given three or four days. I was given 18 because my commander wanted to make an example out of me for refusing the premise of this war," A. said.
The IDF was unable to answer Al Jazeera's query about the number of soldiers who'd declined to serve in Gaza, and what consequences they had faced. "Unfortunately we do not have the information," an IDF spokesperson said via email.
New Profile member Sahar Vardi said his organization's counseling network had been contacted by more than 100 people seeking to avoid serving in the current Gaza operation.
"We don't see a lot of people that want to publicly refuse this war at the moment," Vardi said. "But war radicalizes people, and they begin to see the occupation [in the West Bank] in a new light. We expect that many people will come to us quietly after the war is over and start the process of refusing to serve."
The zenith of Israel's refusal movement came during the 1982 Lebanon war, particularly after the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps sparked widespread public revulsion at the conduct of the invasion. Still, the human toll and the vague and shifting military objectives of Protective Edge are spurring some among a new generation of Israeli soldiers to question orders.
A. could go back to jail at any moment for the same offense -- refusing an order. But that prospect does not faze him.
"I see no alternative," he said at the end of our conversation. "I can't be a part of this cycle of blood and gore, where every two or three years we go into Gaza. I either refuse or I participate. There is no in-between."
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
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