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You wouldn’t catch me dead in Iraq

Posted in the database on Tuesday, August 29th, 2006 @ 09:31:10 MST (3113 views)
by Peter Laufer    Times Online  

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Scores of American troops are deserting — even from the front line in Iraq. But where have they gone? And why isn’t the US Army after them? Peter Laufer tracked down four of the deserters

They are the US troops in Iraq to whom the American administration prefers not to draw attention. They are the deserters – those who have gone Awol from their units and not returned, risking imprisonment and opprobrium.

When First Lieutenant Ehren Watada of the US Army, who faced a court martial in August, refused to go to Iraq on moral grounds, the newspapers in his home state of Hawaii were full of letters accusing him of “treason”. He said he had concluded that the war is both morally wrong and a horrible breach of American law. His participation, he stated, would make him party to “war crimes”. Watada is just one conscientious objector to a war that has polarised America, arguably more so than even the Vietnam war.

It is impossible to put a precise figure on the number of American troops who have left the army as a result of the US involvement in Iraq. The Pentagon says that a total of 40,000 troops have deserted their posts (not simply those serving in Iraq) since the year 2000. This includes many who went Awol for family reasons. The Pentagon’s spokesmen say that the overall number of deserters has actually gone down since operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is no doubt that a steady trickle of deserters who object to the Iraq war have made it over the border and are now living in Canada. There they seek asylum, often with the help of Canadian anti-war groups. One Toronto lawyer, Jeffry House, has represented at least 20 deserters from Iraq in the Canadian courts; he is himself a conscientious objector, having refused to fight in the Vietnam war – along with 50,000 others, at the peak of the conflict. He estimates that 200 troops have already gone underground in Canada since the war in Iraq began.

These conscientious objectors are a brave group – their decisions will result in long-term life changes. To be labelled a deserter is no small burden. If convicted of desertion, they run the risk of a prison sentence – with hard labour. To choose exile can mean lifelong separation from family and friends, as even the most trivial encounter with the police in America – say, over a traffic offence – could lead to jail.

Many of the deserters are not pacifists, against war per se, but they view the Iraq war as wrong. First Lt Watada, for instance, said he would face prison rather than serve in Iraq, though he was prepared to pack his bags for Afghanistan to fight in a war that he considered just. They don’t want to face the military courts, which is why they have decided to flee to Canada. A generation ago, Canada welcomed Vietnam-war draft dodgers and deserters. Today, the political climate is different and the score or so of US deserters who are now north of the border are applying for refugee status. So far, the Canadian government is saying no, so cases rejected for refugee status are going to appeal in the federal courts.

But there is no guarantee that these exiles will ultimately find safe haven in Canada. If the federal courts rule against the soldiers and they then exhaust all further judicial possibilities, they may be deported back to the United States – and that may not be what the Americans want. Their presence in the US will in itself represent yet another public-relations headache for the Bush administration.


First Armored Division, 2-3 Field Artillery, at Giessen, Germany. Age: 24

Darrell Anderson joined the US Army just before the Iraq war started.

“I needed health care, money to go to college, and I needed to take care of my daughter. The military was the only way I could do it,” he tells me. As we chat, basking in the sun on a peaceful Toronto street, he fiddles with his pocket watch, which has a Canadian flag on its face. He’s wearing a peace-symbol necklace.

After fighting for seven months in Iraq, he came home bloodied from combat, with a Purple Heart that proved his sacrifice – and seriously opened his eyes. “When I joined, I wanted to fight,” he says. “I wanted to see combat. I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to save people. I wanted to protect my country.” But soon after he arrived in Iraq, he tells me, he realised that the Iraqis did not want him there, and he heard harsh tales that surprised and distressed him.

“Soldiers were describing to me how they had beaten prisoners to death,” he says. “There were three guys and one said, ‘I kicked him from this side of the head while the other guy kicked him in the head and the other guy punched him, and he just died.’ People I knew. They were boasting about it, about how they had beaten people to death.” He says it again: “Boasting about how they had beaten people to death. They are trained killers now. Their friends had died in Iraq. So they weren’t the people they were before they went there.”

Anderson says that even the small talk was difficult to tolerate. “I hate Iraqis,” he quotes his peers as saying. “I hate these damn Muslims.” At first he was puzzled by such talk. “After a while I started to understand. I started to feel the hatred myself. My friends were dying. What am I here for? We went to fight for our country; now we’re just fighting to stay alive.” In addition to taking shrapnel from a roadside bomb – the injury that earned him the Purple Heart – Anderson says he often found himself in firefights. But it was work at a checkpoint that made him seriously question his role. He was guarding the “backside” of a street checkpoint in Baghdad, he says. If a car passed a certain point without stopping, the guards were supposed to open fire.

“A car comes through and it stops in front of my position. Sparks are coming from the car from bad brakes. All the soldiers are yelling. It’s in my vicinity, so it’s my responsibility. I didn’t fire. A superior goes, ‘Why didn’t you fire? You were supposed to fire.’ I said, ‘It was a family!’ At this time it had stopped. You could see the children in the back seat. I said, ‘I did the right thing.’ He’s like, ‘No, you didn’t. It’s procedure to fire. If you don’t do it next time, you’re punished.’”

Anderson shakes his head at the memory. “I’m already not agreeing with this war. I’m not going to kill innocent people. I can’t kill kids. That’s not the way I was raised.” He says he started to look around at the ruined cityscape and the injured Iraqis, and slowly began to understand the Iraqi response. “If someone did this to my street, I would pick up a weapon and fight. I can’t kill these people. They’re not terrorists. They’re 14-year-old boys, they’re old men. We’re occupying the streets. We raid houses. We grab people. We send them off to Abu Ghraib, where they’re tortured. These are innocent people. We stop cars. We hinder everyday life. If I did this in the States, I’d be thrown in prison.”

Birds are singing sweetly as he speaks, a stark contrast to his descriptions of atrocities in Iraq. “I didn’t shoot anybody when I was in Baghdad. We went down to Najaf with howitzers. We shot rounds in Najaf and we killed hundreds of people. I did kill hundreds of people, but not directly, hand-to-hand.”

Anderson went home for Christmas, convinced he would be sent back to the war. He knew he would not be able to live with himself if he returned to Iraq, armed with his first-hand knowledge of what was occurring there day after day. He decided he could no longer participate, and his parents – already opposed to the war –supported his decision. Canada seemed like the best option. After Christmas 2004, he drove from Kentucky to Toronto.

But he says he has had second thoughts about his exile. Not that he is worried much about deportation: he has recently married a Canadian woman and that will probably guarantee him permanent residency. But he plans to return to the US this autumn, and expects to be arrested when he presents himself to authorities at the border. “The war’s still going on,” he told me.

“If I go back, maybe I can still make a difference. My fight is with the American government.”

It’s not only anti-war work that’s motivating him to go home; he’s thinking about his future. “Dealing with all the nightmares and the post-traumatic stress, I need support from my family.”

Anderson expects to be convicted of desertion, and he says he will use his trial and prison time to continue to protest against the war. He imagines that just the sight of him in a dress uniform covered with the medals he was awarded fighting in Iraq will make a powerful statement. “I can’t work every day and act like everything is okay,” he says about his life in Toronto. “This war is beating me down. I haven’t had a dream that wasn’t a nightmare since I came to Canada. It eats away at me to try and act like everything’s okay when it’s not.” Not that he feels his time in Canada was a waste. “There was no way I could have gone to prison at the time: I would have killed myself. I was way too messed up in the head to even think of sitting in a prison cell. I owe a lot to Canada. It has saved my life. When I came back and was talking about the war, Americans called me a traitor. Canadians helped me when I was at my lowest point.”


43rd Company of Combat Engineers, at Fort Carson, Colorado. Age: 28

We was going along the Euphrates river,” says Joshua Key, detailing a recurring nightmare that features a scene he stumbled into shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. “It’s a road right in the city of Ramadi. We turned a sharp right and all I seen was decapitated bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over there and US troops in between them. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what in the hell happened here? What’s caused this? Why in the hell did this happen?’ We get out and somebody was screaming, ‘We f***ing lost it here!’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh yes, somebody definitely lost it here.’” Key says he was ordered to look for evidence of a firefight, for something to explain what had happened to the beheaded Iraqis. “I look around just for a few seconds and I don’t see anything.”

Then he witnessed the sight that still triggers the nightmares. “I see two soldiers kicking the heads around like soccer balls. I just shut my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the door, and thought, ‘I can’t be no part of this. This is crazy. I came here to fight and be prepared for war, but this is outrageous.’”

He’s convinced that there was no firefight.

“A lot of my friends stayed on the ground, looking to see if there was any shells. There was never no shells.” He still cannot get the scene out of his mind: “You just see heads everywhere. You wake up, you’ll just be sitting there, like you’re in a foxhole. I can still see Iraq just as clearly as it was the day I was there. You’ll just be on the side of a little river running through the city, trash piled up, filled with dead. I don’t sleep that much, you might say.” His wife, Brandi, nods in agreement, and says that he cries in his sleep.

We’re sitting on the back porch of the Toronto house where Key and his wife and their four small children have been living in exile since Key deserted to Canada. They’ve settled in a rent-free basement apartment, courtesy of a landlord sympathetic to their plight. Joshua smokes one cigarette after another and drinks coffee while we talk. There’s a scraggly beard on his still-boyish face; his eyes look weary.

Key rejects the American government line that the Iraqis fighting the occupation are terrorists. “I’m thinking, ‘What the hell?’ I mean, that’s not a terrorist. That’s the man’s home. That’s his son, that’s the father, that’s the mother, that’s the sister. Houses are destroyed. Husbands are detained, and wives don’t even know where they’re at. I mean, them are pissed-off people, and they have a reason to be. I would never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I wish it upon them?”

On security duty in the Iraqi streets, Key found himself talking to the locals. He was surprised by how many spoke English, and he was frustrated by the military regulations that forbade him to accept dinner invitations in their homes. “I’m not your perfect killing machine,” he admits. “That’s where I broke the rules. I broke the rules by having a conscience.” And the more time he spent in Iraq, the more his conscience developed. “I was trained to be a total killer. I was trained in booby traps, explosives, landmines.” He pauses. “Hell, if you want to get technical about it, I was made to be an American terrorist. I was trained in everything that a terrorist is trained to do.” In case I might have missed his point, he says it again. “I mean terrorist.” Deserting seemed the only viable alternative, Key says. He did it, he insists, because he was lied to “by my president”. Iraq – it was obvious to him – was no threat to the US.

Key feels that some of his unit were trigger-happy. He recalls another incident that haunts him. He was in an armoured personnel carrier when an Iraqi man in a truck cut them off, making a wrong turn. One of his squad started firing at the truck. “The first shot, the truck sort of started slowing down,” Key recounts. “And then he shot the next shot, and when he shot that next shot, it, you know, exploded.” Key watched the truck turn to debris. “It was very strange. He was just going along and because he tried to cut in front of us… No kind of combat reasons or anything of such…”

Key seems still in shock at the utter senselessness of it all. “Why did it happen and what was the cause for it? When I asked that question, I was told, basically, ‘You didn’t see anything, you know?’ Nobody asked no questions.” Assigned to raid houses, Key was soon appalled by the job. “I mean, yeah, they’re screaming and hollering out their lungs. It’s traumatic on both parts because you’ve got somebody yelling at you, which might be a woman. You’re yelling back at her, telling her to get on the ground or get out of the house. She don’t know what you’re saying and vice versa. It got to me. We’re the ones sending their husbands or their children off, and when you do that, it gets even more traumatic because then they’re distraught. Of course, you can’t comfort them because you don’t know what to say.”

While the residents are restrained, the search progresses. “Oh, you completely destroy the home – completely destroy it,” he says. “If there’s like cabinets or something that’s locked, you kick them in. The soldiers take what they want. Completely ransack it.” He estimates that he participated in about 100 raids. “I never found anything in a home. You might find one AK-47, but that’s for personal use. But I never once found the big caches of weapons they supposed were there. I never once found members of the Ba’ath party, terrorists, insurgents. We never found any of that.”

A soldier’s life was never Joshua Key’s dream. He was living in Guthrie, Oklahoma, just looking for a decent job. “We had two kids at the time and my third boy was on the way,” he says. “There’s no work there. There wasn’t going to be a future. Of course you can get a job working at McDonald’s, but that wasn’t going to pay the bills.” The local army-recruiting station beckoned. Shortly after he finished basic training, he was en route to the war zone. After eight months of fighting, he received two weeks’ leave back in the US. At the end of that, he was due for another Iraq tour.

He didn’t report for duty. Key and his wife packed up, took their children and ran, with the intention of getting as far from his base in familiar Colorado as possible. The family ran out of money in Philadelphia, and Key found work as a welder. They lived an underground lifestyle for over a year, frequently checking out of one hotel and into another, worried that if they stayed too long at one place they would attract attention. “I was paranoid,” Key says, and he contemplated deserting to Canada.

The research was easy. He went online and searched for “deserter needs help to go Awol”. Up popped details about others who had escaped across the border. He and Brandi decided to opt for a new life as Canadians. George W Bush should be the one to go to prison, says Key.

“On the day he goes to prison, I’ll go sit in prison with him. Let’s go. I’ll face it for that music. But that ain’t never going to happen,” he laughs.


211th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Barstow, California. Age: 22

Twenty-two-year-old Ryan Johnson meets me at his Catholic hostel in Toronto wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans and black running shoes. When Ryan went Awol in January 2005, he simply went home to Visalia, California. “It was very stressful,” he says. “I lived only four hours away from my home base. I figured they could come get me at any time. But they never came by. They never came looking for me. They sent some letters – that’s all they did.” The military doesn’t devote significant manpower to chasing Awol soldiers and deserters, other than issuing a federal arrest warrant. Those who get caught are usually arrested for something unrelated, their Awol status revealed when local police enter their names into the National Crime Information Center database – a routine post-arrest procedure throughout the United States.

Johnson moved to Canada because he was afraid that if he applied for a job, a background check would cause him to be arrested and give him a criminal record that would make it even more difficult for him to find work in the future. Voluntarily turning himself in to the US Army would not have improved his options, either.

“I had two choices: go to Iraq and have my life messed up, or go to jail and have my life messed up. So I came here to try this out.”

Back at his base in the southern California desert, Johnson had listened hard to the stories told by soldiers returning from the war.

“I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he says. I remind him that, unlike in the Vietnam era, there was no draft when he became eligible to join the army. He went down to the Visalia recruiting office and signed up. Did he really not know then that the army was in the business of killing people? “That’s true, yeah, they are,” he acknowledges. “But what I didn’t understand is how traumatising it was to actually kill somebody or watch one of your friends get killed. I’ve never seen anyone die.

“When I joined,” he says, “I joined because I was poor.” He says that jobs were hard to come by in Visalia and he lacked the funds for college. The sign in the strip mall outside the recruiting office beckoned, despite the fact that war was already burning up the Iraqi desert and sending GIs home dead.

“I talked to the recruiters,” says Johnson.

“I said, ‘What are the chances of me going to Iraq?’ They said, ‘Depends on what job you get.’ So I said, ‘What jobs could I get that wouldn’t have me go to Iraq?’ And they named jobs. I picked one of those and they said that I probably wouldn’t go to Iraq.”

Johnson was too unsophisticated to ask probing questions at the army recruiting office, and he didn’t question many of the answers he did receive. “I was 20 years old,” he says defensively. “I thought we were rebuilding in Iraq. I thought we were doing good things. But we’re blowing up mosques. We’re blowing up museums, people’s homes, all the culture. I mean, I didn’t even realise Iraq was Mesopotamia, you know? There’s all this culture and everything in Iraq. I like to think of myself as pretty well educated for someone that didn’t even graduate high school, but I’ve never really known anything about history or other cultures.

“The soldiers that are going to Iraq, most of them aren’t patriotic,” he says. “They aren’t going to Iraq because our flag has red, white and blue on it. They’re not going because they think that Iraq is posing a threat to us. Most of us are going because we’re ordered to and our buddies are going. That’s one of the reasons that I was going to go – because my buddies are over there.”

He is immediately wistful when asked how he feels about being safe in peaceful Toronto while those buddies are fighting and dying in the desert: “I check the casualties list every day. Every day I go on the internet and I check the casualties list to see if my friends are on there. And as of yet,” he pauses, “seven people from my unit have died, and I knew four of them.”

Johnson is unwilling to consider a return to America and time in prison. “It seems absolutely insane,” he says. “They’ll put someone in jail for five years for not wanting to kill somebody. I’m trying to avoid killing people. I know if I went to Iraq I would kill somebody. If I got put on patrol I would probably shoot somebody, because I would know that it’s them or me, you know? And they feel the same way. If I don’t kill these guys, they’re going to kill me.”

Johnson is hoping to feel at home in Canada. His introduction to the new country when he drove across the border was unexpectedly welcoming. He tried to give his ID to the border guard, but she was not interested in checking it. She just said: “‘Welcome to Canada.’ Yeah, that’s what she said. She said, ‘Welcome to Canada.’ And I said, ‘Thank you!’ and then we crossed the border and my wife, Jennifer, screamed.”

However, Johnson is now appealing, as his initial request for refugee status in Canada has been rejected by the Canadian authorities.


2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Age: 21

Aged 21, former Lance Corporal Ivan Brobeck has an inviting smile. We meet in a park near his new home in Toronto. “I knew I couldn’t take it any more,” he says of his decision to desert to Canada. “I just needed to get away, because my unit was scheduled to go back to Iraq for a second time and I couldn’t take any more.”

Brobeck had no problem staying in the military, but he decided that he was not accepting orders to return to Iraq, and desertion seemed his only alternative. He spent much of 2004 on duty in Iraq. He fought in Falluja, and lost friends to roadside bombs “You tend to be very angry over there, because you’re fighting for something you don’t believe in, and your friends are dying,” he tells me.

His war stories feel out of place in the peaceful, upmarket Toronto neighbourhood where we are talking. During battles, he says he operated “on autopilot”, fighting for survival.

“I started thinking about what was wrong while I was over there, but it didn’t really get to me until the end of my stay in Iraq – and definitely once I was back home.”

Back at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, Brobeck says he began to consider “the totally bad stuff that shouldn’t have happened” during his watch. “I have seen the beating of innocent prisoners,” he says. “I remember hearing something get thrown off the back of a seven-ton truck. The bed of a seven-ton is probably something like 7 or 8ft high. They threw a detainee off the back, his hands tied behind his back and a sandbag over his head, so he couldn’t brace for the impact. I remember he started convulsing after he hit the ground and we thought he was snoring. We took the bag off his head and his eyes were swollen shut and his nose was plugged with blood and he could barely even breathe.”

In addition to the abuse of prisoners, the regularity with which civilians were killed at checkpoints confounded the young marine. “My friends have been ones who’ve done that, and after the event it’s always, ‘Oh, so and so is a little down today – he killed a guy in front of his kids.’ Or, ‘He killed a couple of kids.’ These marines that had to do that were my friends, who I talked to every day. It’s hard knowing that your best friend had to kill innocent people.”

Brobeck started to develop sympathy for the enemy. “A lot of people that shoot back at us aren’t bad people. They’re people who had their wives killed or their sons killed and they’re just trying to get retribution, get revenge and kill the person who killed their son. They’re just innocent people who lost a whole lot and don’t have anything else to do.”

Brobeck was a marine for a year before being deployed to Iraq. “I always heard all these great things that the US military have done throughout history, like great battles that they’ve won. Out of all the forces I knew, the marines were the toughest, most hard core. I wanted to do that. I was willing to risk my life for an actual cause,” he muses, “if there was one.”

What would be a cause worth dying for? “A good cause” is his answer. “But this war doesn’t benefit anyone. It doesn’t benefit Americans, it doesn’t even benefit Iraq. This is not something that anyone should fight and die for. I was only 17 when I signed my contract, and my whole childhood, all I did was play video games and sports. I didn’t pay attention to the news. That stuff was boring to me. But I know first-hand now.”

Last July his unit shipped out without him. “The day I decided to actually leave was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I had wanted to for so long, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually do it, because going Awol is definitely a huge decision, and it’s like throwing away a lot of your life. Plus, I didn’t know what I was going to do if I went Awol.”

The night before leaving, Brobeck confided his intentions to another marine. “He said, ‘You’ve been to Iraq; I haven’t. You have your reasons for going Awol and I’m not going to stop you.’” The departure from the North Carolina base was easy.

“I walked to a bus station and stayed at a hotel that night. The only way I could get home was by bus, and the station was closed. When the Greyhound station opened, I got my ticket and left for Virginia. I was nervous because reveille, the time we wake up, was at 5.30, and they would have definitely noticed I was missing. I thought they would have checked the Greyhound station, the only one near the base. They didn’t, which was good. I didn’t go home to my mom, because I was worried about police being there. I stayed with a friend.”

Twenty-eight days after he went Awol, Brobeck headed for Canada. He discovered the website maintained by the War Resisters Support Campaign, a group of Canadians organising aid for American deserters, and learnt that there would be help from them were he to flee north to Toronto.

He called his mother and together they drove across the Niagara Falls crossing point.

“She doesn’t like the fact that I’m away in Canada and can’t come back to see her,” he says, “but it’s better than me going back to Iraq for a second time.”

Exile in Canada feels good for Brobeck. “Life feels for me, even if I wasn’t Awol, freer up here than it would in America. Everyone is so polite in Canada, friendly.” In the year since he crossed the border, he has met and married his wife, Lisa. His application for refugee status has been denied, but he has hopes of winning his appeal.

“The only thing I left behind was my family and my friends,” he says. “So that’s the only thing I’m going to miss about America – the people.

“The US used to be something you could say you were proud of,” he adds. “You go to another country now and say that you’re an American, you probably won’t get a lot of happy faces or open arms, because of the man in charge. It’s amazing what one person can do. The leadership totally screwed up any respect we had.” His rejection of US policy in Iraq is making him question his sense of national identity. “In my heart I’m not American… if it means I have to conform to what they stand for,” he says about the Bush administration. “I’m not American because America has lost touch with what they were. The founding fathers would definitely be pissed off if they found out what America’s become.”

Mission Rejected, by Peter Laufer, is published in the US by Chelsea Green, and will be published in the UK in January 2007 by John Blake


It’s not just Americans: hundreds of our own troops have ‘retreated’ from Iraq. Philip Jacobson reports

Over 2,000 members of Britain’s armed forces have gone long-term Awol since the war in Iraq started, and most are still missing. Before the fighting began, about 375 absconders a year were at large for any length of time, and were dismissed; that figure rose to 720 last year. About 740 men are thought to be on the run still, but have not yet been disciplined.

While the MoD denies that this trend reflects growing opposition to the war, lawyers specialising in court martials report a continuing increase in requests for advice from personnel desperate to avoid being posted to Iraq. Although the overall number of Awol cases has been fairly stable for a few years (about 2,500 annually), there is growing concern in the military about the “Iraq factor”. Before, most absconders were Awol for a relatively short time, typically owing to family or financial problems, or bullying, and either went back to their units voluntarily or were arrested quickly. Most were disciplined by their commanding officers; punishments ranged from demotion to “jankers”, a spell in a military jail.

But it seems that a growing number are ready to risk a charge of desertion — a far more serious offence than going Awol, with penalties to match. According to Gilbert Blades, an expert on military law, the MoD is playing down the true extent of the problem. “It is absolutely clear to me,” he says, “that the crucial factor in driving up Awol levels has been what more and more service people consider to be an illegal conflict.” As Blades sees it, the tightening of the legal definition of desertion in new legislation going through parliament is intended to deter potential absconders. Under the new Armed Forces Bill, people refusing active-service duty in a foreign country could be jailed for life. “It seems obvious this is a direct response to the situation that has developed as the war has intensified,” he says.

Two cases this year have highlighted the issue of morally motivated “refuseniks” in the forces. Ben Griffin, an SAS soldier stationed in Baghdad, told his commanding officer that he was no longer willing to fight alongside “gung-ho and trigger-happy” US troops. Griffin fully expected his eight-year career to end in a court martial and imprisonment, but he was allowed to leave and was given a glowing testimonial to his “strength of character”. Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an RAF doctor, received eight months in prison for rejecting orders to report for a third tour of duty in Basra on the grounds that the occupation was illegal. He was later freed, but spent the rest of his sentence under house arrest.

An MoD spokeswoman told The Sunday Times Magazine that claims that the level of desertions was rocketing were untrue. “There is a good deal of confusion about this, because people often don’t understand the distinction between deserting and going absent without leave. Only 21 cases of desertion have been recorded over the past five years, and just one person has been convicted of that offence since 1989.” She also said criticism of the new legislation was “misguided and sometimes malicious”. Under the present military legal system, she explained, each arm of the forces administers its own discipline. This no longer reflects an era in which combined operations are becoming common. “It makes sense in the circumstances to have a single law addressing matters of military discipline for all service personnel.” But Blades argues that the clause providing for life sentences in the event of refusal to serve in a foreign combat zone “was driven through solely by the defence establishment to provide a drastic legal remedy to the problem of conscientious objection”. It remains to be seen whether the courts, if pushed, will hand down such a stiff sentence.


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