Soldiers with second thoughts

“Be all you can be…” “The few the proud…” “Join the Navy adventure…” the siren song for young men and women all over the country looking to make sense of their lives. For the right kind of young person, the U.S. military is an opportunity almost too good to be true: high-tech career training, exotic travel, good benefits, money for college and a sense of discipline and pride you carry for the rest of your life. You can’t put a price on that. All of this in exchange for a few years of hard work and the knowledge you’re protecting the country you love.

For young soldiers seeking a better life, the onset of war changes all of that. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the college fund. It’s about facing the very real possibility of death and the death of your friends fighting beside you in Iraq. It means facing political uncertainty back home, where your friends and relatives likely remain divided and angered over why you’re over there in the first place.

There are a few soldiers that have decided that this is not who they are, and are going to extreme lengths to get away.

Jeremy Hinzman, 25, was member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne infantry. He joined January of 2001, and like a lot of young men joining the military, he found out a lot about himself. Only it wasn’t quite what the Army intended.

“I was pretty ignorant about the fact that I’m not a violent person,” says Hinzman. “No matter how hard I tried, I could not be trained to be a violent killer.” Hinzman now resides in Canada with his wife and child, having deserted the Army after a brief stint in Afghanistan.

Though they are not a significant number, as the war in Iraq drags on, the number of deserters and conscientious objectors continues to increase. These soldiers having second thoughts are a stark reminder of the tolls that military service and war takes on young Americans. While it is easy to dismiss these people as cowards in a time of war, it is rarely that simple.

Hinzman says that he volunteered for the infantry, and that he knew “violence was part of the job description.” However, Hinzman freely admits that he joined the Army in part because he lacked structure and focus, and as he matured in the Army he realized he couldn’t be violent. Though not religious, he had dabbled in meditation and this led him to the Quakers, and their silent mode of worship. He became acquainted with the Quakers’ “peace testimony,” and in August of 2002 he submitted and application for Conscientious Objector (CO) status. Originally, Hinzman did seek to get out of his military commitment, but rather to finish out his stint in the Army in non-combatant roles.
There is a reason why the Conscientious Objector exists. When the lives of soldiers are on the line, if just one soldier out of thousands has moral qualms about carrying out his orders and hesitates, it can endanger everyone. Butt for obvious reasons the military doesn’t want to make it easy for soldiers to shirk their responsibilities–especially since today’s Army is an all-volunteer force. Conscientious objector status is typically raised when someone is drafted, and often stems from religious convictions. A number of religions, notably the Quakers, do not condone violence.

Though the timing of his application and involvement with the Quakers seems suspect, Hinzman is completely honest that his refusal is also result of strong political objections specifically related to the war in Iraq. After he filed his application for CO status, he was told his application was “lost” and he would have to submit another. To this day, Hinzman feels certain that it was deliberately hidden to keep him where he was in the Army. Shortly following this, he found out his unit was being sent to Afghanistan. It was there, according to Hinzman, that he began to sense “the Yankee Doodle drums were beating for war in Iraq.”

One of the peculiar realities of modern war is that soldiers can watch the news half a world away. It was there that Hinzman began to watch the testimony of UN Weapons inspector Hans Blix, and he began to feel that the arguments for invading Iraq were not honest. As for regime change in Iraq, Hinzman says, “It’s great there’s one less tyrant. But there are tyrants all over the world. We only go after them when it’s in our own interest.”

It didn’t help his bitter political feelings that he had to have his hearing for CO status while in Afghanistan. He was unable to call any witnesses on his behalf. The hearing lasted 25 minutes. He was denied.

After he returned, he talked it over with his wife. “We just packed up our car with essentials, cleaned the house and drove away.” They had contacts in Canada thanks to the Quaker community, where they now live and are applying for refugee status.

Of course not every deserter or conscientious objector’s story is as well considered as Hinzman’s. Sometimes soldiers simply panic and run away. Brandon Hughey, an 18 year old living with a Quaker family in Canada, simply ran away from boot camp when war broke out last March. And others would argue that objecting to war is still no excuse for abandoning your country–you should stand trial for your convictions rather than run away. Such was the case with Stephen Funk, a soldier who refused to fight and as a result spent six months in a military prison before being released.

And it’s also worth noting that many of the harshest critics of military deserters don’t always know what they’re talking about. “When you hear the pundits commenting on it, often they have no military experience,” says Hinzman. Even if he found himself unable to fight, at least he volunteered.

But with volunteering also comes responsibility and committment, and this too Hinzman is keenly aware of. “I think it’s important to remember that we’re not victims,” he says. “Some of the anti-war people would portray us as being sucked into the Army. We’re agents of free will.”

Because of this, soldiers like Hinzman polarize opinion; for many, deserters are either cowards or people of conviction. As for Hinzman, even though he abhors violence, he does his best to not to judge his fellow soldiers who have made the decision to fight. Even those implicated in the recent torture scandals. For him that’s simply the problem with war, and he questions the responsibility of those in command. “I think that a lot of people put in that situation would have done the same thing,” says Hinzman.

Maybe so, but a lot of soldiers in horrible situations manage to act honorably despite the extreme pressures put upon them. Despite being terrified, and despite also having grave doubts about the actions of their elected leaders, they stay and fight. Though Hinzman says he doesn’t judge those soldiers who stay and fight, perhaps those soldiers who have to risk their lives in his place feel differently about judging him.

Mark Hemingway is an AFF Founders Club member.

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