During the Vietnam war thousands of young American men left their homes and their families behind and crossed the border into Canada to avoid being drafted into the United States army. Since none of them had as yet been conscripted into the army they weren't listed as deserters from the army and went into the books as draft dodgers — a very important distinction in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the public.
To the majority a deserter is a coward who has run away from his responsibilities. They have betrayed their country in a time of war and in most people's minds there can be no worse crime. To the majority there are only two reasons for you to desert your country's army; either you are a coward or you are an enemy of the state. That there could be another option isn't even conceivable to some people.
On the other side of the coin is the person who enlisted in the army because he or she couldn't see any other employment options on the horizon and the army offered a source of income. They also felt that serving their country was a way of doing something of at least some significance. Once in the armed forces they start hearing stories from people who have done tours of duty in Iraq; stories of running over children in tanks, shooting civilians, that over 60% of the Iraqi population don't want them there, and how so many returning soldiers are suffering from emotional and mental problems.
So if you were a young man like Ryan Johnson and have heard all these stories, and find out that your unit will be shipping out to Iraq in spite of being told you would only be based in the States when you enlisted, what would you do? Your options are limited; follow orders and go to Iraq; stay in the military and refuse to deploy and go to jail for at least a year; or desert and head to Canada.
I'm sure there are a great many people out there who will say he should either go to Iraq or pay the price for his refusal by going to jail and only a coward would take the third option. Yet think about what it would mean for a second if he decides to go to Canada. He can never come back to the United States and see his family and friends again. His government and a great many of his compatriots will consider him a traitor and a criminal, and if he were ever arrested he could very well face life imprisonment.
Ask yourself if you would be willing to do those things, take those risks, for your beliefs. Wouldn't it be safer just to play the game like you are supposed to and go to Iraq or be led off to jail meekly for refusing to deploy? Doesn't it take just as much courage to make the decision to desert as it does to blindly obey orders? Before answering that question wouldn't it be a good thing to get to know the reasons why a young man like Ryan Johnson would volunteer for the army only to desert?
Big Noise Films has just released their short documentary feature Deserter which introduces us to Ryan and his wife Jen and follows their trek north and east from California to Toronto, Canada after he has made the decision to desert. We first meet Ryan at his mom's house when he is already absent without leave (AWOL). He had enlisted in the armed forces because he didn't know what else to do in order to make a living to support his wife and raise a family. Quite a number of his friends had already done the same thing, although two had joined the navy instead of the army, for the same reasons.
When the assurances that he would only ever be posted Stateside turned out to be a lie and he was told that he was going to be deployed to Iraq he started to find out as much as he could about what it would be like over there. He also considered all the stories he had heard already. One friend of his had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and to celebrate his wife had booked the family at trip to Disney World. After the first day there his friend hadn't been able to leave his hotel room because the crowds and the noise were too much for him and he couldn't cope.
"I don't want to end up like that."
Interspersed through the rest of the movie, as we follow the young couple across the United States into upstate New York, are excerpts of interviews with veterans of the conflict in Iraq telling stories of what they did and experienced there. One man talks about being part of a company that indiscriminately shelled an Iraqi city, killing hundreds of people, and another of watching a friend's leg being blown off, and having to try and haul him over the tailgate of their vehicle so he could be taken to safety.
One of the men apologized for having slurred speech, but the medication they had him on for anxiety and depression was causing him difficulties. To a man they all looked like they had seen things that no human being should ever have to experience; hollow-eyed and grim, they appear to be still suffering from shock. After seeing these people and listening to their stories is it any wonder that a person who enlisted to serve Stateside balked at being deployed to Iraq?
All the way across America there operates a new Underground Railway, but now instead of helping runaway slaves they are helping young Americans escape from having to serve in what they consider an unjust war. Ryan and Jen are passed from safe house to safe house until just before the border they phone the contact they have for Toronto. They've already been coached on how to get through the border crossing, but that doesn't stop them from being nervous; there is the risk that they could check Ryan for outstanding warrants and find out that he is a deserter.
Ryan and Jen have been in Canada for almost three years now; we're not told how they are living, if they are among the deserters who have applied for refugee status or if they are living underground. In a special feature after the main body of the DVD, the filmmakers have included a live video conference call that was conducted at the end of a showing of Deserter with Ryan and Jen. They both appear happy enough, and the interesting thing about Ryan is that he seems so much more self-assured now than he did at the beginning of the movie when he was a scared and unsure kid who had just made the decision to leave the United States to come to Canada.
A war like Vietnam, or like Iraq, creates wounds that are invisible: the wounds of distrust and hatred between people who live in the same country. The young people who are being asked to fight these wars might do things that people will not approve of, like desert the army instead of fighting in Iraq. Before you judge them you need to hear their stories. Deserter is a little piece of Ryan Johnson's story, and maybe it will help you understand why he felt like he had to do what he did.
For the sake of the future of your country, don't you think you owe them at least the chance to tell their story?