We speak with U.S. Army conscientious objector Jeremy Hinzman who fled to Canada to avoid being deployed in Iraq. He is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to file for refugee status in Canada for refusing to fight in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
Since October of 2001, when the US began its massive attack on Afghanistan as part of the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror, Democracy Now! has spent extensive time airing the voices of military families, of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and documenting the stories of the soldiers, like Camillo Mejia, who have refused to fight in a war they consider illegal or immoral. Today, we will hear another of these stories. This is how independent journalist Patrick O’Neill tells it:
On Dec. 20, 2003 Jeremy Hinzman, a U.S. Army specialist stationed at Ft. Bragg got the news he had dreaded. His unit–the 504th brigade, second battalion–would be shipping out to Iraq shortly after the new-year for an indefinite deployment in the war on terrorism. Last year, Hinzman, who is the father of a 1-year-old son, was deployed for more than eight months to Afghanistan. When he left, Hinzman’s son, Liam, was just seven months old. When Hinzman returned, Liam was walking and didn’t remember his father.
While he didn’t see any combat in that first deployment, Hinzman said he had a bad feeling about going to Iraq. In Iraq, Hinzman said he felt like he would have to do some things he’d regret. His application for Conscientious Objector status was rejected by the military.
During Christmas leave, Hinzman and his wife, had discussed their options. He could go to Iraq–an option both he and his wife rejected. He could refuse the deployment order and face court martial and a likely prison term, or he could follow a plan of action that thousands of young men like himself had taken during the Vietnam War–he could flee to Canada.
Option three was a go, and on January 2, Hinzman and his family packed up their small car with a few essentials, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. They left under the cover of darkness for the 17-hour drive to the U.S.-Canadian border. Quakers living in the U.S. made contacts in Ontario, and the family was set up with places to stay until they moved into a Toronto apartment on Feb. 1.
Hinzman is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to file for refugee status in Canada for refusing to fight in Iraq. Soon another soldier, 19 year-old Brandon Hughey, followed him and fled to Canada. Some say this is the first echo of the 12,000 deserters and 20,000 draft resisters who went north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.
Last Wednesday, Jeremy Hinzman appeared before Canada”s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Toronto, supported by Brandon Hughey. The Board set a hearing date for Hinzman in late October.
- * Jeremy Hinzman*, a US Army conscientious objector. He is currently in Canada where he is seeking asylum.
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.
JEREMY HINZMAN: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about how you made your decision?
JEREMY HINZMAN: Pretty much what it came down to was— I mean, I won’t go into the false pretences and everything that we know about, but being in an illegal war, it would be being complicit and a criminal enterprise, and you may say that, oh, well, you’re not a policymaker or a general or whatever, that the Nuremberg principles wouldn’t apply to you. But in light of what’s happened since Abu Ghraib, when they scapegoated like the lower enlisted soldiers for simply carrying out what the policy was from the upper echelons, I think it’s pretty fair to say that we made the right decision. Because I was in the infantry and there is a good chance that I would have— I would have been pretty active in a negative way. And so I’m— that’s why we came here pretty much is that I wasn’t— I don’t want to shoot people. I would have been happy to go to Iraq as a port-a-potty janitor or operation human shield. I just don’t want to shoot people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your application as a conscientious objector to here in the United States that was rejected, on what grounds was it objected and what did you tell them?
JEREMY HINZMAN: I applied for a conscientious objector status in August of 2002. When I initially submitted the application, I was almost immediately reassigned to duties commensurate with what I stated in the application, until it could be evaluated. And then I would like to add we didn’t know we were being deployed anywhere. So, three months later on Halloween, my First Sergeant, the same person I gave the application to, looks at me with this sparkle in his eye and he’s like, well, Hinzman, you are a conscientious objector, we need the paperwork. At that point, we had known for about two weeks that we were being deployed. So, I had to resubmit it on the eve of a deployment and to a third party who didn’t know the history of it or whatever. Of course, my motives fell under a cloud of suspicion and in the hearing, I was asked a hypothetical question being what— if your camp was attacked, what would you do? And when we left for Afghanistan, I was given an M-4 with a scope and infrared laser and everything and I asked, why do I have this? I’m a conscientious objector. I don’t want to shoot anybody. And they have said you have the inherent right to self-defense and yada yada yada. So, in the hearing, they said what would you do if you were attacked and I said, well, given the context I’m in, and beings that I’m human and I can probably overcome my fight instinct, I’d probably shoot back. I really would not rather be in that position. But if someone broke into my house, I might make efforts to restrain them. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to— that I’m going to use the same logic to be a premeditated murderer, which is what we do in the infantry, for better or worse. You don’t just go on a raid one day, you rehearse it for three or four days in advance, over and over again. And so in the summation, the investigating officer stated that there was no difference between defensive and offensive operations and combat is combat and, therefore, I’m not a conscientious objector. However, if I had said no, I’ll go hide in a hole, I would have been shirking my responsibilities as a soldier and found to be negligent in my duties and that would have been enough— a whole other episode. It was kind of a no-win question. So, I had to answer it honestly. Which I’m not ashamed of doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Hinzman, can you describe your experience in Afghanistan?
JEREMY HINZMAN: Yeah. It was pretty mundane. When I was there, because I had conscientious objector application pending, I did dishes for a few months until Kellogg, Brown & Root employees took over, which is a Halliburton subsidiary as you probably know. So, I had a presence there and I was made a cook, and prior to that I had worked long, long days, seven days a week, which was— whether or not it was punishment for what I did, I had dug my own hole so I didn’t have a problem with it. I wasn’t going on combat operations. So then I was made a cook for a few months and life got a little easier. I had like a day off once a week. I only worked 12 hours a day as opposed to 16. And then that was unbeknownst to my First Sergeant and he came in one day on my day off and stated that I wasn’t a cook. I was there to scrub floors and do whatever. And so I resumed my tedium. But, again, I had dug the hole, so, whatever. But as far as seeing much of the country, I didn’t. I was in Kandahar and the furthest I left was a couple hundred yards out of the camp to dump garbage out. In fact, I often thought that I could have flown around in a C-17 for 31 hours and landed in the middle of Utah and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Because the landscape is quite similar.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you join the military?
JEREMY HINZMAN: That’s the $64,000 question. I mean, for the reasons that most people do, I would say. I mean, I come from a fairly working-class background and I didn’t have the means to attend a university without becoming saddled with debt. And so when you have $50,000 dangled in front of you, it’s enticing. But also I wanted to be a part of something that transcended myself, I guess. I didn’t really just want to go to work and just earn money for earning money’s sake. It seemed kind of meaningless to me. And also I was at the point in my life where I was looking for some focus and structure and whatnot. So I joined and I chose the infantry. I wasn’t assigned to it. And I guess— like I wasn’t naive as to what the infantry does. You go shoot things and whatever. But I guess what I wasn’t quite aware of was, was how — what an inhibition I would have to the taking of life. I knew that that’s what we did, but I didn’t realize how many barriers would have to be overcome and how they would have to be overcome.
AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of the press, both here and in Canada? You spoke out at an anti-war rally in Canada.
JEREMY HINZMAN: I did. At an anti-war rally. Of course, the reception was warm. I haven’t seen a lot of U.S. media. I mean, I know about heir O’Reilly’s campaign on Fox to like boycott Canadian products or whatever, if we’re allowed to stay or even now to extradite us, which is whatever. I wouldn’t give him the time of day. But it’s pretty evenly divided in Canada. I mean, it is a diverse country and I’m sure half the people would say send them back on the next bus. But there has been a lot of support as well. Whether I like it or not, I think this case is kind of becoming perhaps a microcosm for Canadian sovereignty, because what’s at stake in our case is — and it’s to be ruled on before the hearing starts — but whether or not the legality of the war in Iraq is relevant to my case. And the Canadian government intervened, which they don’t usually do in refugee cases, to say that the legality is irrelevant. Well, that’s the whole reason we’re here is because the war was illegal.
AMY GOODMAN: What about what’s been described as a kind of underground railroad? We certainly saw it in Vietnam. But now, to help you go up to Canada?
JEREMY HINZMAN: I think that would be an overstatement at this point. I think obviously if we’re allowed to stay, it makes a better precedent, at least for this era, and I think it would be safe to say that a lot more people would come. But I think that’s what Canada is trying to avoid, because if they have to say that the war was legal and Hinzman should have to go home, then the U.S. will be like well, why didn’t you send troops? The more likely scenario is they’ll have to actually state their opinion on the war, which they didn’t do. They didn’t send troops because the Canadian people didn’t want to go, but also because they probably had some legal opinion in Ottawa saying that the war was illegal, and they’re going to have to state that, and that’s obviously going to drive a nail between Canada and the U.S. And they’re trying to avoid that. And I don’t blame them. In a sense, it is not an enviable position to be in as a government. At the same time, they are a sovereign country and shouldn’t be ashamed of what they do.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what was it like to cross the border after your 17-hour ride?
JEREMY HINZMAN: It was as dramatic as— it was Canadian border security, it wasn’t really a big deal. They asked for our ID. They said, what are we doing in Canada? We said we are visiting friends, which was a play on words, considering our involvement with the Quakers over the last few years. And we just drove through. Of course, in a sense a load is off because you never know what’s going to happen at border crossing, however innocuous it may be. But it was— it wasn’t a big deal. But I mean, it was kind of a load off, at least for the day.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Hinzman, I want to thank you for being with us. What is your website?
JEREMY HINZMAN: www.JeremyHinzman.net, I believe.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for talking to us from Canada. Jeremy Hinzman talking about his decision to become the first U.S. soldier to file for refugee status in Canada, for refusing to fight in Iraq. This is Democracy Now!