When his unit of the 82nd Airborne Division was getting ready to deploy to Iraq last year, U.S. Army Pfc. Jeremy Hinzman started fighting a battle of his own--in Canada. Hinzman, 26, was the first of at least eight U.S. soldiers to apply for refugee status there in the last 15 months. Many are already veterans of the post-9/11 wars. One earned a Purple Heart on his first tour in Iraq. Hinzman himself served seven months in Afghanistan. But all risk prison sentences in the United States for desertion if they are forced to return. Hinzman's lawyer, Jeffry House, who is himself a Vietnam-era draft evader, estimates about 100 U.S. soldiers have opted for the snows of Toronto rather than the Sunni Triangle, and have been watching the case closely. Last Thursday, Private Hinzman, his Vietnamese-American wife and infant son saw their refugee claims rejected. Next stop, Canadian federal court and the beginning of an appeals process that may take years. NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll spoke to Hinzman about his legal battle to escape what he calls an "illegal war":
NEWSWEEK: You started basic training in January 2001, before September 11. Peacetime.
Jeremy Hinzman: Well, I don't think it's ever peacetime in America. I think we're always involved in some sort of war or action against somebody, whether it be overtly or covertly. If you look at U.S. history, we're doing something, be it Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, you name it. I didn't have any sort of delusions that I was going to be serving in a peacetime Army.
When did you first have second thoughts about your role in the Army?
It started at about week five of basic training. In the beginning I was really gung-ho and I ate it all up, and I was still loving it until the day I left. It's kind of this compulsive-addictive thing, feeling a part of something bigger; it's almost religious. But, on the same token, at about week five, I kind of had my Road to Damascus moment. We were marching to the chow hall, yelling "Trained to kill! Kill we will!" over and over again, which we had done every day, and it was kind of a mantra. But on that occasion, our drill sergeants decided our rendition of it wasn't enthusiastic enough and they were threatening us with push-ups ... So everybody just got crazy! And they were red in the face, going hoarse, and it was just out of some sort of dystopian novel. "Trained to kill, kill we will," and it escalated and escalated and, I looked around me and I just said, "What am I doing?" But on the same token, I had enlisted, and it's not like you can put in your two weeks' notice, right?
So you applied for conscientious-objector status?
After a year and a half, I felt that I was living a lie. I had all this stuff internally that was telling me, "I can't kill." I'll be happy to be Operation Human Shield, to be a pack mule and carry stuff, or be a combat medic and stick my neck out, no problem. If I die, that's the end. I mean we're all born with a death sentence and that's not what I have issues with. What I have issues with is taking other people's lives.
You did kitchen duty in Afghanistan before your conscientious-objector status was rejected. But before your unit was deployed to Iraq--where you would have faced combat duty--you left for Canada. Did your decision have anything to do with how you see the Afghanistan war versus how you see the Iraq war?
I think about that a lot. If I were the president of the United States, obviously I would be the commander in chief, and if what happened on September 11th--I can't say that I wouldn't do the same thing [invading Afghanistan] ... But Iraq is a whole other ballgame. I can't walk down the street and start punching guys out because they may potentially rape my wife. I need to wait until the guy's actually going to do it. No matter how scummy he may look or how mean he is to his family. It's great that Saddam's gone, I agree with that. However, like with what's going on in Kyrgyzstan right now with [protests against] President [Askar] Akayev, it's the responsibility of the people who live there to overthrow the bad regime. Because if somebody else goes and does it for them, motive is everything, and they're going to suspect their motives. And it just so happens that Iraq lies on the second-biggest oil reserve in the world and George Bush is--despite his idealism and everything else, which I do admire--in [thrall] to big business and big oil. And I'm not going to kill people or be killed to build a big gas station so people can drive Ford Expeditions. It's just not worth it.
Your main argument in seeking political asylum in Canada hinged on the legality of the war--that, on the one hand, it wasn't sanctioned by the international community, and on the other, that the United States is systematically violating humanitarian law on the ground.
It was established at [the post-World War II trials at] Nuremberg, you can't act preemptively, you have to wait until the gun is pointed or you're actually being attacked. And as a soldier, they tell you from day one, that it is your duty and obligation [to follow those principles], and you will be punished if you go along with an illegal, unlawful, immoral order. And I feel that the order to attack and occupy Iraq is an illegal, immoral order and it's my duty as a soldier to refuse to carry it out.
When the Canadian government intervened, calling the legality of the war "irrelevant," did it seriously compromise your case?
Our hands were tied. We weren't even allowed to argue it. I think that had the government not intervened in our case, and had they said that the war was legal and sent me back, the U.S. would say, "yeah, fine, thanks for sending the bastard back." But they would also say, "Hey Canada, you're our biggest ally. And we were begging for countries to go along with the Coalition of the Willing. It was us, England, and, like, Costa Rica or something"--which doesn't even have an army, right?--"and you didn't send troops and now you're saying the war was legit?" So they dig themselves a hole that way. And then, obviously, if they said the war was illegal and I could stay, then obviously that creates a lot of friction, too.
Your lawyer was a Vietnam-era draft evader and you've received support from other Americans who settled in Canada at that time. How do you respond to critics who argue that, "Hey, unlike the Vietnam-era dodgers, you signed up for this?"
That's a fair thing to say. [But] just because you volunteer to do something, it doesn't mean that your ability to be a moral being should become static. Life is dynamic, and if you're confronted with doing something wrong, it's not right to abdicate your duty and obligation to be a moral being.
Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board didn't feel you'd be facing persecution in your homeland, one of the criteria for political asylum. What are you expecting if you are forced home?
I don't think [the judge] knows the full extent of what U.S. prisons are like. And I don't think I'm going to be going to the prison where Martha Stewart was if I was to go back. But more importantly, we meet the criteria for refugee status. I know we're not from Darfur or anything. But it says in the Geneva Convention on Refugees that a soldier who refuses to fight in a war that's condemned by the international community and faces prosecution for that, that amounts to persecution on the basis of political opinion. And we met that criteria. And rotting away in a jail is cruel and unusual [punishment] for doing the right thing.
They used to shoot Army deserters, didn't they?
At least theoretically, you can [still] get a death sentence for this. And, no, I don't think it's a real likely possibility. But look at the Bush administration and look at what they've done or what [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales has done, or whoever. They're totally willing to do unprecedented and uncustomary things to fight this war. And I wouldn't put it past them to do something drastic with us.