The Military: Out, and On the Lam

The number of active-duty soldiers who deserted the Army last year is higher than previously reported—at 3,301, the military said last week. (The Army said the original figure was tallied incorrectly.) Deserters are branded after abandoning their posts without permission for 30 days. The tally is hardly at Vietnam War levels, but it's still significant for an all-volunteer military.

Many of today's deserters have served a term or two in Afghanistan and Iraq already, and were slated to redeploy to Iraq, says Jeffry House, one of the more prominent lawyers for deserters. A Vietnam-era draft-dodger in Toronto, House represents more than 30 American service members who have sought refugee status in Canada. "People can't justify to themselves what they're doing there," he says. "It just seems wrong, wrong, wrong to them."

Since these troops disagree only with the premise of this war, it's more difficult for them to escape deployment as conscientious objectors, who oppose all wars. So House argues that the Iraq War is illegal in the eyes of the Canadian government, and therefore American deserters should be allowed to live there as refugees from prosecution. (He's currently waiting for rulings on nine cases in the Canadian courts.) With U.S. commanders anxious to fill their ranks, soldiers caught deserting are more likely to face another turn in Iraq than time in the brig. Still, at 101, Army convictions last year were the highest they've been in nearly a decade. "It's a more serious offense during a time of war," says Lt. Col. Robert Tallman Jr.