May 25th - The Man Who Wouldn’t Fight
01 Jun 2004
"My life is not that special but it’s not expendable either for someone else’s business venture or to line their pockets." In Canada with US military refuser Jeremy Hinzman.
“Anyone would have inhibitions about taking someone’s life, but there are a variety of ways that we’re indoctrinated and desensitised. The esprit de corps, the sense of pride they instil in us and each other, sometimes it seems like some sort of monastic brotherhood or cult. You learn unwavering devotion to each other. When we’re fighting it’s not for the cause or country. It’s for each other, for the person to your right and your left.

“That was the hardest thing, leaving my friends, people from my unit, having them go without me, dedicated, hard working people whose values are being exploited by the US government.” He left when his unit was sent to Iraq, having spent two years applying for conscientious objector status. He applied before his unit was sent to Afghanistan, requesting a transfer to a non-combat role. It was deliberately mishandled, the authorities claiming they had never received it but later giving the papers back to him in a package with a further application and advice to drop the matter.

Jeremy Hinzman was one of two US soldiers who left the army and applied for political asylum in Canada on the grounds of refusal of his conscientious objector status. A baker for four years after high school, he felt his life lacked structure and focus and wanted to be part of something bigger than himself. The military was great for that, he said. “I thought I’d be spreading freedom, democracy and apple pie recipes.”

But dehumanisation of the people in future warzones begins from the start of basic training. “It’s easy to get one person to shoot another. In the first week we shoot at black circles, learn how to aim, how to breathe, and the next week there are shoulders added and then torsos and then they become pop up targets, but all the time they’re targets, not people, and shooting them is a reflex.

“You do stuff till you’re blue in the face, till you’re sick of it and then you don’t question it. When you’re training they have you chanting while you run, things like, “Training to kill, kill we will,” or “Ooh ah I wanna kill somebody” or the sergeant shouts, “What makes the grass grow?” and you shout, “Blood blood blood.” If you don’t yell loud enough then you get to strengthen your upper body. I can still do a lot of push ups.” The point, as well as the rhythm, was emphasised by his foot involuntarily starting to stamp with the chants.

He said that even as he was doing the shouting he started to realise that he didn’t want to kill anybody, “that I’d made a really bad career decision.” Still he’s grateful for the time he spent in the military, for the insights it gave him into the way the US operates throughout the world. He spent two years after basic training in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, determined to make the best of his situation, getting promoted until he was about to move on a stage, go into a new stage of training that felt like a point of no return.

It was then that he first applied for reclassification to a non combat role wanting, in his words, the best of both worlds – to stay with his friends but not have to fight. “September 11th had woken me up. People were asking why would they want to attack the US and I did some research and I didn’t have to look too far for the pattern of abuse. I read that the US doesn’t have friends or allies, it has interests and it didn’t have any interests in Rwanda.

“I never condoned terrorism but the actions of the US created it and I realised I was being used as a pawn. The violence was perpetuating itself and the only way I could stop it personally was to take myself out of the equation. The attack on Iraq was being proposed while I was in Afghanistan. I vowed to myself, my wife and my son that I wouldn’t take part.” He applied again for conscientious objector status and was again refused without a hearing.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better to refuse then to wear the uniform but I didn’t until my unit was sent to Iraq. These five-yearly wars are advertisements for new weapons systems. They gained approval by exploiting people’s fears and the events of September 11th but if it was about weapons they’d be better off dynamiting their own borders and blowing themselves up. Wolfowitz even said that the difference between Iraq and North Korea is that Iraq sits on a sea of oil and North Korea doesn’t. It’s not always true that soldiers don’t think.

“People are responsible for the way a country lives. It’s destiny is up to the people. We have to create our own freedom. My life is not that special but it’s not expendable either for someone else’s business venture or to line their pockets. Maybe people will think I should have done what the army always says and ‘suck it up and move on’ but history is made up of individual decisions. Even if no one would ever have prosecuted me for anything, I would have been prosecuting myself for the rest of my life.”

Nervous, before the talk, he whispered that he was “a horrible speaker” and began his talk with an apology that it had been a long time since high school speech class. He didn’t need to worry. Of course, everyone likes to be told what they want to hear and the government’s soldiers coming over to the side of peace would always be assured a welcome, but that understates the enormous courage it took for him to leave, to refuse not only the assignment but also the life he’d been living.

I know that it’s also frightening to go, especially with increasing numbers of deaths and injuries, but the Abu Ghraib prison photos and revolutions all over the world through history show that mutiny of soldiers against unjust orders and outrageous exploitation are vital to reining in governments which think it’s legitimate to dominate through with military power.

Recruitment starts in high school with glossy brochures, recruiters like car salesman cold calling to lists of students without a ticket into university, he explained, with an underclass maintained for precisely that purpose. Someone asked about the draft. The draft hasn’t been active since the Vietnam war but young men are still required to register for it. Failing to register with the Selective Service System means ineligibility for federal student aid , federal job training or civil service employment from the post office to the parks service and in some states you can’t get into state colleges.

Theoretically you can also be jailed for five years and fined up to a quarter of a million dollars but no one has been prosecuted since 1986 because public trials kept reducing registration rates. People still receive letters first reminding then threatening them to register, within the month either side of their 18th birthday, finally telling them their names have been given to the Department of Justice. Danny, a 20 year old community college student we met in Seattle, refused to register and had to have his mum vouch for his identity to get into college. Some colleges have an aid fund specially for those ineligible for federal aid for refusing the SSS registration.

If not registered by their 26th birthday, men are permanently barred from registering and from all the federal aid and employment but the SSS Board is obliged to accept registration cards any time until that birthday, so a lot of men resist the draft by illegally waiting until just before turning 26 to register.

Jeremy’s answer was that US policy is to be able to fight two full-on wars at the same time in two different parts of the world. Already they are using the reservists and National Guard who signed up to mend dams and rescue people from floods, not to fight wars, presenting a problem with retaining personnel. Already, and for some time, the politicians have been saying they need to send more troops and, from their point of view, they do. The draft, Jeremy said, is inevitable.

A local business man, an Iraqi, recently went home. He saw his mother for the first time in 38 years, paid his last respects at the grave of his father, killed by Saddam, was reunited with the cousins he grew up with. “He hugged me and kissed me and cried when he saw me and then cursed me when I asked who he was, but that tells you about the physical separation. I remembered him as he was and now he is older.”

Riadh Musli was fiercely opposed to the war in spite of all that. “I feel very strongly about the suffering of people in Iraq and they were intimidated before and they are intimidated now.” Most of all he’s passionate about the unity of the Iraqi people: ”When I was young and during the diaspora we never thought about Shia or Sunni and Kurd or Arab. We identified ourselves as Iraqis. I am Shia and four of my sisters are married to Sunni men. We trade together. There are those in the Governing Council who reject the Arab identity and would detach us from the rest of Arabia.”

In between the two, I talked about Falluja and the circus and the squatter camps and what’s happening for my friends, especially my women friends, in Iraq and afterwards we swapped e mails because there wasn’t enough time to chat, to delve into each other’s reasons and experiences, I who went, because I cared about Iraqi people and he who didn’t, for precisely the same reason.

The others went to the premiere of Naomi Klein’s new film about Argentina and the devastating effects of economic liberalisation, the country’s bankruptcy and the takeover of factories by workers whose families were facing starvation because of the job losses, getting the factories working again and running them independently.

Canadian film makers are struggling with the National Film Board which, though it gives some grant funding, demands a lot of control over the rights and somehow manages to have itself paid back twice over.

So the Iraqis struggle for the right to self determination and for day to day survival, the Argentinians against the ruinous effects of neo-liberalism and the World Trade Organisation; Jeremy struggles for the right not to go to war against his conscience and Canadian film makers fight against the increasing narrowness of the media, against the free-market constriction of the range of information which reaches the public domain.

The day before, we were in Seattle, in Richard Hugo House a community centre for writers ( The poet Hugo wrote that “Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance.” The house is a place for people to write, to record their own stories and history, to express and to encourage more people to read, write, publish and publicise writing and art from many more people, outside the commercial sphere which restricts what gets seen.

It also houses the Zine Archives and Publishing Project. Zines, (pronounced Zeens) for those who don’t know, are small scale amateur-made magazines, including a lot of radical and political writing which has no other outlet than self publishing. There are over 7000 in the archive, including comics. It was the main way for activists to publish their ideas and analyses before the days of internet and weblogs.

There are loads of kids’ programmes there and displays of their poems, collages and illustrated books decorate the walls. “My Frog That’s Still Alive”, “How Bossy Is A Sister?” and “Managing the Wild Thing – How to Look After Your Child” were my favourites of the latter.

Of the former, I liked this: The War, by Paul Nguyen, grade 3 (about 8-9 years old):

“My dad went to the war because he was brave.
He fought in the war because he was strong.
Though he was short,
his heart was very tall.
His smile shines like the stars in the sky.
He hates the war because
they didn’t get freedom.
His smell is made out of the smoke of bombs.
My father’s sound is of explosions of war.
His hands are small and slender.”

Seattle is the place where, on November 30th 1999, the World Trade Organisation’s meeting was closed down for a day by huge protests. We were joined by Agent Apple, author of a new book, “Pie Any Means Necessary” from the Biotic Baking Brigade which advocates pie-ing the powerful, like arms dealers, biotech company directors, politicians who start wars and others whose misdemeanours are ignored by the mainstream media until their faces are covered with custard.

Not to say it’s the only way or that it’s enough on its own, Apple says, but protest with humour, ridiculing the people who abuse human rights and the environment and have legal impunity because they run the law, is more life affirming and joyful than ‘po-faced protest’.

Stories, resistance and pies are ways of saying you and the world have a chance.