“I don’t understand this war, but I’ve seen what it’s done to the guys who’ve come back and that scares me. I don’t think I’m a coward, and I don’t want to desert my friends or my unit, but I’m not going to kill for this war, and I’m not going to die for it.”
Deserter from Big Noise Films (www.bignoisefilms.com) is the background story of Ryan Johnson’s decision to go abandon the military and go to Canada. From California’s socio-economically depressed Central Valley region, Ryan joined the army in 2003. When faced with deploying to Iraq, Ryan contacted the GI Rights Hotline and then with his wife Jen, he went AWOL, drove to Canada and slipped into the “modern day underground.” During the Vietnam War approximately 100,000 sought refuge in Canada, and Desertion is a subject that’s largely being ignored by mainstream media at this time.
Ryan’s decision is basically the core of the film’s content, and we see Ryan in various stages of his decision-making process–from a phone call to the Hotline and on the road to Canada. Although the film’s focus is Ryan, his situation is emblematic of thousands of young people who find themselves torn between the demands of conscience and military orders. In 2004, the Pentagon admitted that 5500 soldiers had deserted since the beginning of the war in March 2003. While according to some websites in the fiscal year 2007 alone 4,698 soldiers deserted.
Ryan presents arguments for the moral dilemma he faced. Obviously becoming a deserter and seeking asylum in Canada is not an easy decision to make. This is a decision that has permanent irreversible consequences, and those who become deserters leave family, friends and country behind–perhaps never to return. The decision is further complicated by the fact that it’s unclear whether or not U.S. military personnel will be allowed to stay in Canada. Furthermore, there’s no sign that the Iraq War will be ‘over’ any time soon, and it’s perfectly obvious that anyone who deserts from the military will have to stay away until the political climate changes.
Footage makes it clear that this was not an easy decision for Ryan, and the film creates a platform for his arguments. Basically, he felt caught between moral obligation and military duty in an impossibly difficult situation. Knowing that going to Iraq would mean involvement in a war he did not agree with, and the possibility of killing, Ryan understood that with desertion he faced social ostracism and a jail sentence for his act. Clips of interviews from Iraq veterans, including Camilo Mejia, underscore the idea that changed by the experience of war and haunted by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) “no one ever comes back from Iraq.” The implication is that if you go to war, you are going to come back as a statistic one way or another.
I don’t think anyone makes the decision to become a deserter lightly, and the footage of Ryan’s explanations underscore that he had nowhere to turn. Given the social and familial pressure to conform, let alone all the economic pressures, flag waving and patriotism that get tied up into the argument, it’s much easier just to conform and go along with the madness.
For those detractors who argue that Ryan shouldn’t have signed up in the first place, well …. yes. But once having signed up, what happens when someone experiences a shift in morality? Since this is Ryan’s story, the film doesn’t directly deal with the legal route to leaving the military–gaining Conscientious Objector status. It’s not an easy process. In the five calendar years 2002-2006 425 CO applications were filed with an overall 53% approval. At this time the number of deserters far exceeds the number of CO applications filed for the same period.
The film refers to the idea that military enlistment is influenced by socio-economics, and this is a very touchy subject in some quarters. After all, the implication that the members of the working class are fighting wars while some people are laughing all the way to the bank may dampen all that war-mongering enthusiasm.
Over the last few months, I know three young men who have joined the military for financial reasons after their recruiters swore they wouldn’t have to go to Iraq. Now most of us take it for granted that the recruiters say whatever is necessary to get those signatures on the enlistment papers, and given the current state of affairs, it takes a certain level of naiveté to believe that you’re not going to get sent to Iraq. But that’s just what has happened over and over again. I remember one woman looking me in the eye and telling me the recruiter told her 18-year-old son that he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq because he was needed in ‘Intelligence’ in the U.S. Well guess who got sent to Iraq?
We can expect to see more films on the subject on those military personnel who resist. I hope Ryan’s story causes anyone contemplating a stint in the military to think twice about it. And Ryan & Jen, wherever you are, I wish you the best of luck.