Revolution #88, May 13, 2007
AWOL from Iraq: “I cannot do these things any longer”
The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq
by Joshua Key as told to Lawrence Hill
Atlantic Monthly Press
“I never thought I would lose my country and I never dreamed that it would lose me,” Joshua Key says in his prologue to The Deserter’s Tale. “I was raised as a patriotic American, taught to respect my government and to believe in my president. Just a decade ago I was playing high school football, living in a trailer with my mom and step dad, working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and hoping to raise a family one day in the only town I knew: Guthrie, Oklahoma, population ten thousand. Back then I would have laughed out loud if somebody had predicted I’d be a wanted criminal, living as a fugitive in my own country, and turn my wife and children into refugees as I fled with them across the border.”
The Deserter’s Tale is Key’s account of how he came to be part of the U.S. military, the seven months he spent in Iraq. It tells how and why he came to his decision to refuse to return to Iraq and what it was like living underground with his family, constantly fearing that he would be captured and tried for desertion, which he was told by the army was punishable by death by a firing squad.
The book’s accounts of carnage are difficult to read and Key tells, in simple yet powerful language, a story that people in this country need to hear. It is a story of courage and conscience, of how Key risked everything rather than continue to commit crimes he could no longer, as a person of conscience, carry out.
What comes through in this story is how Key came to confront his own moral responsibility for the atrocities. And those who read this powerful story will hopefully be compelled to ask the question: to what degree are those who try to ignore these crimes or do nothing to stop them, also complicit?
Key grew up poor in a small town in Oklahoma. His mother, a truck stop waitress, had a number of bad marriages to abusive alcoholic men. Key writes of his stepfather, “I can credit him with one thing. He did such awful things to my mother that I learned the hard way how not to act.”
After graduating high school, Key got married. And with two kids and a third on the way he found it hard to survive. With growing debt and tired of surviving on left over pizza he brought home from his job as a delivery driver, the army seemed to be the best option. Key writes: “I had no money, I had dreams of getting formal training as a welder, I needed to get my teeth fixed, and I wanted to have my kidney stone removed. If only I joined the army, the posters suggested, I would be on easy street… For folks like us, who were poor and getting poorer by the day, the posters suggested that getting a job with the armed forces would be like winning the lottery.” (p. 36)
A recruiter lied to Key, promising him that he would not have to go into combat, would not have to be separated from his family, that he would be building bridges in the U.S.
In basic training Key tells how he was taught that Muslim people were the enemy. He was told that Muslims were responsible for the September 11 attacks. He was taught that not only were Iraqis not civilians, they were less than human.
“One day, all three hundred of us were lined up on the bayonet range, each facing a life-sized dummy that we were told to imagine was a Muslim man,” Key writes of a day during his training. “As we stabbed the dummies with our bayonets, one of our commanders stood on a podium and shouted into a microphone: ‘Kill! Kill! Kill the sand niggers!’ We too were made to shout out ‘Kill the sand niggers’ as we stabbed the heads then the hearts then slit the throats of our imaginary victims. While we shouted and stabbed, drill sergeants walked among us to make sure we were all shouting. It seemed that the full effect of the lesson would be lost unless we shouted the words of hate as we mutilated our enemies.” (p. 49)
The bulk of the book recounts what happened during the seven months that Key was stationed in Iraq. Arriving in Ramadi in the early days of the war, Key’s squad was sent on missions to raid what they were told were houses suspected of sheltering terrorists. Any male over 5 feet tall would be brutally beaten and then taken into custody. Children were awakened from their beds at the point of machine guns. Houses were ransacked and the soldiers felt free to take any money or other valuables. Key estimates that he participated in more than 200 of these raids while in Iraq.
Key says no terrorists were ever found in these raids. And Key writes that “senior American military commanders [didn’t] make soldiers raid thousands of civilian houses because they truly believed that we would nab terrorists or find weapons of mass destruction. I think they did it to punish and intimidate the Iraqi people.” (pp. 214-215)
Key reached a turning point when his squad was called on to assist another squad that was supposedly engaged in a firefight with Iraqis. When he arrived on the scene, he saw that four unarmed Iraqi civilians had been gunned down with such firepower that their heads were separated from their bodies. Several soldiers from the other unit were kicking around the decapitated Iraqi heads in a game of soccer.
“I didn’t know much about the Geneva Conventions, but I knew one thing: what I had witnessed was wrong,” Key writes. “We were soldiers in the U.S. Army. In Iraq, we were supposed to be stomping out terrorism, bringing democracy and acting as a force for good in the world. Instead we had become monsters in a residential neighborhood… When I was back in Oklahoma, if someone had described to me the situation of the decapitated corpses, I would have had a hard time believing it. I would not have wanted to accept that American soldiers would behave this way overseas. But I was no longer in Oklahoma and I could not deny what I have seen. For the rest of my time in Iraq I was not able to forget the scene of the decapitated bodies and the heads being kicked by American soldiers. Sometimes, in my dreams, the disembodied heads plagued me with accusation. They told me what I was slowly realizing: that the American military had betrayed the values of my country. We had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine.” (pp. 109-110)
Key witnessed many other atrocities during his months in Iraq. A seven-year-old girl was killed while trying to scrounge for food near a U.S. base. An Iraqi car was burned and then crushed by a tank for making a turn too close to a U.S. convoy. Seven civilians were shot because some U.S. troops got trigger happy in Fallujah. A 13-year-old girl was turned over by the U.S. to the Iraqi police to be raped. Key tells of one raid where they were told it was a mission to get an important terrorist. When they got there and raided and tore up the house, they found no weapons and only women inside. They were told to guard the doors to the house while some high-ranking commissioned officers went in for an hour. Key says they heard the women screaming during this time. Then the officers came out and told them to leave. And all this was on top of the everyday beatings, abuse, and theft committed by U.S. soldiers.
When Key was allowed to return home for a two-week vacation, he made the decision to go AWOL. He writes: “I know that many Americans have their mind made up about people like me. They think we are cowards. I don't blame them. I had my own mind made up about war deserters, long before I set foot in Iraq. But I am not a coward; the easiest thing would have been to keep on doing what they were telling me to do. But ever so slowly, as the jets raced overhead and the illumination rounds burned and the houses fell during the long Iraqi nights, my conscience returned. I am not this man, I told myself. I cannot do these things any longer.”
Key was unable to locate any group providing assistance to soldiers in his situation. After a year of living underground, sleeping in cars and seedy motels, he makes contact with a group called the War Resisters Campaign in Toronto that helped him cross the border and arranged housing and support. The book ends with him not knowing if Canada will allow him to stay – his asylum claim was rejected in November 2006 and is being appealed.
Key is not the only soldier who has defied the military and the government and walked away from the U.S. war in Iraq. According to Jeffry House, an attorney who represents many of those who are seeking refugee status in Canada, about 40 former U.S. soldiers have officially filed for refugee status and about 150 more are in Canada but have not filed refugee claims. An article in the Denver Post cites U.S. Army reports revealing that 3,101 soldiers have deserted between October 2005 and October 2006 and at least 2,400 military personnel have deserted from other branches between October 2004 and October 2005. (Denver Post, 4/15/2007)
In an epilogue, Key grapples with the morality and responsibility of those serving in an army that is committing such crimes. He rejects easy justification for the troops. “If you have beaten or killed an innocent person, and if there remains a shred of conscience in your heart, you will not likely avoid anguish by saying you were only following orders… I am ashamed of what I did in Iraq, and of all the ways that innocent civilians suffered or died at our hands. The fact that I was only following orders does not lessen my discomfort or ease my nightmares.” (p. 213)
In the end Key remains absolutely certain that he did the right thing by refusing to return to Iraq and that, as he puts it, he owes "one apology, and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq."
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