When he signed on as a combat engineer in 2002, Joshua Key claims he was misled by his quota-conscious recruiter, told he would almost certainly never have to serve overseas. One thing he did understand, however, was the U.S. army’s dim view of desertion: “I saw a poster on a wall that read: ‘Desertion in the time of war means death by a firing squad.’ ”
Key’s memoir is an attempt to justify why he deserted midway through his combat tour in Iraq, in a war he says is unjust.
He’s not alone. An estimated 8,000 members of the U.S. military have deserted since the Iraq War began in 2003. According to the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto, as many as 250 have come to Canada. To date, no one has been deported, though several refugee claims, including Key’s, have been rejected.
Key describes himself as a member of the so-called “poverty draft”: poor, ignorant Americans, drawn to the military by its promises of money, education and security as an antidote to a life of continued desperation.
Key’s upbringing in an Oklahoma trailer park is a white-trash cliché: absent father, abusive stepfather, plenty of booze and guns. Shortly after high school, Key marries his sweetheart, they quickly produce three children, and struggle to hold their dead-end life together. The military offers them a way out.
Elements of his army training are straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. Twice, on orders from a drill sergeant, Key leads his peers in midnight raids to beat another recruit who is falling behind in the training: “My buddies and I threw a blanket over his head and beat his chest and ribs with a sock stuffed with soap. I whacked him hard while he cried out in pain.”
At first, the military gives Key stability and a sense of identity: “I must say that I loved boot camp. . . . I was no longer wondering how I could possibly put enough food on the table for Brandi and the boys. I was now an American soldier, and proud to think of myself as a perfect killing machine. I felt patriotic and invincible.”
Six months in Iraq changed that.
In places such as Ramadi and Fallujah, Key places the explosives that blow in the doors of Iraqis’ homes. He and his fellow soldiers search and intimidate the civilians inside. At first, Key enthusiastically bullies and thieves, confiscating and keeping any money he finds.
Over time, however, he begins to question the utility of these operations. In 200 raids, he says his squad never found anything they could link to terrorism. They only succeeded in inciting hatred: “A sick realization lodged like a cancer in my gut. It grew and festered, and troubled me more with every passing day. We, the Americans, had become the terrorists in Iraq.”
Key recalls several incidents involving the abuse and killing of civilians. He experiences a moral epiphany when he sees American soldiers kick around the decapitated heads of four Iraqis “in a twisted game of soccer.” He’s not sure who else sees this and he never reports it. In most of the cases he relates, he says soldiers acted with impunity. Their officers failed to punish those involved. It’s impossible to confirm the veracity of Key’s accounts here. At the same time, Canadians reading this might be grateful that their own soldiers are not mired in Iraq. Judging from what Canadian soldiers have told me about their experiences overseas, Afghanistan is — for now, at least — far different.
After more than six months in Iraq, Key returns home to his family for two weeks of much-needed leave. When his return flight to Iraq is delayed, he acts on impulse and goes into hiding in Philadelphia, before eventually driving north to Canada with his wife and four children.
The writing style is stark and compelling. There are no stylistic flourishes here as there are in Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, or Evan Wright’s account of the invasion of Iraq, Generation Kill. Judging by what I’ve read of Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Book of Negroes, I suspect he restrained himself when it came to assisting Key with his prose, in order to preserve the authentic voice of an ordinary soldier.
What’s most engaging about this book is its essential honesty. Key takes pains to recount incidents from his childhood and his military service that lay out his own shortcomings; as if to say, I’m telling you all this about myself so that you’ll believe what I say about Iraq. It caused me to reassess my notions of duty.
Even though Key was a soldier who voluntarily assumed the obligations of service, one can sympathize with his moral quandary. Soldiers don’t get to choose where they are sent, or how they are employed, but that doesn’t immunize them against a roiling conscience. Choosing to disobey orders takes guts. So does living underground with your family, enduring poverty and paranoia for the sake of your principles.
At the same time, as someone who’s been a professional soldier, I wonder how the men in Key’s squad felt when he failed to return from the United States, leaving them to continue the dirty work of counter-insurgency. And what do they think of the fact that for two months he carried a useless M249 machine gun because he couldn’t be bothered to have it repaired, jeopardizing their lives in a war zone?
The Deserter’s Tale ought to be required reading for soldiers heading overseas, to prepare them for the stresses and dilemmas they are likely to face.