choosing canada: how can self-imposed exile not be seen as resistance?

In his book Northern Passage, John Hagan writes of an ongoing debate within the Vietnam-era peace movement over whether Americans who went to Canada should be considered war resisters. Many in the peace movement said they were not, agreeing with Richard Nixon and other right-wingers who claimed the Americans in Canada were motivated solely by cowardice and self-interest - the desire to not die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. True war resisters, they said, refused to serve and went to jail if they had to.

I've heard echoes of this in our current battle to persuade Canada to allow the war resisters to stay. Some supposedly progressive people have said that "hiding out in Canada is not the answer" - which in turn reminded me of snarky comments about my own choice to leave the US. If I cared, said some US progressives, I would "stay and fight".

First of all, I believe everyone is motivated at least partially by self interest. Not wanting to die in someone else's war is a perfectly good reason to do whatever you must to avoid it.

Conversely (although less urgently), USians who chose to "stay and fight" are comfortably living their lives. Chances are they never seriously considered selling their homes, quitting their jobs, leaving their friends and family, and starting over in a different country. If they did investigate leaving the US - not in a passing, abstract way, but as a real possibility - and decided against it, did they remain because they are so dedicated to their activism that they simply couldn't leave? Or did they stay because it was the right choice for their own lives? I think "stay and fight" more likely means, "I'm staying anyway, and I'll also keep fighting", not "I'm staying so that I can fight". The "stay and fight" line also betrays an unsurprising UScentricism. The struggle for social justice happens everywhere.

In the case of AWOL US soldiers, it's difficult - no, it's impossible - for me to understand their choice to come to Canada as anything but resistance. I agree with the person in Northern Passage who said, "Anybody who removes their body from the war machine is by definition a resister, and had to be respected as such." The US war resisters now in Canada were part of a killing machine, or slated to become so. They physically and permanently removed themselves from that machine. They resisted in the most direct way possible.

Everything I've heard about what happens to soldiers who try to resist from within the military confirms my view. Soldiers who question orders or speak up about the terrible abuses they see are "smoked" - physically, verbally and psychologically assaulted. Their lives are made a living hell. They may also be court martialed and jailed. I admire people who go this route. It takes enormous courage. But it cannot be considered more of a resistance than walking away altogether.

None of the war resisters in Canada made their choice lightly. How could they, when it likely means they will never be able to return? Not just return to their original country, but to their town and their family. Some families will visit in Canada, but many are limited by poverty, and others have shunned their children for the choice they made. If there is self-interest involved, it's the desire to avoid prison time and having their futures wrecked by a dishonourable discharge, for the crime of following their conscience.

Going to prison for one's belief requires enormous courage. But jail silences the resister. In Canada, resisters are making an invaluable contribution to the peace movement - as everyone who has heard a war resister speak can confirm. When war resister Chuck Wiley speaks at events, if people ask why he didn't just refuse to follow illegal orders and go to jail, why he came to Canada instead, he asks in return, "How many soldiers in prison can you name? How many have you heard speaking out against the war?" When the audience draws a blank, Chuck says, "That's why I'm in Canada. So I can tell people what's happening over there."

Resistance, like all activism, takes many forms. Our allies in Courage To Resist have the right idea: support resistance in whatever form it takes.
In the past few years, tens of thousands of service members have resisted illegal war and occupation in a number of different ways — by going AWOL, seeking conscientious objector status and/or a discharge, asserting the right to speak out against injustice from within the military, and for a relative few, publicly refusing to fight.

While there are those who would like to dismiss war resisters as "cowards," the reality is that it takes exceptional courage to resist unjust, illegal, and/or immoral orders. For many resisters, it was their first-hand experiences as occupation troops that compelled them to take a stand. For others, "doing the right thing" and acting out of conscience began to outweigh their military training in obedience. . . .

Those who decide to resist while in the military have powerful stories to tell about how they came to the decision to take a stand. Courage to Resist makes a special effort to work with resisters to tell their stories, in their own words and from their own unique perspectives. . . .

Progressive people who don't support military resistance are missing the big picture. More way back here: "moral illogic: supporting peace, but not war resistance".

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