Beyond the Border of War
Monday, March 17, 2008
TORONTO In from the cold they come, gangly young men and graying grandfathers alike, filling a downtown church with the kind of polite anticipation more befitting an afternoon wedding than an antiwar rally. Banners dangle from the choir loft, bearing the same appeal as the T-shirts for sale in the foyer: "Let Them Stay."
Lee Zaslofsky bustles from pew to pew, an anxious organizer making sure everyone is in place on a recent Saturday -- the politicians and academics, the musicians, the pacifists, and a handful of runaway American soldiers seeking refuge in Canada.
Zaslofsky, 63, knows each of the latter by both name and need. There is Jeremy Hinzman, the first one to seek asylum here, in limbo for four years now. And Phil McDowell, the computer geek whose patriotism was put to the test in Baghdad. And Patrick Hart, the veteran worried about lost medical benefits for his sick son. All found their way to Zaslofsky and the quasi-underground network he runs for AWOL Americans crossing the border with little more than what they can fit in a duffel bag.
"You should know, I do love you," he assures each one. "I'm a Vietnam resister."
Across Canada, the remnants of a lost counterculture are rising up again as hundreds of aging draft dodgers reluctantly leave the quiet comforts of their anonymous lives to help an estimated 200 Iraq war deserters who fled north with no promise of asylum.
In truth, they share little beyond the difficult choice they made to forsake their citizenship, and the timeless debate whether theirs was an act of courage or cowardice. What they believe, where they came from, and how they ended up here are as different as 1968 and 2008.
Now this small, tentative band of unlikely brothers, two generations of American resisters, struggles to both find and forget its common ground.
* * *
"You're being stop-lossed!"
Phil McDowell tried to absorb his wife's frantic news in June 2006 that the Army was rescinding his discharge. Iraq had left him unsettled, angry. When his military tour was over, he had come to the mountains to clear his head, stopping to call Jamime from the Appalachian Trail. Now a letter from his commander was waiting at home, and McDowell later learned that the Army could essentially reinstate him for nearly two more years' active duty.
He was enraged. He had fulfilled his obligation. Why wasn't his government honoring its side of the bargain?
"I tried contacting senators and congressmen. I tried to contact civilian military lawyers, but they all said the time frame was too short," McDowell recalls. He offered to stay in the Army "and not do war," but was told no such deal could be made.