Fleeing a hellish war: Deserter served in Iraq with U.S. army

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, February 3, 2007

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
House of Anansi Press, 237 pages, $29.95

First, I want to lay my cards on the table. I don’t like deserters. It’s a dislike that I’ve developed over the years hanging around soldiers: first growing up in the family of a soldier, doing my own military service, then covering wars on three continents.

I’ve seen my fair share of deserters, but rarely have I met one who elicited in me a feeling of sympathy: pity – yes, often mixed with revulsion – but sympathy, almost never.

So when I picked up my advance reading copy of The Deserter’s Tale, told by the latest darling of the Canadian peace movement, former Private First Class Joshua Key, I was ready for another variation of the same tale I’ve heard many times.

Yet Key, a 28-year-old father of four, a deserter from the United States army who is appealing the rejection of his claim for refugee status in Canada, is different.

True, his story has all the hallmarks of a tearjerker tale designed to draw public sympathy for his bid to stay in Canada: a difficult childhood, poverty, unscrupulous army recruiters, an unjust and hellish war and, finally, exile and redemption.

But somehow, Key manages to remain believable.

Lawrence Hill, the award-winning Canadian novelist and journalist who helped Key write The Deserter’s Tale, does a marvelous job preserving Key’s authentic voice. The writing is fluid, crisp and compelling. The story is shocking.

Key was born into a poor family in Guthrie, Okla., population 10,000. He grew up in a two-bedroom trailer with his younger brother, their mother and a series of abusive stepfathers. Key’s early life can be described as the stereotypical “trailer trash” existence in the U.S. Bible belt.

Key describes how he shot a .357 Magnum on his ninth birthday, brought down his first deer by the age of 12 and, before he learned to shave, could handle the dozens of firearms that his stepfather owned.

In 2002, struggling to feed his wife and two children and with a third child on the way, Key enlisted in the U.S. army. He says he was assured by recruiters he’d become a bridge builder who would never be deployed outside the continental United States. Instead, he was trained as a combat engineer.

And when U.S. forces invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, Key was sent to Ramadi as part of the 43rd Combat Engineer Company of the Second Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry.

During his seven-month stay in the heart of the so-called Sunni triangle, Key participated in hundreds of raids on suspected terrorist houses. Key provides an unvarnished and gut-wrenching account of his company’s “war on terrorism” – complete with beatings and mistreatment of Iraqi civilians, outright looting and even killings.

The brutality meted out to ordinary Iraqis by the terrified, frustrated and sleep-deprived U.S. soldiers as described by Key is shocking.

There is nothing noble in the conduct of Key’s buddies. They are a far cry from a supposedly “liberating” army. Brainwashed and conditioned to hate the “hajjis, habibs, and the sand niggers” – all the derogatory terms used by U.S. soldiers to describe Arabs and Muslims – soldiers of the 43rd Combat Engineer Company act very much like any arrogant and brutal occupying force.

The intricacies and nuances of a “hearts and minds campaign” are simply lost on them.

Key tells the story of a little girl shot in the head by an unseen sniper as she ran to get an army ration from Key, and describes a half-crazed squad mate honing his wrestling moves using the corpses of Iraqi civilians in a makeshift morgue. The Deserter’s Tale is not for the faint of heart.

With unflinching frankness, Key recounts a series of horrific events that cause him to question his mission and force him to do the unthinkable – betray his buddies and his country.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army,” Key writes in his concluding paragraph. “I deserted an injustice and leaving was the right thing to. I owe one apology and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq.”

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.

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