Last refuge: "Freedom Underground" for US Army Deserters  

by Geoff OlsonVancouver Courier February 8th, 2004



contributing writer Vancouver Courier  

 At Branch 142 of the Royal Canadian Legion, Christmas lights still hang off the bar and decorate displays of wartime memorabilia. At a table in the back of the room, light from a CBC TV camera crew casts the features of a dozen people in sharp relief. Among them are several American and Canadian war veterans who have arrived on a wintry Vancouver night to hear U.S. activist Carl Rising-Moore's pitch for what he calls the "Freedom Underground."  


According to an Associated Press wire story from last November, at least 17 U.S. troops have committed suicide in Iraq, and the actual number is almost certainly higher, prompting demands for answers from family members.  


Rising-Moore suspects the suicides are the result of the pressures of combat, and lack of control of the situation in the embattled country, where U.S. soldiers have been targeted virtually daily in bomb attacks- deaths have already topped 500.  


"For every death you've got 10 times as many injuries," says Rising-Moore. "I've heard 11,000 have been evacuated from illnesses or injuries due to combat."  


The French weekly magazine Le Canard Enchaine reports that 1,700 U.S. soldiers have deserted their posts in Iraq, many of them failing to return to military duty after getting permission to go back to the United States. They simply disappear off the radar, and some of them may well be in Canada.  


Rising-Moore believes the numbers of suicides will rise as U.S. soldiers returning to the States choose to take their own lives rather than face another tour of duty in Iraq. The so-called "stop-loss" orders to U.S. army duty, extending a soldier's tour beyond his or her contractual agreement, are expected to be expanded to greater numbers of troops. According to reports in the U.S. press, more soldiers due to return from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several months will not be allowed to retire or otherwise leave the service for 90 days after they return to their home bases, while it's decided whether they'll be reassigned.  


The American activist's appearance in Vancouver is part of a cross-country effort to petition Canada for safe refuge for U.S. military deserters across the border. The "Freedom Underground" he's pitching would be an underground railroad, similar to the extensive formal and informal network that helped draft dodgers and deserters in B.C. in the '60s.  


The question is, given strained U.S.-Canada relations and the fact information is shared between the RCMP and their American counterparts, can Canadians offer substantive aid to U.S. deserters? That's what Rising- Moore is here to find out, although he's quick to add that he regards the cross-border escape hatch as the last option for suicidal soldiers. "I'm telling them to go to their clergy, go to their commanding officers, and to claim conscientious objection while in the military, and to fight it out like that. But if they're considering pulling the trigger on themselves, I'm telling them to desert, just as George Bush Jr. did during the Vietnam War." (A gap in Bush's military service record from May 1972 to October 1973 has some critics accusing him of desertion.)  


Fleeing to Canada should only be an option for soldiers, Rising-Moore says, "if all else fails, and they don't see any other way out."  


According to U.S. military law, a soldier who fails to report for duty within 30 days is AWOL, with a maximum penalty of five years confinement, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonourable discharge. After 30 days, he or she is technically a deserter. The maximum penalty for desertion in time of war is death, although no U.S. soldier has been executed for desertion since World War II.  


That hasn't dissuaded some military personnel-the numbers of soldiers going AWOL or deserting were high even while the engagement was limited to Afghanistan. According to an official in the U.S. Army public affairs office, 3,800 soldiers deserted in 2002. Of those, 3,255 were returned to military control.  


It's not exactly history repeating itself-yet. However, a call has been made for staffers on U.S. draft boards, an ominous sign of a new phase of war should George W. Bush win the next U.S. federal election. (A democratic win doesn't necessarily rule out a draft either.) Some observers wonder if the talk of desertion is the sound of the orchestra tuning up before an overture of post-'60s draft-dodging into Canada.  


There is no accurate count of how many draft dodgers went into exile. Immigration figures suggest at least 15,000, according to a 1985 CBC report, but the number was most certainly higher. From the late '60s until the early '70s, Vancouver was the destination of choice for young American men refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. Many of them became permanent residents. Family members also joined the exodus.  


In 1977, two years after the war ended, President Jimmy Carter declared a general amnesty for all draft dodgers. Military deserters were exempted from the amnesty, except on a case-by-case basis.  


One participant at the legion round-table, World War II veteran Ed Shaefer, recalls the draft dodging years. "There was an underground, a real underground, in the state of Washington getting people into Canada," he says with a trace of pride, "and I was one of those who helped get a lot of people into Canada.  


"What I had to do is make sure that they were clean shaven, didn't have any pot on the them, and dressed nicely. I had two small kids and my wife and I would go for a holiday in Canada, and I would come up with them with members of the family. There's a place up here that had trailers where they could stay. At that time all they had to do is go back to the Canadian border, give them $200 and apply for landed immigrant status. It was very easy at that time, and you couldn't do that today."  


City councillor Jim Green arrived in Canada as an American avoiding the Vietnam War. He grew up in South Carolina, where the only jobs available to the working class were in the army. He recalls his father, whose life in service began with the French Foreign Legion and finished with the American Air force, as a "violent, ill-educated man whose life had been war." Not surprisingly, long before Green objected politically to violence and war, he had a personal resistance.  


Green says draft dodgers in Canada had it relatively easy compared to deserters, who were mostly poorly educated, working-class kids. When Green arrived in Canada, he offered shelter to deserters, since they were much less welcome in Canada than draft dodgers, and needed help that much more.  


Though never greatly involved with the '60s expatriate American scene in Vancouver, Green describes the draft dodgers he's met as "fine people who made a great contribution to Canada."  


Another participant describes the '60s influx of American draft dodgers as a "brain gain" to Canadian society. But for Rising-Moore, talk of draft dodgers is just so much speculation at this point, and secondary to his chief concern: U.S. military personnel dying at their own hands. Born in Canada, but now a U.S. citizen based in Indianapolis-America's "geographical and political center"-the 57-year-old says he served stateside in the U.S. army between 1964 and 1967, but never saw combat. "I've never shot anybody, thank goodness, and I avoided that mess in Vietnam, so I feel comparatively well-off compared to some of my brothers and sisters in the military."  


Rising-Moore's life has been angled toward activism, beginning with his involvement with the "Don't Make a Wave Committee," the anti-nuclear precursor to Greenpeace. Recalling Rising-Moore's activist years in Canada, one of his Vancouver friends says the affable and articulate agitator had a preternatural talent for organizing grassroots organizations. "Carl made things happen here," his friend says.  


By his count, Rising-Moore, who believes the war on Iraq is illegal based on international law, has been arrested some two dozen times over the past three decades. The last incident made headlines when he joined a group of protesters bearing foreign flags who welcomed George W. Bush's motorcade in Indianapolis. Rising-Moore, who police say was waving his flag of the UN "violently," found himself in court after an altercation with police, with his bail set at $20,000.  


At the Legion round-table, there is strong support for Rising Moore's Freedom Underground-in theory. However, when talk turns to details, the political dimensions of the problem complicate the good intentions.  


Professional opinions are also mixed. James Laxer is a professor of political science at York University, and author of The Border, a study of post-9/11 U.S.-Canada relations along the 49th. By e-mail, he says he has no doubt that if the U.S. reinstates the draft after the 2004 election, it will provoke many draft resisters to seek refuge in Canada, as an earlier generation did during the Vietnam War. Most will likely find a "warm and helpful welcome" from Canadians, he says, although that warmth is unlikely to be reflected at the official level. The federal government has entered into border accords with the U.S. that could make the situation of those seeking refuge, especially deserters, more difficult than in the past.  


Laxer points out that the Martin government has signaled its wish to "repair" relations with the Bush White House. He suspects that Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who is in charge of public safety and emergency preparedness and the Canadian counterpart to U.S. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, will do everything in her power to try to keep Ridge happy. "That means her inclination is likely to be harsh with respect to U.S. military deserters and other so-called 'high risk travelers'-the two governments have already agreed to share intelligence on such people."  


If a significant number of Americans seek refuge in Canada, Laxer believes it cannot fail to become a political issue. Pressure will have to be brought to bear on the Martin government to open the door, as Pierre Trudeau so famously did in the past, he says. Back in 1969 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Prime Minister Trudeau characterized American draft dodgers as good, orderly students who had gained the sympathy of many Canadians.  


Rising-Moore's perhaps overly optimistic views of Canadian autonomy and liberalism are not surprising, since in the 10 years he's been away from Canada, he's had little exposure to news north of the 49th. "So what's Trudeau up to these days?" he asks me during our interview. "Well, not a heck of a lot," I respond. "He's been dead for a few years now."  

What would happen to potential deserters in Canada? They'd likely be deported, because they'd have no immigration status here, says Vancouver immigration lawyer Phil Rankin. "Desertion is not one of the grounds for refugee status. During the Vietnam War, nobody got refugee status, even though they had a political opinion.  


"So they pretty much just deport you across the border and take you to the brig." The U.S/Canada extradition treaty doesn't apply to deserters.  


As for conscientious objection, this option usually involves refusal to serve. Once a soldier has entered into a military contract, the agreement is considered binding-unless it's changed from the top down, as in the stop-loss orders.  

In other words, failing any change in federal policy in Canada, the so-called Freedom Underground would have to be just that: below the level of official detection or priority to be of any help to fleeing Americans.  


However, there is no penalty on the books for harbouring deserters. According to Rankin, their non- status in Canada precludes criminal charges against Canadians who help them out, although employing a deserter may be a different matter.  


That won't stop the owner of a Kitsilano restaurant at the round table, who says "there's a job waiting" at her restaurant for a deserter seeking refuge in Canada.  


Rising-Moore tells the group that his role in Canada is to set up a loose coalition of Canadians, create some structure on-line and off, then return to the U.S. "I'm not living in Canada. I've been gone for 10 years, and I can't do this-it has to be Canadians during this period. This is a grass-roots effort."  


"Given the Nuremberg principles," he adds, "every citizen of every country has the responsibility to fight their nation if they feel it's wrong.  

"The question is, is this country going to become part of the movement? Is Canada going to continue enjoying the reputation of being different from the United States, which has gone on decade after decade overpowering other nations: Guatemala, Iran, Chile, overthrowing these governments through CIA-backed coups?"  


The meeting at the legion ends with an agreement in principle that Canada should offer safe harbour for deserters who have exhausted all other options at home. Representatives from various activist groups promise to take the issue to their memberships. With that, Rising- Moore gets up from his chair and reaches for a prop accompanying him across Canada. "You've all heard of Old Glory," he says with grin. "This is New Glory." He unfurls the flag, depicting a dove of peace in flight across the Stars and Stripes, with an olive branch in its mouth.  


Rising-Moore rolls the flag up and the guests depart. His next stop is Victoria, for another meeting similar to this one. Satisfied with the response from the participants, the activist tramps outside into the snow for a slice of synchronicity. There's a painting on the wall of the legion of a dove in flight, trailing the Canadian flag.  


When I see him next, Rising-Moore seems a little downcast. He's discovered there is little chance for American deserters to maintain any visible profile in Canada, and they would be quickly deported if discovered.  


That's not all. To put more meat on the CBC TV story that prompted filming of the round-table, the producers want footage of the activist returning to Canada with a deserter. Rising-Moore says he cannot go this route, as he's certain identification on film will endanger fleeing Americans-to say nothing of himself. He's hoping he won't see the inside of a jail when he returns to his home base in Indianapolis, but remains confident that the Bush administration won't pull anything that's not in its interest, public-relations- wise, in the months leading up to the U.S. federal election.  


In spite of this sobering information, he is heartened that a few Canadians he's met have pledged to help U.S. deserters to Canada, regardless of the risk.  


Asked how he's financing his Canadian campaign, he says it's all out of pocket, from money he's saved from construction work in Indianapolis. He's had a lifetime of odd jobs, he says; activism is his real work.  


Before he departs for a train to the prairies, Rising- Moore leaves me with a quote from Gandhi, one of his spiritual/political mentors.  


"The future isn't between violence and nonviolence," he says, packing up his books and papers. "It's between nonviolence and non-existence."