Thursday, February 09, 2006

Should Hinzman Stay?

Jeremy Hinzman's case isn’t simply whether a military defector from the US should be allowed to take refuge in Canada. It raises big questions about who or what the military is.

This week the Supreme Court will hear Hintzman's arguments that the War in Iraq is not a legal or ethical war, and that even as a soldier, he should have the right of conscientious objection to it.

On one level, it's cut-and-dry: either he stays or he goes, either he has the right or he doesn't. Canada took in thousands of draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, which suggests we should let him stay. However, those were not enlisted soldiers, so they had more of a case that they were conscientious objectors.

That’s on one level. But essentially, this case poses a much bigger question: Should soldiers have individual rights?

Tradition says No. Armies have to work as a single unit, and they can't tolerate soldiers making their own decisions. Military service is not a buffet.

Yet a slew of recent court decisions suggest that soldiers can be held individually accountable for their actions, even while following orders. The American soldiers who mistakenly bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers while on a routine air mission in Afghanistan faced penalties. The soldiers who ran the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq went to jail. Were these soldiers acting as individuals at these times, or were they just "doing their duty" as they understood it? In neither case did their supervisors face any penalties, which suggests that the "“single unit" idea doesn’t hold anymore.

At the same time, another group of American troops had to face the courts because they refused to follow orders while in Iraq because they had deemed the orders too dangerous. Nobody investigated whether these orders really were too dangerous: the only question was whether they refused to obey. But what if these troops had obeyed orders and then found themselves in a situation they couldn't handle and then went berserk, nutso, shooting from the hip? They would have been held individually responsible for the results of their actions. Basically, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

(Even the soldiers who tried to stop the commander who had ordered the My Lai massacre in Vietnam originally faced courtmartial. Of course, once the media got wind of the story, they were transformed into national heros).

My point is that the military is the last accepted form of slavery in the West. Once persons sign up, they no longer own their own lives. They can be shipped anywhere and ordered to do anything – including killing and dying. They are not allowed to question the motives. They are owned body, mind and soul by the state.

This system may have worked well in the past, but in the age of individual responsibility and universal education, it's fraying. We expect soldiers to think for themselves and to make ethical decisions on the spot, under fire. By punishing them for unethical actions and bad judgment, the courts have in effect assigned them responsibilities as individuals. Yet soldiers don't have rights as individuals—and aren't even supposed to be individuals.

I suspect if the military ever unionized, the face of war would change forever. And in Canada, so would the level of equipment of our soldiers and the living standards of their families. They would be slaves no more.

It bears a bit of thinking.

However, in the Hinzman case, the decision is dicey. What if we let him stay? This isn’t just a “What would the Americans say?” decision. If Hinzman can conscientiously object to a particular war as an enlisted soldier, then so can any Canadian soldier.

Maybe that's just too weird for Canadians to deal with.

Or maybe it’s about time.

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