A.W.O.L: Joshua Key walked away from the war in Iraq, and headed north

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 (Anansi Press, 2007; $29.95)


IF YOU ARE, by chance, harbouring any illusions about the sheer brutality and deadly impact of the U.S. war on Iraq, then you must read The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War In Iraq. It is the first memoir of a combatant in this ruinous military adventure, the story of Oklahoma-born war-resister Joshua Key as told to the acclaimed Canadian writer Lawrence Hill.

Key’s book is devastating in equal parts for what it tells us about the war and for what it depicts about life in the “heartland” of the United States. Growing up in the small town of Guthrie, Key was raised by a poor mother who endured battering by a series of racist, violent men. From early childhood, the young Key was immersed in a myopic culture of violence, pervasive firearms use – he began target practice with live ammo at the age of seven – and poverty. It’s easy to see how military recruitment can thrive in situations like this; for Key, joining the armed forces might well have seemed an almost natural and positive step. (He first met recruiters in February 2002; just over a year later, the U.S. would invade Iraq.)

Nevertheless, Key recounts, a recruiter had to trick him into signing his contract, assuring the 23-year-old that he would not see combat, and that he would work on “engineering projects.” Instead of building bridges, Key soon found himself embarked on the mission of dismantling Iraq. At first he joined in the rampant abuse of civilians, noting that the assaulting of Iraqis by stressed out – or, in some cases, just plain sadistic – U.S. soldiers was absolutely routine.

After observing a particularly grisly display of disrespect exacted on the bodies of dead Iraqis, however, Key had had enough. But, of course, he was not free to act on that conviction. Eventually, he came to the difficult decision to desert while on leave back in the States. After living underground in Philadelphia with a growing young family, Key made contact with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto and, soon thereafter, successfully crossed the border to Canada with his family in tow.

Today, Joshua Key, his wife and their four young children are trying to live a normal existence in this country. His application for refugee status, along with those of a number of other U.S. war resisters, remains in doubt, as neither the former Liberal government nor the Harper regime has moved toward a policy that would allow deserters to stay as Trudeau’s did for tens of thousands of resisters during the Vietnam era.

The Deserter’s Tale is told in simple, compelling prose. Joshua Key’s story may just be one perspective on the Iraq war, but in many ways the young war resister is also speaking on behalf of the voiceless thousands senselessly killed in this war. Relentlessly honest, and graphic, this book stands out as unique and significant amidst the shelves of books critiquing the Bush administration’s foreign policy. It will surely stand up long after this war is over as a condemnation both of the pretensions of empire, and of the grotesque inequality that scars life in the United States itself.

Key still has frequent nightmares about everything he saw in Iraq, and he knows the psychological wounds of war will be with him for the rest of his life. Though his desertion has left him estranged from many friends and family back home, he remains unapologetic about quitting the U.S. army, “I owe one apology and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq.”



Leave a comment