(First of Two Parts)
On New Year’s Eve, Jeremy Hinzman sat in a McDonald’s on N.C. 401 in Fuquay-Varina explaining his precarious situation. On Dec. 20, Hinzman, a U.S. Army specialist stationed at Fort Bragg, got the news he had dreaded. His unit–the 504th Brigade, 2nd Battalion–would be shipping out to Iraq shortly after the new year for an indefinite deployment in the war on terrorism. Last year, Hinzman, 25, the father of a 1-year-old son, was deployed for more than eight months to Afghanistan. When he left, Hinzman’s son, Liam, was just 7 months old. When Hinzman returned, Liam was walking and didn’t remember his father. While he didn’t see any combat in that first deployment, Hinzman said he had a bad feeling about going to Iraq.
In Iraq, Hinzman, said he felt like he would have to do some things he’d regret. During Christmas leave, Hinzman, who is a member of the Fayetteville Friends Meeting, discussed his options with his wife, Nga Nguyen. He could go to Iraq–an option both he and Nguyen rejected. He could refuse the deployment order and face court martial and a likely prison term. Or he could follow a plan of action that thousands of young men like himself had taken during the Vietnam War–he could flee to Canada.
He chose option three. On Jan. 2, Hinzman and his family packed up their small car with a few essentials, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. They left post housing under the cover of darkness for the 17-hour drive to the U.S.-Canadian border. Quakers living in the U.S. made contacts in Ontario, and the family was set up with places to stay until they moved into a Toronto apartment on Feb. 1.
A story in the Feb. 7 edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail, says Hinzman is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to file for refugee status in Canada for refusing duty in Iraq. The report says Hinzman’s case is “the first echo of the 12,000 deserters and 20,000 draft resisters who came north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.”
Before enlisting, Hinzman said he was searching for some meaning in his life, and the military–which had a “higher purpose”–was better than working just for the sake of making a buck. “I guess I just kind of sold my soul for the college money,” he said. “That’s probably a little too blunt. I had this notion that, “Hey, I’m going to go and get paid to exercise, shoot weapons and jump out of planes,’ and that sounded real fun. It didn’t matter to me at that point.
“I was just young, and I didn’t feel I was really going anywhere.”
Hinzman admits he got in over his head. When he joined the Army, he said he was expecting Al Gore to be elected president. The terror attacks of 9-11 were still an unimaginable horror. But the Iraq war forced him to reassess his values.
“It’s a political decision, which as a soldier I’m not really entitled to have,” he said. “But I feel that if I had gone to Iraq I would be in a sense putting myself into a criminal enterprise and becoming a criminal because it’s a war–or an act of aggression. I don’t think it can be called a war–based on false pretenses in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the links to al Qaeda and bringing democracy to Iraq.
“Because if democracy was to happen in Iraq, the Shiites would take power, and they would by no means be a friendly government towards the U.S. or its interests. So I don’t want to risk my life for that, and I don’t think the government should risk the lives of our country’s young for that, and also to line the pockets of big corporations. I mean the obvious example is Haliburton.
“It’s kind of, to me, messed up to go destroy a country’s infrastructure and then have an auction to see who can rebuild it. It just smells bad to me, and I don’t want to be part of it, nor do I want to kill people or be some place where I wasn’t wanted. There are a lot of governments and leaders in the world that we don’t necessarily like, but we’re not going there. For example, Zimbabwe–we don’t do anything about Robert Mugabe. I mean he’s just as bad a tyrant as Saddam Hussein was, but why aren’t we there? It’s obviously about economics. I don’t want to be a pawn in that game.”
Hinzman, a native of Rapid City, S.D., admits he was not a typical soldier. A Catholic convert who also follows Buddhist teachings and enjoys the silent worship of Quakers, Hinzman was a military misfit from the get-go. His fellow soldiers were weirded out by his meditation regimen and his choice to not eat meat.
For the most part, Hinzman said he kept his political and moral views to himself, “although I won’t deny I was known as the liberal, and this is in a culture where everybody watches Fox News. There aren’t very many vegetarians in the Army, so that would open up a whole bag of tricks.”
Hinzman’s peers would ask a logical question: “Well, if you can’t eat an animal or if you can’t kill an animal, how can you kill a human?”
“They did ask those kind of questions, and it did raise their eyebrows,” Hinzman said. “That’s one of the reasons that got me thinking that I was in the wrong place. If you think logically, that makes sense. If you can’t kill an animal, how can you kill a human?”
Hinzman also felt uncomfortable with the Army mindset that encouraged misogyny and violence. Particularly, he remembers the indoctrination of the troops during basic training. During exercises, the new recruits would drill using macabre chants.
“When we were marching around chanting songs like, “Train to kill. Kill we will,’ or during bayonet training they’d ask, “What makes the grass grow?’ and we’d say “Blood, blood, bright red blood.’
“When we would thrust [the bayonet], the drill sergeant would yell that, and we’d have to scream back. People would actually get hoarse yelling this crap. I could never really get into that stuff. Some people ate it up because I think there is an opportunity in groups to kind of let go of your inhibitions and do wanton things…
“It’s all presented, at least on the surface, as, “Oh, it’s just in humor, and no one’s around listening to it,’ but I think that really does put that mindset in a soldier that they’re killers.”
The atmosphere was surreal, he said. “It’s what you think about when you think of a dystopian novel, just all these mindless drones walking around, and the sad thing is that they were individuals with thoughts and feelings, and, at least when they’re at work, that’s lost much of the time.”
The military mindset also fosters a rejection of feminist/maternal values, Hinzman said.
“It’s a very misogynistic place to be in,” he said. “Everyday conversation, it’s like a gangsta rap song the way women are referred to by people you would never suspect of talking that way. There is a lot of domestic violence in the Army, and marriages don’t work and women are objectified.”
The circumstances required enormous self-discipline, Hinzman said. “I would have this constant dialogue with myself,” he said, “and sometimes I’d have to force it because when you’re around something enough, when you’re in an environment enough, you do tend to become a product of that environment.
“Like for instance, I swore all the time, and I would have to make these resolutions that I’m not going to swear because that’s the first step on the road to losing yourself; your autonomy. It’s almost expected that you’re going to refer to women and the enemy in negative terms, objectifying the people you fight against so they no longer have humanity. I had to bite my tongue constantly.”
While he would occasionally have meaningful conversations with his peers, for the most part, Hinzman kept to himself.
“When you’re at work you put on your game face, especially as a lower enlisted person,” he said. “You don’t really talk about the moral ramifications of what you’re doing. Everyday discussion is kind of stultified.”
In Part 2 of this report, Hinzman tells about his failed effort to be placed in a noncombat assignment as a conscientious objector, and what the future looks like for him and his family in Canada.