The problem with genocide III: war resisters and my military family

Liberal Education 3010

A topics course

Instructor: Dr. Bruce McKay

“This course will consider the problem of genocide from a number of perspectives through a number of theoretical frameworks. We shall ask such questions as: Can we more fully define genocide? Why, in particular, is genocide a problem? Is it a solely modern phenomenon or do other aggressive acts in history constitute genocide? Why is it so difficult to take action when we know that it is occurring? What can we do about it? How can people bring themselves to enact such crimes against fellow humans? What should the role of the arts be in understanding genocide? How can we remember genocide while at the same time reconciling the events of the past with the necessities of the present and future?”

Given the nature of Liberal Education is beyond the classroom and beyond traditional education techniques, I will assume that as justification to expand this series to more than just my experiences/thoughts/insight from the Wednesday night class into a broader exercise in humanness.

One of the greatest benefits of attending a post-secondary institution is being entrenched in a community of progressive and analytical thinkers. I suppose I have gone above and beyond in this regard, chosing to extend the traditional four years into six, linking with people and organizations which advocate for more in our society than just a go-to-class-and-go-home mentality. I have also had the fortune to be afforded opportunities to take a leadership position in some of these organizations. Something I have never taken for granted. It is truly a responsibility, a heady one, to be a leader. To stand up and ask to be held accountable for something bigger than oneself. With that responsibility comes profound gratification. Seeing projects that I have spearheaded completed and watching others follow me into fighting for a cause I truly believe in is incredible. It gives hope.

Leaders come from many places and this week I had the privilege to listen to someone I consider a true leader. Joshua Key, an American who has chosen to dodge his voluntary army duty after his deployment in Iraq because of his inability to follow orders in a war he feels is morally wrong and completely false. Key spoke as part of the University of Lethbridge Students’ Union Global Justice Week. Not a particularly powerful speaker, with a southern accent betraying his Oklahoma roots, Key held the sparse audience spellbound with his horrific account of front line Iraq war. A voluntary recruit, Key joined the American army to escape his failing economic status and to provide a level of stability for his family. Like many of those in the U.S. army, patriotism was a factor, but no where throughout his talk did he say it was his country that he did it for. It was for himself and for his family and because Key did believe in freedom, a true freedom for all people.

He recounted the violence, death and suffering of Iraqi civilians. Actions taken and choices made by the U.S. military and the devastation he saw being a front line soldier stunned me. It shocked me, surprisingly. I grew up in a military family. A Canadian military family, but a military family. Tales of World War II were common from my Nana and my mother. My mother attempted to join the Canadian army in 1998 but was unable to serve due to a problem heart, before then, my Nan grew up as an Army brat. Raised in several bases, her childhood was scattered in Ontario and southern Manitoba before, at 16, she left for Winnipeg to live with her grandmother and make a life for herself. Stories of my great-grandparents on both sides were filled with war victories and narrow escapes. Both sides served actively in WWII and both great-grandparents faced situations I am blessed to not have to encounter.

I have always had what my Grandfather would call as “healthy respect” for the Canadian military. Not for war, not for a countries strategic international colonialism, but for the men and women who chose to serve in our armed forces, I understand. I understand because I comprehend the calling of a higher good and a higher purpose and chose to serve that purpose in my own life, although in a significantly different capacity. To serve one’s country is to me not a defense of our national border but a choice to represent that life can be more than basic survival internationally. I am privileged to live in a country I consider pacifist, to fall asleep safely every night, to laugh openly, to be able to debate politics wherever and whenever I want, and to be able to question my government, their choices and its relation to me.

The question I have always grappled with is when does morality come into military. Can you say no? Can you refuse to kill for moral reasons? Is it possible to draw a line? According the Key, no. The American army at the very least  tells you when a life is a loss and when a life is merely a causality. A figure to be marked in some terrorist ledger.

Key didn’t see lives lost like that, and neither do I.

To support Key’s campaign as a political refugee in Canada and to learn more about American war resisters, visit the War Resisters Support Campaign.

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