Deserting Soldiers

A few years ago, when I was working full-time in the Canadian Forces, I remember facilitating an all-ranks discussion about ethics. The audience was mainly comprised of Reservists, a young but serious and thoughtful group. Running out of time I proposed a final question: “is it ethical to kill people?”

The first response came from a Christian in the class: “The Bible says: thou shall not kill. This is how I was raised. It is hard to get around that. Killing is such a final, violent conclusion. At the end of the day, with all my upbringing and education, I don’t think I could do it.”

It was an honest and admirable answer, so I asked a follow-up question: “So is it ethical for you to have joined the Army?”

I left them to ponder the implications.


This is a philosophical debate that our Parliament currently faces. Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy has tabled a private member’s bill proposing an amendment to our immigration legislation that would oblige the Immigration Minister to allow “war resisters” to stay in Canada.

The apparent intention of Kennedy’s bill is to stop the imminent deportation of US military deserters who are seeking to stay in Canada. The deserters are ostensibly “resisting” the Iraq War.

This debate feels oddly dated. As if I should be listening to Sticky Fingers and wearing bell-bottoms. Certainly the popular rhetoric around the Iraq War is steeped in Vietnam allusions, but the reality in America is different. There is no draft – America’s military today is made up completely of volunteers.

It takes the utmost moral courage to stand against one’s country and comrades. Refusing a legal and legitimate order because of personal beliefs takes a lot of guts. I think most people understand and respect that.

But running away to Canada is not courageous. It commands no respect.

It is unclear why these deserters did not stay in the United States and accept their legal reprimands and punishments. A sampling of those punishments indicate prison sentences of 2 – 13 months. For most of the deserters this is less time than they would have been in Iraq. It seems a fair enough conseuqence.

So why does Kennedy want to help these people evade their personal legal difficulties?

Well, because these deserters are decent enough folk. And most Canadians think the Iraq War was bad. The popular conclusion is therefore: let them stay.

But it is more complicated than that.

The most fundamental principle governing military in democratic society is that the civilian government calls the shots. They tell soldiers where and when to fight. But when soldiers start refusing government orders bad things happen.

What does this proposed amendment of Kennedy’s really say about values and beliefs? Is it okay to break personal vows and oaths and run away from justice?

John Ivison dissects several flaws of the proposal in the National Post today.

I can’t really blame Kennedy. I’m sure he doesn’t know much about the profession of arms. I know that he isn’t conscious of how this slights Canada’s  own military professionals, how it mocks their honour. I’m sure he isn’t considering how this lessens civilian control over soldiers and politicizes military personnel.

I hope the collective experience and wisdom of Parliament can fully consider the question: “is it ethical to help people break their promises?”

5 thoughts on “Deserting Soldiers

  1. One complication to this debate is that the United States has an active “Stop-Loss” policy which they use to command that soldiers that have fulfilled all of their contractual service obligations cannot retire, and are ordered to continue to serve beyond their agreed upon term of service.
    Would it be ethical for the Canadian government to support the United States government as it breaks its promises to US soldiers? Perhaps the situation is better to be addressed case by case rather than by a policy to deport or not deport all deserters.


  2. The Stop-Loss policy is unfortunate in its application to the Iraq War, but not totally unexpected for a military volunteer.


  3. No place left to run to cowards – you should have shutup and plugged a haji or two and you’d be fine now.

    Add this to the –respectful standing ovations– George Bush has gotten from Toronto & Edmonton business crowds and think we can safely say that the LEFT IS FINALLY DEAD in Canada!

    killing ain’t optional in the military – it’s joyfully MANDATORY (especially for muslems)!

    I’m popping a cork on a bottle of happy juice tonight!



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