IT was March 2003, just days after the US invasion of Iraq. Joshua Key was driving along the banks of the Euphrates near the town of Ramadi in his tank when he came upon a scene that has since engraved itself into his memory: US troops kicking the decapitated heads of Iraqis around in the sand in an impromptu game of football.
“We turned a sharp right and all I seen was decapitated bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over here and US troops in between them. I was thinking, ‘oh, my God, what in the hell happened here? What’s caused this? Why in the hell did this happen?’ We get out and somebody was screaming, ‘we f***ing lost it here!’. I’m thinking, ‘oh yes, somebody definitely lost it here’.
“I see two soldiers kicking the heads around like a soccer ball. I just shut my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the door, and it was like, ‘I can’t be no part of this, this is crazy’. I came here to fight and be prepared for war but this is outrageous. Why did this happen?
“That’s what made me mad in Iraq. You can take human lives at a fast rate and all you have to say is, ‘oh, I thought they threw a grenade. I thought I seen this, I thought I seen that’. You could mow down 20 people each time and nobody’s going to ask, ‘are you sure?’ They’re going to high-five you and tell you that you did a good job.”
This and other claims of violence exacted against innocent Iraqis by American GIs are among the allegations that Key has laid before the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. Key, a 27-year-old, working-class welder from Oklahoma, is the first US army deserter with combat experience to seek refugee status in Canada. He is also among a squad of US deserters who have levelled a series of horrific allegations against the US military machine, reported in a new book Mission Rejected by the award-winning US journalist Peter Laufer, which charts the escalating levels of desertion since the war began.
Key’s experience left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – the modern-day term for what was once called shell-shock. He dreams about severed heads in the desert, and rarely sleeps. “I’m not your perfect killing machine,” he says. “That’s where I broke the rules. I broke the rules by having a conscience.”
He recounts travelling in an armoured personnel carrier in Ramadi when an Iraqi man in a truck tried to overtake the convoy. “My squad leader fired a few shots and blew his truck up,” he says. “You don’t have to have reason to do anything. You can do whatever you want really.” When Key asked why the man had been killed for nothing, he was told: “You didn’t see anything.”
Key doesn’t buy the line from the US government that those resisting the occupation are terrorists. Homes are destroyed, sons killed, husbands taken prisoner, he says, so the Iraqis “have a reason to be pissed off”.
“I would never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I do it to them? I was trained to be a total killer. I was trained in booby-traps, explosives and landmines. I was made to be an American terrorist. I was trained in everything a terrorist is trained to do.”
At vehicle checkpoints, Key says, Iraqi lives were treated with casual disregard. There were no stop signs on the roads in Arabic to tell Iraqis to halt in order for their cars to be searched. Iraqis, not understanding what the US army wanted them to do, would sometimes drive through the check-point. Key recalls one car being shot at, in which a father died and his young son was seriously wounded. There were no weapons in the car; the Iraqis had misunderstood. “They don’t know what the hell we are saying,” Key explains. “You can’t kill everybody.”
House raids were one of the most disturbing duties Key had to carry out. Not only was he not trained in such operations, but the brutality with which the US military treated Iraqis shamed and horrified him as well. Women and children would be screaming, and only rarely was an interpreter on hand to explain what they were saying.
“You completely destroy the home. If there’s cabinets or something that’s locked, you kick them in. The soldiers take what they want at will. You completely ransack it. After you do it, usually a whole other team comes in and does the whole same thing again.”
Entire neighbourhoods were cordoned off sometimes, with up to 100 houses being subjected to US raids. Key carried out more than 100 raids and only found a single weapon, an AK-47. His unit never once located a member of al-Qaeda or the Ba’ath Party.
Key admits that before the war he knew little about Iraq and thought the US should take out Saddam Hussein before Iraq turned its sights on the US. “They made it sound like one day he’s going to be stepping on our door steps back home. I figured just do it now rather than my kids having to deal with it later on in life.”
Now, however, after serving on the front line, he is convinced that his government lied to him. It wasn’t just atrocities, violence and government lies that sickened Key. The army’s disregard for its own soldiers also disturbed him. He got a call home once a fortnight if he was lucky. In the desert, where soldiers are meant to get six bottles of water and three “meals ready to eat” (MREs) a day, his squad was getting two bottles of water and one MRE. “How in the hell can the most powerful military in the world be in the middle of a damn desert and they don’t even have food to feed us?”he asks.
On his way back to the US for two weeks’ leave after his first eight-month tour of duty, Key decided to desert. “At that point I knew this is morally wrong. I can’t keep doing this. I’m not going to kill innocent people just because I have to follow my damn orders.” For the last three months of his tour, Key’s weapon wasn’t working. He never said a word , as he couldn’t stomach the thought of another Iraqi needlessly dying.
Key, his wife Brandi and his three children went on the run. They lived as fugitives for more than a year in the US, staying in seedy motels along the east coast for no more than a few nights at a time in case their identities were uncovered and then moving on, always living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day.
Terrified of going to jail, he looked north to Canada as a possible refuge, and crossed the border in the autumn of 2005 to claim political asylum. He was welcomed and supported by the anti-war network in Canada, some of whom were Americans who took Canadian citizenship in the 1960s and 1970s after fleeing the Vietnam draft.
“I hated leaving my country,” says Key. “I love my people. I love the American land. But I do not like the American government. They made me do things that a man should never have to do, for the purpose of their financial gain.”
Joshua Key’s full story can be read in Mission Rejected by Peter Laufer, published by Chelsea Green.
© 2006 newsquest (sunday herald) limited