Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, a squad leader in the 53rd infantry brigade of the American army fighting in Iraq's Sunni triangle, has been in hiding and "living like a criminal" in the United States ever since he went absent without leave from a brief furlough five months ago. He was afraid even to see his three-year-old daughter in New York.
This week he surrendered to military authorities in Boston, where he claimed conscientious objector status in opposition to "a war for oil, based on lies". He was accompanied by a GI buddy, Oliver Perez. "I fought next to him," Perez said. "He is not a coward."
Mejia's lawyers claim that an estimated 600 soldiers have deserted to avoid service in Iraq or have gone awol after being granted home leave. It is impossible to tell the true numbers. The Pentagon doesn't like talking about deserters or suicides because such statistics can be seen as a reliable index of soldiers' morale.
A recent Pentagon-commissioned survey in Stars & Stripes, the US army newspaper, found morale among American troops in Iraq to be very low. A briefing on the results of a new mental health survey of troops in Iraq was abruptly cancelled this week because military officials did not want bad news to come out on the first anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the military campaign in Iraq - which happily coincides with the launching of President Bush's re-election campaign.
As a deserter - anyone who is awol for more than 30 days - Sgt Mejia is a test case for conscientious objector status based on political rather than religious reasons. It's a tough rap. If the Vietnam war is anything to go by, he may find fighting Iraqi guerrillas easier than being called a coward, a traitor and a shame to the flag.
During Vietnam there was a global underground railway for American deserters and draft resisters. I was a "stationmaster" at the London end because I hated the war, but, as a former GI, I also identified closely with rank-and-file "grunts". My main qualification was that I spoke barracks language. This was important because of the vast cultural gap between older antiwar activists, such as myself, and awol teenagers for whom Jimi Hendrix rather than Gandhi was the most evocative peace symbol.
Our London hideout, through which scores of American deserters passed or took refuge, was an apartment in Marylebone's Queen Anne Street, above the Royal Asiatic Society - that remarkable relic of Britain's failed imperialist adventure. The irony was not lost on these young military fugitives for whom desertion was often the defining moment of their lives. Once a soldier steps across that 30-day line he becomes, existentially, a different person: free, scared and living purely by his survival guile. Desertion can break him psychologically - it's so lonely - or make him think for the first time.
Then, as now, most AWOLs were southern rural poor or working-class city kids who had volunteered for "travel, education, pay", as the recruiting posters promised. (The present Iraq casualty lists are full of home towns like Tickfaw, Louisiana, and Calumet City, Illinois.) Stigmatized by the deserter label, they were an embarrassment to their families, the Pentagon and even the peace movement. When four awol sailors off the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid sought refuge in Moscow in 1967, thus triggering the "GI movement" against the war, the Soviets couldn't get rid of them fast enough. And I recall with what horror and contempt even some British Labourites regarded AWOLs, and how they refused to help us. "We stood and fought. We didn't whine," a fiercely radical Labour leader told me.
Yet the GI movement, spearheaded by deserters and resisters in the army, may well have been the tip ping point in the unraveling of the Vietnam war. Their resistance - wearing peace signs, "fragging" (attacking) officers - shook the military's confidence in its mission and caused the Pentagon to start thinking of an exit strategy. Senator John Kerry, then a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War and now the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, was part of that broad movement.
Sgt Mejia and his 600 co-deserters could well be the harbingers of a new GI movement. More than 560 GIs have been killed in Iraq, one-third of them aged between 18 and 21. The American media has begun to shake off its self-censorship to show pictures of the maimed and limbless wounded at army hospitals. Army recruiting has become a tough sell, a far cry from the upsurge of patriotic enlistments after 9/11.
Among combat troops there is seething resentment at Pentagon mismanagement that, for example, has sent them into battle without the Kevlar ceramic inserts for body armour necessary to protect them against snipers and roadside bombs. It's now common for parents of GIs to privately mail to young soldiers life-saving equipment that the Pentagon has "forgotten" to include in standard issue.
If these trends continue - and they are likely to - desertion from the US armed forces and vocal protest from hitherto obedient military families may in the long run prove the most potent signal to Washington that the American desert invasion has run its course.
During the Vietnam war, deserters' families often slammed the door in their sons' faces or even grassed on them to the police. Sgt Mejia has the support of his family, his closest buddy and an organized peace movement with deep roots in the Vietnam experience. The American public is split and increasingly skeptical about President Bush's war in Iraq. Who knows? Sgt Mejia may run for president some day.
· Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist in Los Angeles. During the Vietnam war he helped American deserters and draft resisters.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004