Before deserting the U.S. army in 2003 and fleeing to Canada with his wife and four children, Joshua Key spent over half a year in the rubble and chaos of Iraq. As he describes in his harrowing new book, The Deserter’s Tale (House of Anansi Press, $29.95), written in collaboration with Canadian author Lawrence Hill, Key helped raid roughly 200 households in Ramadi and Fallujah. He searched the contents and occupants of countless cars while patrolling urban checkpoints and the Syrian border. And he watched with growing revulsion as scores of unarmed Iraqi civilians—some of them children—were beaten, maimed, or killed by his comrades with virtual impunity.
For all this, he and his fellow grunts never uncovered so much as a trace of terrorist activity or laid eyes on the insurgents who would sometimes lob mortars into their camp at night. “They were just shadows in the dust,” as he tells the Straight during a call from a town in northern Saskatchewan that he declines to name, where he and his family have settled for the past year.
Key, now 28, comes from a patriotic, poverty-stricken family in rural Oklahoma. He enlisted, he says, because life in the armed forces promised health insurance and training for a career in welding. Yet, according to The Deserter’s Tale, what he mainly learned from the army was xenophobia and fear. Boot-camp instructors, he says, drilled their recruits on the idea that all Muslims are bloodthirsty, every one of them a would-be terrorist. And when Key arrived in the bomb-cratered streets of Iraq, his commanding officers issued constant reports that heavily armed terrorist cells or mobs of Saddam Hussein’s sympathizers were poised to attack. None of these threats materialized, he says. And as he recalls in his book, he began to sense that “the repeated warnings of danger were meant to keep us off guard, and to keep us frightened enough to do exactly what we were told.”
This, he believes, is a tactic that the highest political and military leaders in his native country have used on the public itself. Field commanders, he says on the phone, “try to keep you scared, keep you motivated. And that’s exactly what’s happened to the [American] people as well. Everybody is so afraid of terrorism.”¦And of course, from my actions in Iraq, I think the terrorism hasn’t begun yet—terrorism from all the little Iraqi children that I terrorized myself. There’s going to be a flip side to that. There will be consequences.”
Meanwhile, Key himself has faced consequences from the occupation’s brutality. He continues to experience the intense nightmares and anxieties that inspired him, in a wrenching instant while on a two-week leave in the United States in late 2003, to go AWOL. It was a decision that sent Key and his family into hiding in the eastern U.S. for over a year and, finally, across the border into Ontario, where he applied to the Canadian government for refugee status. Now, with the federal Immigration and Refugee Board’s decision last November to deny his application, he awaits the results of his appeal.
Yet even with the prospect of years in prison if he is sent back to the States, he says he has never doubted the rightness of his response to what he experienced. “I went to fight for my country, and I did what I was told. I left it only when I saw for myself that it was unjust and immoral.”¦It would’ve been easier just to say, ”˜Okay, I’ll go back and do what I was doing.’ The hardest thing was to do what I did. And I live with a clear conscience because of that.”