writes Michelle Mandel
When American military [war resister] Jeremy Hinzman appears at his refugee hearing tomorrow, seeking asylum in Canada because he does not want to fight in Iraq, the AWOL soldier will not be alone.
Beside him will be Jimmy Massey, a former gung-ho Marine staff sergeant forever haunted by what he saw and what he did for his country in Iraq.
"We shot a guy with his hands up," Massey recalled somberly, staring out the window of an Annex pub. "A young Iraqi, he was probably in his mid-20s. And then we shot a group of protesters. Then we shot a red Kia, there were four occupants in the red Kia Spectra, fatally wounding three of them.
"The driver was miraculously unscathed. Hearing him continuously asking me, 'Why did you kill my brother? We're not terrorists,' I think was the worst thing that happened."
His clear blue eyes turn back then from gazing outside, unwilling to evade the guilt he feels. "That's something I live with every day."
And so the 33-year-old fully supports Hinzman's decision in January to head for Canada with his wife and baby after learning his unit was shipping out to Iraq.
While Hinzman enlisted voluntarily in 2001, Massey argues that for many of the poor and lower-middle class in America, the military remains the only way to get a decent vocation and a college education. By 2002, Hinzman had already begun to question his ability to serve in combat and applied to be considered a conscientious objector. He served in a non-combat role in Afghanistan and was prepared to do the same in Iraq, but his CO application was turned down.
Told he was heading soon to Iraq, Hinzman, 25, felt he had no other choice but to head north and seek refugee status.
At least two other U.S. soldiers have done the same, but all face the same daunting task. It is virtually unprecedented for Canada to grant refugee status to someone from the United States. Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) would have to accept that Hinzman faces persecution because of his political opinions or that he needs protection because he'd be subject to cruel or unusual treatment if sent back.
Not only is that a high, if impossible, threshold to prove, but Ottawa has taken the unusual step of intervening, to oppose the trio's applications, arguing the soldiers are not being persecuted. Despite its opposition to the Iraq war, Canada is hardly anxious to open the floodgates to American deserters.
Hinzman's lawyer, Jeffry House, had planned to argue that the Iraq war is illegal.
But last month, his case was dealt a severe blow when the IRB accepted the Canadian government's argument that the legality of the U.S. war on Iraq is "irrelevant" to his claim.
He faces up to five years in jail if returned to the U.S.
So Massey has come here from North Carolina to tell the refugee board that as a soldier, Hinzman would have been expected to shoot Iraqi civilians under the mistaken assumption that they are masquerading as terrorists.
As part of the initial invasion force, Massey's platoon was suddenly expected to switch from a "killing mentality" to a "pacification role."
They were ordered to set up roadblocks on the outskirts of Baghdad and check cars for insurgents and weapons.
If the Iraqis failed to halt, the troops were instructed to open fire with their 50-calibre ammunition.
When the killing stopped, and they finished pulling out the bodies, they discovered time and time again that none had been armed.
"The youngest was a six-year-old boy," Massey said softly.
In the case of the red Kia, the driver sat on the curb with his head in his hands, sobbing over his dying brother. The three pulled from the car spent their last minutes writhing in agony in the dirt.
"We didn't even give them morphine," he said.
Then came the order to pack up their gear and move out. "We were told to throw the bodies in the ditches at the side of the road so that's what we did."
His gaze is sad, but steady. "You know, I get asked a lot about fog of war. Over 48 hours, we killed 30 plus civilians. I can think of only one incident that it was fog of war where we didn't know," he says.
"The rest of them were cold-blooded murder."
Massey had had enough. After his honourable discharge in December 2003, he's travelled the world protesting the war.
During a speech in Boston, he was asked why the Iraqis failed to stop at the checkpoints. He didn't know, until a Muslim woman came up later to explain.
The fist the Marines raised to stop them would have meant solidarity to the Iraqis, she said. And the warning shot fired in the air was seen as a traditional sign of celebration. "They thought you were celebrating the fact that you were liberating them," she told him, "when in fact, you were murdering them."
Now he must live forever with the bloody trail he left behind. Jeremy Hinzman, he said, should not have to.