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Dodging war: Who's the hero? Add to ...

Last week, our Immigration and Refugee Board ordered Iraq war resister Kimberly Rivera, a 26-year-old mother of three whose most recent child was born in Canada six weeks ago, to leave the country along with her family. She is the seventh American war resister and first woman to be ordered deported.

Last year, I listened to Ms. Rivera and about a dozen of the roughly 200 deserters that the War Resisters Support Group estimates are in Canada speak at the University of Toronto. The CBC's Andy Barrie, who was himself a war resister when Vietnam was the conflict the United States found itself in, interrogated them and put considerable onus on the group to explain their apparent naiveté and their failure to respect their contracts. They were, after all, volunteers. They had not been drafted, as was the case in the 1960s.

Articulate by necessity - they have had to defend themselves repeatedly - they gave the impression of being a decent bunch. Many were from families that had delivered soldiers for several generations. Most had signed up to flee the poverty trap and perhaps get an education.

One was a college graduate who had walked into his local recruitment office immediately after 9/11 wanting to do what he could for his country. Another, a veteran of 20 years, learned that the bombs he was loading onto fighter jets on his aircraft carrier were bound for civilian targets. So he quit, and came to Canada.

All but one had served in Iraq. They explained how they could not in good conscience continue with an illegal and, to their minds, immoral war. Women can kill just as easily as men, Ms. Rivera noted - but as a mother, she simply could not treat children as the war was asking her to do.

Some recalled how they were specifically told that combat would not be required of them. Others, while still serving, made applications as conscientious objectors; but the applications were turned against them by officers who were aware that the political climate was very different from the Sixties and that the pressure was on these kids to fight.

There is no popular movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tide of which such men and women might have ridden to vindication and the opportunity of a fresh start in this country. But the fact that there are no demonstrations, of course, has nothing to do with the nature of these wars and everything to do with who we are depending on to fight them.

What was really evident during that ill-attended panel was that we are relying on our poor to fight our wars for us. During the Vietnam era, this was not the case, as the U.S. draft lottery meant that educated middle-class children were as likely to be conscripted as the poor, so that American outrage against the war cut across all social classes and the border with Canada, too. "War resisters," "draft dodgers" or "deserters" - call them what you like - had a voice that was impossible to ignore.

Today, however, we can turn our gaze away, and do so easily, because the great majority of us have no immediate stake in the dirty work that is being done for us.

And so we heap scorn on the vulnerable few. We act as if our own achievement, of living safely far from the conflict, is so great that we can condemn these men's and women's change of heart. We talk of "heroes" to the point of the term's dilution, because doing so serves the purpose of propping up our jingoism, and every war requires its bevy of supporters hollering securely from the back.

And yet, a survey Angus Reid conducted last year shows that, in every province, a majority of Canadians favours allowing war resisters to stay. What these Canadians know is that it is simply barbaric for a society to force a person to kill when he or she does not want to. God knows there are enough who will do so even when they are not asked.

If our society is so weak that a few deserters can threaten our alliances, then we should stop bullying the weak and the poor and do what's fair: Conscript across all classes. Then see who wails.

Noah Richler is author of This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.

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