A soldier refuses to fight in Iraq

Special to The Times

“THE Deserter’s Tale” by Joshua Key is destined to become part of the literature of the Iraq war. It is not literature with a capital L, nor is it full of arty metaphors or artistry or artfulness. No soldier reaches out of a trench to touch a butterfly only to be shot by a sniper, as in Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Key’s story, as told to writer Lawrence Hill, lacks the atmospheric writing of Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” or Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions.” But from the book’s opening pages, Key’s clear voice rings out, explaining why he deserted the Army after seven months in Iraq, with anguish and a frankness that invests the book with quiet eloquence:

“I never thought I would lose my country, and I never dreamed that it would lose me,” writes the native of Guthrie, Okla. “I was raised as a patriotic American, taught to respect my government and to believe in my president. Just a decade ago, I was playing high school football, living in a trailer with my mom and step dad, working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and hoping to raise a family one day in the only town I knew.... Back then, I would have laughed out loud if somebody had predicted that I would become a wanted criminal, live as a fugitive in my own country, and turn my wife and children into refugees as I fled with them across the [Canadian] border.”


Key describes himself as a rough and ready young man, who was comfortable with guns from an early age, got in fights and generally raised a ruckus. He tells of a hard time at home with an abusive stepfather, of marrying young and trying to make a living. Whether working in fast-food establishments or as a welder, he found it difficult to make ends meet and discovered the hard way (burns suffered on the job, kidney stones) what it was like not to have health insurance or to be able to see a dentist.

Patriotic as he certainly was, economic hardship played a large role in his enlistment in the U.S. Army, where he hoped to learn a trade that would give him and his family a chance at financial security. He says he was assured in April 2002, just before signing his enlistment papers to join an engineer brigade, that he wouldn’t be sent into combat and would be able to live with his family and work for the Army in the United States.

Key may have grown up rough, but he insists he knows right from wrong. Yet even during basic training, he says a drill sergeant ordered him and a few others to beat up fellow recruits who had fallen behind in their duties or hadn’t obeyed orders, beatings for which he says he’s now deeply ashamed. “[T]hey used me to do their dirty work, and I, stupidly, felt honored to do exactly as they said.” He adds that the attitudes he believes led to the atrocities he witnessed in Iraq -- which motivated him to desert -- were apparent in boot camp: Soldiers were told to visualize the dummies in bayonet practice as Muslims, and that racial epithets and chants (“One shot / One kill / One Arab / One Asian”) were a way of life.

Once in Iraq, the book makes clear, a culture of hate was endemic among the U.S. occupation forces he served with. Key gives graphic accounts of soldiers gratuitously beating Iraqis and firing on civilians who annoyed them or made them nervous. He offers this devastating conclusion:

“Some people will say that the terrible things I have described seeing in Iraq were exceptions to the rule. That might be comforting, but it would be naive. Because I saw fundamental violations of basic human rights every day or two ... and since I never saw one soldier or officer criticized or disciplined for carrying out such violations, I tend to fear the opposite. I fear, and believe, that what I saw was only the tip of the iceberg in Iraq.”

One of the book’s great pleasures is in seeing the author’s personal development, the journey he has taken, turning away from violence and destruction to become more humane. “One’s first obligation,” Key says, “is to the moral truth buried deep inside our own souls.” He understands a soldier’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg doctrine not to participate in atrocities. He has paid a stiff price for his desertion: exiled in Canada (where he may not be able to remain) and shunned by much of his family.


Near the end of his tale, Key insists that he is “neither a coward or a traitor.” He is believable, as he has been from the outset, and through his words and the actions he describes, he conveys hard-earned honesty and integrity. In this testament of his experience in military service in Iraq he is making a substantial contribution to history.

Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”