"It wasn’t like I was going to Iraq to liberate the people. It was like I was going to the desert to kill rag heads. They were trying to make people less human." Interview with Robin Long on his reasons for deserting the US Army and seeking refugee staus in Canada. (Unedited Transcript) by Rachael Daigle, Boise Weekly, May 10, 2006
What follows is the unedited transcript of Rachael Daigle’s interview with Robin Long.
Was it a personal decision or a political decision to go AWOL?
A little bit of both. It was mostly political because I really didn’t feel like they had proven that there was any reason for us to be over there. They [the Bush administration] hadn’t proven there were weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t sanctioned by the United Nations. It also was a war of aggression. They [Iraq] were no threat to us. And after seeing Abu Ghraib and the killing of civilians … you can look at anything on the Internet and see people have been tortured and civilians have been killed for no reason with weapons–in Fallujah–like white phosphorus. It was apparent that these were things going on over there and I didn’t want to be part of that. Also, the people who were coming into my unit had just come from Iraq and they were telling me horrific stories. A couple people had pictures of people that had run over with tanks and a lot of people were proud of what they were doing and a lot or people were grossed out by the total disrespect for human life.
And another thing was that my superiors were telling me, "You’re going to the desert to fight rag heads." It wasn’t like I was going to Iraq to liberate the people. It was like I was going to the desert to kill rag heads. They were trying to make people less human.
There are some people who would argue that you knew all that going in to the Army.
Yeah you could say that but when I joined, the recruiters … I made it apparent that I didn’t want to go to Iraq. I didn’t believe in the war that was going on over there so that’s why I was stationed at Fort Knox. They kind of stayed true to their part of the bargain until the numbers started getting really low. They didn’t have any new people enlisting so they were just taking anyone they could.
Do you still have family in Boise?
Do they support your decision?
Well, my mom and my step dad support my decision, but the rest of my family … they really aren’t, but I guess it’s because they really don’t understand. My mom and dad are pretty supportive.
What do you mean by the rest of your family?
They don’t really talk to me. My brothers and sisters do, but my grandparents … I haven’t really been in contact with them. I don’t know that they’re made at me so much as they are afraid to talk to me because of the government. I think they are afraid of the government that’s in power right now.
Did you apply for a change of MOS (Military Operation Specialist) or conscientious objector status before going AWOL?
I tried to get conscientious objector status but my first sergeant told me he couldn’t find the forms to apply and he didn’t feel like looking for them. I didn’t know about conscientious objector status until about a month before I got orders and that was when I first tried to do it. Shortly after that, I got orders so I never really got a chance to apply for it. So leaving was kind of like a spur of the moment thing, it was my only option other than live underground in the United States and be running for the rest of my life or go to Canada.
In the Armed Forces Enlistment Oath you swore to "obey the orders of the president of the United States," and as you were swearing to obey those orders was there ever a moment where you said to yourself, "You know, there’s a war happening that I’m promising to participate in despite the fact that I don’t really believe in it?"
I never really … I guess I was kind of not being mature. I was 19 years old at the time at the time i was swearing in. It also says to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States and at first I thought, when they told us we were going over there I thought it was an honorable thing. I thought hey, there really are weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein really is a bad man in power. I really thought it was an honorable thing. But as the war kept progressing, then is when I started to see that things were not really adding up.
What would you say was the deciding factor in making that change in opinion about the war?
It was talking to people who had been over there and the attitude of my superiors. I’ve never really put two and two together. I always wanted to be in the army growing up and when these people came back and were telling these horrific stories and our superiors were egging people on, some people were actually volunteering to go over there and it just seemed like justified homicide. It didn’t seem right to me, it didn’t sit right in my stomach. I morally couldn’t do it.
What about the couple of guys from your unit who were also singled out to go with you? Did you talk about your plans to leave with them?
Actually I was planning on going up until the day I left. I was supposed to get on a plane and report to Fort Carson and I was still planning to go. But there was another guy–who’s actually a Canadian citizen–he was my battle buddy (in combat you have a battle buddy who is always with you) and he didn’t show up either. He just went back to Canada. He’s from Calgary so he had the option. He’s the only one I really told that maybe I would leave. On the day we were supposed to report he called me and said, "i bet you wonder where I am." And I said, "No, I’m not there either." I kept in contact with him for a little while as I hid out in a friend’s basement in Boise for like two months before I came to Canada. It wasn’t until June that I actually came to Cananda because I didn’t really have a way to get up here. I didn’t want to fly so I had to find a ride up here.
Have you talked to any of your old friends, coworkers or comrades from the Army since you left?
I haven’t talked to any of them.
Do you feel guilty for leaving them?
Not the ones … as I said before, I was in a non-deployable unit. Most of the people there had come from Iraq, they had been in the army for a while or they came straight out of basic so we weren’t really that close. We weren’t a tightly knit group of people. All we did was drive tanks and humvees around. It wasn’t like preparing for combat for us. It was training other people. We were vehicle support.
So you were in more of a situation where you live in the barracks, go to work, go home.
Yeah, 9-5 and we’d be in the field every few months.
Just to keep up on your training and qualifications …
No we didn’t even really keep up on that, most of us were out of date in our marksmanship and handguns and everything. People were sent to Fort Knox to be weeded out. The bad apples. The ones coming from Germany and Korea, they send them there. Or the ones who were overweight would get kicked out at Fort Knox, or people who were doing drugs would get kicked out. They drug tested us a lot. It was kind of a relaxing point for people who had come from Iraq to spend time with their family for a year or two before they went back into the deployment schedule.
Did you consider trying to get a dishonorable discharge by testing positive for a drug test or putting on weight?
I thought about it, but having a dishonorable discharge limits how you can live. Even McDonald’s won’t hire you with a dishonorable discharge. It’s really hard to get work unless you want to work under the table, so I thought that coming to Canada was a better option because at least here, I can get a job anywhere I want. I won’t have to worry about that dishonorable discharge following me around for the rest of my life.
You’ve applied for refugee status in Canada already?
Do you know how far your application is in that process?
I have my hearing on August 10. Other people have had their hearings. There have been two that have gotten word back. They’ve both been denied it, but have appealed to a federal court and they’re both waiting on decisions. No one else has gotten the answer back from their hearing. It usually takes about six months for them to make a judgment on it.
Jeremy Hinzman’s case has been so publicized, how does the denial of his refugee claim make you feel about your own pending case?
Right now I’m taking the political stance on it. I’m not really too worried about that because I have a Canadian fiancée and I can marry her and get sponsorship. And I have a baby on the way so I’m not really worried about what’s going to happen until I exhaust all my appeals. I’m doing what a lot of other people are doing, just taking it one step at a time. The Canadian people have already given us a lot of support and they are behind us, it’s just the government is kind of not lenient. They’re waiting to see how the States are going to react. I think they’re kind of scared.
As you were traveling, especially as you were traveling through Idaho to get to Canada, did you have to explain your situation?
I told them exactly how it was and they were kind of hippie-ish. They were like 21 or 22. It was a couple, and they were totally supportive of it. They thought it was pretty cool that they were taking a modern day draft dodger to Canada. They were really enthusiastic about it.
Have you met many other deserters since you’ve been in Canada?
Actually I haven’t met any of the other [people involved with the] war resisters because they live in northern Ontario and they’re all based in Toronto. But I have met some other deserters that aren’t public–who aren’t on that Web site. [The people on that Web site are] all the public people. I’ve met people who are still underground. I met a couple of them at a rainbow gathering in Quebec. There’s a few there and I met another one in Alberta. It’s just easy to pick out another person from the Army and they can pick me out. I guess it’s the way we walk or something (laughs).
What are the legal ramifications you face?
Well if I go back to the States, it’s definitely going to be jail. They’re giving people anywhere from a year in prison at Fort Leavenworth to three or four years. Some people, they’re not even sending to jail. They’re sending them straight to Iraq as punishment. They’re not even giving them a court or hearing. But I think since I’ve come to Canada, the punishment is going to be harsher because we’re out in the open and speaking against the United States government and our involvement. They may make an example out of us so I really don’t know. They have the death penalty on the books during war time, and I wouldn’t put it past the Bush administration to do something really wild because they’ve been setting precedences with everything else.
Analysts say that half of all deserters return to the military on their own volition because the military is more lenient on someone who surrenders than someone they have to apprehend, but also because they’re tired of living on the lam or out of the country or underground in the United States. What’s your plan, to stay in Canada?
Yeah, I love Canada. It’s kind of … In the States it’s a melting pot of different cultures and everyone loses their culture. And up here in Canada, they celebrate individual cultures and they have a good social net with things like free health care. They really take care of their people–not like the United States–but they have their problems, too.
What happens if your claim is rejected in Canada?
Well first, I would try for humanitarian and compassionate grounds. If that was exhausted then I’d apply for sponsorship with my fiancée, who would be my wife my then, and go for immigrant status.
Are you willing to go to prison for you decision if it comes to that?
Yeah if it came down to that, I’d be willing to go to prison because I know I did the right thing and I can sleep at night and my conscience is still good.
After speaking with Boise Weekly by phone, Long sent a follow-up e-mail with these comments:
I believe that you would have a hard time finding soldiers who, if they spoke honestly and in the absence of fellow soldiers to impress, would tell you that they actually yearn to fight. Granted, there are exceptions to this, but the Army is composed mostly of people who want to make a better life for themselves. The Army is aware of this and is very savvy in marketing it. In exchange for your innocence and morality, the Army provides the most socialistic environment available in the world. Literally everything about a soldier’s life is subsidized.
Perhaps I have a cynical view of human nature, but if one is guaranteed almost total security in their life they will take it, even if they have to exchange their autonomy. Read Erich Fromm’s book Escape From Freedom, where he takes nearly 300 pages to expound upon what I have written above. This why totalitarian societies are able to emerge with the full knowledge of the citizenry involved. Most people are more than willing to sacrifice their freedom for security and piece of mind. When I enlisted in the Army, I won’t deny that I was thinking in a pragmatic manner. However, just because I enlisted, I didn’t abdicate my ability to evolve intellectually and morally, which I did as result of the circumstances I found myself involved in.