06/02/06 "AlterNet" -- --
"We was going along the Euphrates River," says Joshua
Key, a 27-year-old former U.S. soldier from Oklahoma,
detailing a recurring nightmare -- a scene he stumbled
on shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March
2003. "It's a road right in the city of Ramadi. We
turned a real sharp right and all I seen was decapitated
bodies. The heads laying over here and the bodies over
here and U.S. troops in between them. I'm thinking, 'Oh
my God, what in the hell happened here? What's caused
this? Why in the hell did this happen?' We get out and
somebody was screaming, 'We fucking lost it here!' I'm
thinking, 'Oh, yes, somebody definitely lost it here.'"
Joshua says he was ordered to look around for evidence
of a firefight, for something to rationalize the
beheaded Iraqis. "I look around just for a few seconds
and I don't see anything." But then he noticed the sight
that now triggers his nightmares. "I see two soldiers
kicking the heads around like a soccer ball. I just shut
my mouth, walked back, got inside the tank, shut the
door, and it was like, I can't be no part of this. This
is crazy. I came here to fight and be prepared for war
but this is outrageous. Why did it happen? That's just
my question: Why did that happen?"
He's convinced there was no firefight that led to the
beheading orgy -- there were no spent shells to indicate
a battle. "A lot of my friends stayed on the ground,
looking to see if there was any shells. There was never
no shells, except for what we shot. I'm thinking, Okay,
so they just did that because they wanted to do it. They
got trigger happy and they did it. That's what made me
mad in Iraq. You can take human lives at a fast rate and
all you have to say is, say, 'Oh, I thought they threw a
grenade. I thought I seen this, I thought I seen that.'
You could mow down 20 people each time and nobody's
going to ask you, 'Are you sure?' They're going to give
you a high five and tell you that you was doing a good
He still cannot get the scene out of his head. "You
just see heads everywhere," he says. "You wake up,
you'll just be sitting there, like you're in a foxhole.
I can still see Iraq just as clearly as it was the day I
was there. You'll just be on the side of a little river
running through the city, trash piled up, filled with
dead. Heads and stuff like that. I don't sleep that
much, you might say. I don't sleep that much."
His wife, Brandi, nods in agreement and says he cries
in his sleep.
We're sitting in the waning summer light on the back
porch of the Toronto house where Joshua and his wife and
their four little children have been living in exile
since Joshua deserted to Canada. They've settled in a
rent-free basement apartment, courtesy of a landlord
sympathetic to their plight. Joshua smokes cigarettes
and drinks coffee while we talk. He's wearing a T-shirt
promoting a 2002 peace rally in Raleigh, North Carolina.
There's a scraggly beard on his still-boyish face; his
eyes look weary.
Sleep deprivation while on duty, first in Kuwait and
then in Iraq, was routine, Joshua says, and he thinks
exhaustion was generated intentionally by his
commanders. "You'll do whatever the hell they say just
to get that sleep. That's the way they controlled us.
You ain't had no sleep and you got shitty food all the
time. I got to call my wife once every month, maybe once
every two weeks if I was lucky. Mail, shitty, if it even
came." Food and water were inadequate, he says.
"When we first got to Kuwait we were rationed to two
bottles of water a day and one MRE [meals ready to eat].
In the middle of the desert, you're supposed to have six
bottles of water a day and three MREs. They tell us they
don't have it. I'm thinking 'How in the hell can the
most powerfullest nation, the most powerfullest military
in the world, be in the middle of a damn desert and they
don't even have no food to feed us?'"
Joshua rejects the U.S. government line that the
Iraqis fighting the occupation are terrorists. "I'm
thinking: What the hell? I mean, that's not a terrorist.
That's the man's home we killed. That's his son, that's
the father, that's the mother, that's the sister. Houses
are destroyed. Husbands are detained and wives don't
even know where they're at. I mean, them are pissed-off
people, and they have a reason to be pissed off. I would
never wish this upon myself or my family, so why would I
do it upon them?"
Pulling security duty in the Iraqi streets, Joshua
found himself talking to the locals. He was surprised by
how many spoke English, and he was frustrated by the
military regulations that forbade his accepting dinner
invitations to join Iraqis for social evenings in their
homes. "I'm not your perfect killing machine," he
admits. "That's where I broke the rules. I broke the
rules by having a conscience."
And the conscience developed further the more time he
spent in Iraq. "I was trained to be a total killer. I
was trained in booby-traps, explosives, landmines, and
how to counterresolve everything." He pauses. "Hell, if
you want to get technical about it, I was made to be an
American terrorist. I was trained in everything a
terrorist is trained to do." In case I might have missed
his point, he says it again. "I mean terrorist."
Deserting to Canada seemed the only viable
alternative, Joshua says. He did it, he insists, because
he was lied to "by my president." Iraq -- it was obvious
to him -- was no threat to the United States. He says he
followed his orders while he was in Iraq, and so no one
can call him a coward for deserting. "I was not a piece
of shit. I always did everything I was told and I did it
to the highest standards. They can never say, 'Oh, he
was a piece of shit soldier.' No bullshit."
Joshua doesn't mind telling his war stories again and
again. He readily agrees to talk about the horrors he
experienced in Iraq, his life AWOL and underground in
the States, and his new life as a deserter in Canada.
Telling the stories helps him deal with his
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says, and he
apologizes in advance if his narrative is not linear or
if he has trouble expressing himself. In fact, his
scattered approach to his timeline and his machine
gun-like delivery set the scene for his troubled
memories -- there is nothing smooth or simple or easy to