CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 8 . . . . December 7, 2007
There was a time when men who left the armed services without legal discharge were shot. Indeed, it is only last year that a young man, serving in the Canadian army during World War I, was finally given an official pardon, his personal history finally divested of the shame that accompanied the label of being a “deserter.” After World War II, the Nuremberg Principle established an individual’s right to refuse military service should his or her conscience dictate. Decades later, Canada became the destination for a generation of men who, choosing not to heed their call to fight in Vietnam, became known as “draft dodgers.” And now, in the 21st century, Jeffrey House, a lawyer who came to Canada during the Vietnam war era, pleads the cases of men who have left the United States because they cannot support the Bush government’s war in Iraq. Breaking Ranks is the story of Jeremy Hinzman, Brandon Hughey, Joshua Key, and Kyle Snyder, as well as their families and their supporters in the struggle to stay in Canada.
Why did they enlist? A variety of reasons: the desire to serve one’s country, the opportunity to travel (although, as Josh Key points out, the destinations are “nowhere nice”), and for all four, the opportunity to learn a trade or to get a paid-for college education. These are men of modest backgrounds and there was simply no money for the education that would get them beyond the dead-end jobs that faced them in small-town Texas, Oklahoma, or South Dakota. For Kyle Snyder, enlisting meant escape from an abusive father – himself a military man - and he was recruited virtually as he stepped off the stage at his high school graduation ceremony. A U. S. army recruiter talks candidly about the many reasons for enlistment. From his point of view, finding candidates for the job of soldier is no different from the hiring process at Wal-Mart. However, the daily Wal-Mart staff cheer is not “we are trained to kill, and kill, we will,” as it is at boot camp.
So, they sign contracts, do terms of service, and each one ultimately reaches his personal bottom line. Raiding homes goes from being an “adrenaline rush” to feeling like a monster destroying the lives of civilians caught in forces beyond them. Even Jeremy Hinzman, easily the most articulate of the four, who moves up the military career ladder quickly, soon finds that the “group mentality” turns an intelligent person into “Pavlov’s dog.” Despair, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and constant exposure to unspeakable brutality lead all to make the same decision. It is a tough choice, and in driving across the Canada-U.S. border, they leave behind a familiar world. They and the families left in the U. S. all speak movingly about the profound loss of not being able together at major life events: high school graduations of younger siblings, family weddings, and of course, funerals. Kyle’s father has disowned him. But with that loss, there are gains: Brad Hughey, who states that “I was never political,” gains confidence as a public speaker; Jeremy’s wife is moved to tears by the Canadian community which has supported them; Josh’s wife talks openly of the difficulties they face but also of hopes for their children’s futures; and Kyle, despite his cynicism, has profound gratitude for Canada and its willingness to offer sanctuary.
Breaking Ranks is a powerful story and a reminder that history does repeat itself, although always with differences. Canada was a safe haven for many who chose not to fight in Vietnam. Those men who dodged the draft are contemporaries of the fathers of these four soldiers who have chosen conscience over their country. Breaking Ranks is a natural fit for World Issues and Modern History classes, but it would also be an excellent choice for viewing in senior high school English classes, especially when studying the literature of war. A cautionary note: preview the film before screening. The language is profane, at times, and both the descriptions and on-screen scenes of war-time brutality are horrible. But, it is a movie definitely worth watching, and to keep in mind for next year’s Veterans’ Week – it provides plenty to consider about the nature of war and what it means to be a soldier.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.