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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007


How one soldier got out of Iraq

Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill
The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007
256 pages $23


The Deserter’s Tale is about the Iraq War, told from the perspective of an Oklahoma-born war-resister. Private First Class Joshua Key deserted the U.S. Army after seven months in Iraq, because the everyday atrocities he witnessed convinced him that the military was not in Iraq for the good of Iraqis. After deserting, he fled to Canada with his wife and four children, where he is now waiting to see whether the Canadian government will grant him refugee status.

The Deserter’s Tale is a combination of his story and a defense of his desertion. While the book only tells the experiences of one soldier, it brings home the reality of what is happening every day in Iraq in a way that is more accessible than statistics.
Like many people who join the military, Key grew up in a trailer in a rural area. His fix-it-up skills would later win him the respect of his unit, when, in the best-funded army on Earth, ordinary soldiers were left without adequate supplies or protection. The basic outline of Key’s life is absolutely typical of poverty-draft soldiers. Recruiters, knowing their target audience, came knocking on his door when he was seventeen. He says,

They were smart men, those recruiters. They didn’t waste time at the doors of doctors and lawyers but came straight for me…. They didn’t get me for another few years, but they had made me aware that if I ever got tired of minimum wage there was always the adventure of life in the army.

Key only joined the military when a growing family and growing debt started to make the army promises of steady pay and health insurance sound awfully good. Driving past an army recruiting station every day, Key eventually decided to try his luck in the military. He says, “Every word of those posters seemed designed for people like me.” Lured by promises of being “non-deployable,” Key signed on the dotted line and was sent away to boot camp.

Key describes the intense racist indoctrination every new recruit underwent:

One day, all three hundred of us lined up on the bayonet range, each facing a life-size dummy that we were told to imagine was a Muslim man. As we stabbed with our bayonets, one of our commanders stood on a podium and shouted into the microphone: “Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill the sandniggers!” as we stabbed the heads, then the hearts, and then slashed the throats of our imaginary victims. While we shouted and stabbed, drill sergeants walked among us to make sure we were all shouting.

When Key was first deployed to Iraq, he was stationed in Ramadi. His commanding officers cared enough about their soldiers to make them set up camp next to an unexploded bomb. Key describes the callous attitudes of U.S. military higher-ups toward Iraqis. Any atrocity against Iraqis was allowed. The only thing that was never allowed was for a soldier to question orders or the purpose of the war. Key describes his squad after some members were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade:

Some of the men in my company wanted to take revenge, to go out and kill as many Iraqis as they could. My own anger, however, was reserved for the president of the United States and the military commanders who had put us in this war in the first place. I could find no justification for our role in Iraq and could not think of a single positive thing we had done in the country.

Key began to sympathize with the ordinary Iraqis he met, despite the best efforts of his commanders to prevent contact between soldiers and Iraqis. He describes being reprimanded for chatting with a doctor at a hospital he was assigned to guard.

The book’s strength is its simplicity. It tells the story of an ordinary soldier, and by doing so, tells us more than we can ever learn from broad statistics. Because Joshua Key’s experiences are so typical of soldiers, the book shows how ordinary soldiers view life in Iraq, and the potential for those soldiers to turn against the war.

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