Arts Listings

Books: A Deserter’s Tale of War

By Ying Lee, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 29, 2007

Joshua Key had enlisted in the Army and boot camp was in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. His trainers told him that “Muslims were responsible for the September 11, 200l, attacks and that the people of Afghanistan were “pieces of shit that all deserved to die.” At different training camps he learned to take orders or be punished, and he learned to beat up fellow soldiers his superiors had decided to discipline. 

This is a thin book, only 231 pages of fairly large type so it should have been read quickly, but it took me days where avoidance was easier to manage than the will power to continue reading. We know from reading about war that it is “brutal.” While in my teens and reading All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms, there was such delicacy in writing about the awfulness of war—it was hinted at and the pain of the soldiers and officers was encapsulated in the term: “battle fatigue.” We non-combatants were protected from knowing what soldiers in battle did, and when the soldiers returned after combat, there was sympathy from those near and dear, and although we could always try to imagine actual harm, we did not know the details. It was assumed that the memories marked the soldier for life and that he would not, could not, talk about them. The Naked and the Dead was more descriptive about invasion and war, but there was nothing about occupying a country. 

Vietnam, television crews and unimbedded photographers and reporters gave us pictures of napalm dropped on civilians, villages being razed by fire with householders still in them—we had stories of suspected Vietcong being dropped from helicopters and the horrors of war became more difficult to avoid. Post-war traumatic stress disorder was beginning to be described. 

Now we have the details, a book, a deserter’s story as told to a Canadian journalist and writer. It is a simple story told simply: of how our soldiers in Iraq (and Afghanistan I would suppose) are trained, what they do as an occupying army, and how war affects them. 

War is not unfamiliar to me. I was a child in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930’s and 40’s who grew up with experience of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and then the attack on Hong Kong (simultaneous with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaysia and the Philippines) and the constant stories of what the Japanese troops did to Chinese civilians: wanton execution of the males and rape, brutalization and execution of the females. At the end of World War II, I learned about the unspeakable cruelty of the Germans (Nazis as I learned later to describe the malefactors of the European wars). 

And I had a contrasting picture of a country with my knowledge of America. I grew up knowing that American values—the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, the Protestant missionaries who introduced me to clam digging and New England clam chowder and toasted marshmallow in Hong Kong—that American values would not allow rape and brutalization of an occupied people and that American soldiers were under control. 

After all, we all believed that one reason why the Chinese Communist Party was able to succeed in pushing out the corrupt Nationalists, who the U.S. supported, was because the communist soldiers did not rape, did not plunder but helped the farmer plant and harvest and provided medical care.  

Now I have been an American for over 62 years and although I no longer have romances about U.S. history I am nevertheless left breathless by this book. 

Along with the U.S. Constitution, the Nuremberg Principles, and our dutiful paying of federal taxes, all of us should be familiar with this short story. No wonder the war in Iraq is a disastrous failure—no number of troops, no amount of money and rhetoric could possibly make a dent in the way that we are occupying the country and dehumanizing our soldiers and ourselves. 

We are thousands of miles away but the truth is here for us to know about. 

Please read this and let’s do something. 


Take a playground 

Fill it full of kids, 

Drop on some napalm 

And barbecue some ribs. 


Who can take a shopping mall 

And fill it full of people? 

The sapper daddy can, 

‘Cause he takes a lot of pains 

And makes the hurt go good. 


Who can take all the people in the mall 

And chop ‘em up with Uzis? 

The sapper daddy can,  

“Cause he takes a lot of pains 

And makes the hurt go good. 




By Joshua Key, as told to Lawrence Hill 

Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2007