Joshua Key (The Deserter’s Tale) Interview
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Tony Jones
TONY JONES: Now to our interview and despite growing US opposition to the war in Iraq the troop surge in Baghdad continues. Today the commander of American forces in Iraq has recommended that heightened troop levels be maintained for at least another year. Meanwhile the American public has been asking exactly how things went so wrong. Well, the story of one individual soldier can only provide clues rather than answers but Joshua Key’s book The Deserter’s Tale still makes for sobering reading. The book details basic training techniques in which, if the author is to be believed, Iraqis, Afghanis and all Muslims, in fact, are systematically demonised. Key was just a private soldier but examines his own reactions to Iraqi civilians and those of his fellow soldiers during his tour of duty and concludes that American soldiers were behaving like terrorists. It’s a staggering conclusion and we should bear in mind that Joshua Key is still seeking asylum in Canada, having deserted the army rather than returning to Iraq. It’s impossible for us to verify elements of his story but you can judge his authenticity for yourself. I spoke to him in Toronto earlier today. Joshua Key thanks for joining us.
JOSHUA KEY, US ARMY DESERTER: Thanks for having me.
TONY JONES: Why did you get involved in writing this book in the first place?
JOSHUA KEY: I would say the main purpose of it was to get my story out, for it to be heard and for everyone to hear it.
TONY JONES: You know, I’m sure, what the consequences will be. Some people will regard you as a hero, but your critics are going to say that you’re a traitor.
JOSHUA KEY: Of course you’re going to have that anyway, of course. I’m not a coward, nor am I a traitor. I went and fought for my country. The only reason I left, of course, was the things I witnessed. That’s what I made my decision on and to me it was a moral decision. I don’t believe myself as being that.
TONY JONES: We’ll talk about some of the details in a moment, but let me take you back to your account of basic training. Because it’s here you argue your minds were poisoned. Could you describe to us just how you were taught, what people were saying to you about Iraqis and Muslims?
JOSHUA KEY: You know of course they were never called Iraqis or Muslims, they were always used in derogatory terms as hajis, habibs and so on. I would say it was definitely a form of dehumanising. I mean, if you see something – that effect all the time – they were never referred to as civilians or Iraqis or Muslims.
TONY JONES: You say of the training that you were told that all Muslims were terrorists, that all Muslims were responsible for September 11. Were people actually saying that to you specifically?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes, and then I got it to the term that instead of being, what would you say, not guilty until proven guilty, I would say to us it’s “they’re guilty till they’re proven innocent”, to us all Muslims were terrorists. That’s the way we were taught and it’s the way we conducted our business.
TONY JONES: You say it’s the way you conducted business. Did you actually see soldiers in Iraq behaving as if they actually believed this?
JOSHUA KEY: Very much so, very much so. Even in our actions from raiding homes to traffic control points to every day manoeuvres in Iraq. It was very systematic. It was never referred, as civilians are people. It was always derogatory terms, always something to dehumanise them, to put them beneath us.
TONY JONES: Did you see or feel this in your own behaviour?
JOSHUA KEY: Of course in my own behaviour at first, I’ve seen it and I did it. Of course I changed after the months went but, no, at first I was one of them. Yes.
TONY JONES: Did you abuse Iraqi civilians yourself?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes, I did, yes.
TONY JONES: Now of the numerous raids and other incidents you participated in you’ve written, “It struck me that the American soldiers themselves were the terrorists.” Now people back home, your own family, are going to be horrified to hear you say that.
JOSHUA KEY: I’m sure they will be, but the way I look at it, that was the truth. We had no justification after all them homes that I raided, there was no justification. I felt that we were more antagonising, causing in my picture to myself, we had become the terrorists. I wasn’t getting terrorised. I was more doing the terrorising.
TONY JONES: In what regard? What do you mean by that?
JOSHUA KEY: Raiding the homes, taking their sons and their husbands. If they were over five foot tall they were sent off regardless of whether anything was found in that house or not. Through everyday night raids, of course, illumination rounds – used to do the rounds all night long, complete patrolling of the streets non-stop. It was more antagonising. We weren’t – we would go out on a patrol it’s not – we would be saying derogatory names even to the Iraqi women. We antagonised, we brought it – we made it the way it was.
TONY JONES: Now you were in some of the worst fighting in Fallujah and you claim to have seen at least 14 civilians killed. Can you tell us about the circumstances?
JOSHUA KEY: From one of the incidents, we were at a mayor cell, which is sort of where you would – like where the mayor of the city stayed. I was in the back part; I saw the after-effect of it. Of course the ground was – outrageous amount of gunfire. Of course we were getting ready ourselves. It came over the radio that, you know, that something in the front was happening. I guess the overall circumstances of it were, the end result was 12 Iraqi civilians were killed. The reason why is because somebody had gotten trigger-happy and that was one of my first instances with death there, of course, was that. I mean, it was apparent very very – the first day we got into Iraq that if you felt threatened you shoot, you ask questions later. Our actions were completely unsupervised and we did, as we will. Just – as well with the 12 Iraqis there was no reason for them to be dead. Somebody got trigger-happy, there’s death.
TONY JONES: When civilians were killed, what happened? Did your officers make reports? Did they try and investigate what had happened?
JOSHUA KEY: I myself never got questioned in the course of my ranking I had no idea what my commanding officers were doing, if anything was wrote or not. I know in many of the circumstances I witnessed myself in Iraq I asked later on if any mission statements had been written. Has anything been written about what happened last night and I was told on many occasions that it was none of my concern and none of my business.
TONY JONES: One of the most horrific incidents you record was in the night during a raid in Ramadi and you describe the circumstances with one of your sergeants actually saying, “Tonight is retaliation time in Ramadi.” Tell us about that incident?
JOSHUA KEY: Well, we had many – for that incidence, for the retaliation, prior to that there had been a commander in the third Army Recovery Regiment which was the regiment I was with that had gotten injured. I don’t know exactly, I don’t even know if he was a fatality. That was said after that fact. In Ramadi the second time there was so many incidents, of course. You’re on a QRF mission, which is like you’re the quick reaction force for the military. It’s like you’re a swat team. For that 24-hour period you’re in control. If anything happens within that city then you’re sent out to, as they say, calm down the uprising. The night we got the call we were on it, we were going to our designated spot. We took a sharp right turn by the banks of the Euphrates River. On the left side I saw bodies that were decapitated. My truck stopped. I was asked to see if there were – of course I was the lowest ranking and I was told to get out to see if I could find evidence of a fire fight, which means, you know, shell casings. When I got out of the back of my truck I heard one American soldier screaming that we had lost it. I mean, I looked to the other side and I seen American soldiers kicking the head around like a soccer ball. I got back inside of my APC, which is an armoured personnel carrier, said I wouldn’t have no involvement. Of course the next day I asked if anything had been filed for that, because to me that was completely unacceptable. That’s when my – I said that’s when my will started to change, of course.
TONY JONES: I have to get you to go back over that because of the way you just described it. Are you saying you saw American soldiers kicking around the decapitated head of a dead Iraqi?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes, that was – of course I live with that nightmare every day. That’s something I have a lot of problems with, of course. But to me that was completely – there’s no justification and no reason why that should have happened like that. There’s nothing – there’s no reason; it only takes one shot to kill a person, even if it was for that standpoint. But there’s no reason whatsoever to decapitate a human person by means of gunfire.
TONY JONES: Were these people civilians, or were they insurgents? Was there any evidence that they were armed?
JOSHUA KEY: No, no evidence whatsoever. To me they were civilians.
TONY JONES: It’s such an horrific scene that many Americans are going to believe that you’ve invented this for your book.
JOSHUA KEY: I’m sure they will, but the way I look at that is every day there’s other soldiers’ coming out with facts just like mine from their own personal experiences. I mean, it’s just a matter of time until it all comes out. I’m not the first one of course nor am I going to be the last one to say these atrocities are happening. What’s happening there will be dealt with later on.
TONY JONES: In your account of that incident you include the names, and details of members of your platoon including a sergeant and staff sergeant. Will any of those people back up your account?
JOSHUA KEY: You know, I don’t know that right – it depends on how do they look at the war now, of course, since they’ve been out. Of course they’re going to see me as a total, whatever you might want to call it, they’re going to see me as a lot different since I deserted, of course and I don’t know where they stand. I would say a lot of soldiers come back and they, of course, have – they come to their conscience. So I would say it’ll be reported. I hope that it will be. If not I’ve witnessed, I’ve seen it and it’s my facts.
TONY JONES: Now if it’s true, what you saw was a war crime. Would you be willing to give sworn evidence about that before a court or a tribunal?
JOSHUA KEY: Oh well, of course. That’s involved and of course I would.
TONY JONES: Joshua Key, the victims you describe were not all adults. You also graphically describe the killing of a very young Iraqi girl. Can you tell us that story?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes. I was pulling guard on a Ramadi children’s hospital. I did for many, many times. On one same position, because you would always change your position every so many hours, on the one side there was a house adjacent to the fence and there was a seven, eight-year-old girl. She would always run over, Mr Food, Mr Water. Of course after a short number of times I gave in to her. I would give her my MREs, I would give her my water. To me it was a kind face, it was a smile. I didn’t have any idea what she was saying. She herself would bring me bread, would bring me water. That continued, continued, until one day she’s just like normal, she’s coming across the street to get her MRE and her water and then the way I look at her I heard a shot and her head exploded like a mushroom. To me that shot – after being in war, of course, I would say that anyone could say who’s been there, there’s a definite distinction between an AK-47 shot and an M 16 shot. It was an M 16 shot.
TONY JONES: One of your own men shot her, is that what you’re saying?
JOSHUA KEY: You know, I don’t know for sure, of course. That’s my speculation, yes.
TONY JONES: Could there have been any other reason for an accidental shooting? Did she suddenly appear? Could she have appeared to be somehow a danger to your troops?
JOSHUA KEY: I wouldn’t think so, not for how many times. There was other soldiers in my squad that gave her food as well so I could not see somebody seeing a danger or a threat in her, no.
TONY JONES: What happened to her body? What happened after she was shot?
JOSHUA KEY: Her mother came; some other family and I don’t know what happened to it afterwards, I don’t know what happened with her.
TONY JONES: You saw her body collected, though?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes, yes.
TONY JONES: Was her death reported?
JOSHUA KEY: I do not know again. I look at that and out of complete honesty I was a PFC. I did not have no idea what was going on, what missions were filed, what things had happened, what was told. I do not know.
TONY JONES: What did these kind of incidents that you witnessed or took part in, what did they do to your effectiveness as a soldier?
JOSHUA KEY: It made me devastated. It’s one thing to go to another country and fight for democracy and to bring freedom, to rid weapons of mass destruction, rid the world of the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein. That’s one thing, rather than going to a country for you don’t know what reasons, committing the atrocities and acts that we were doing with no justification whatsoever. I live with the effects of that every day. If it was a justified and a legal war with reason I would still be there today. I left because there was no reason, it was unjustified, illegal and immoral to myself.
TONY JONES: You’re one of 35 US deserters trying to convince the Canadian Government to treat you as if you were refugees. What would happen if you were sent back to the US?
JOSHUA KEY: Of course I’ve heard many different things. I couldn’t tell you the truth because, of course, I haven’t been sent back. The last I was told was up to five years in prison. I respond to that, even one day in prison, no one should have to spend one day in jail for doing the right and moral thing, especially when 95 per cent of the world knows we are. It’s just the other five. That shouldn’t happen. No one should have to.
TONY JONES: Are you in contact with some of those Vietnam deserters who also went to Canada decades ago?
JOSHUA KEY: Yes, I’m in contact with – – –
TONY JONES: What do they say to you?
JOSHUA KEY: I’ve heard many times that it wasn’t like a ball game for the first few that came. They had to fight for their right to stay here as well, and of course the provision was given afterwards. The way I look at it is still today I will fight and fight and fight until – you know, I’m not asking for refugee status. I am on the one hand but I’m not. I’d much rather have a provision for all of us to stay so every single soldier that comes here does not have to go through this. They shouldn’t have to and obligations, international law obligations – we should be allowed to stay in Canada.
TONY JONES: In the very last line of your book you say that you will never apologise for deserting, and finally you say this, “I owe one apology, one apology only, that’s to the people of Iraq.” Why did you say that?
JOSHUA KEY: That’s my apology, if my apologies go. I apologise for raiding their homes, I apologise for doing the things I did, for any sense of anything I did, from stealing from them –completely, but as far as being to the US Government, no, no, because they lied, they falsified and they’re the ones that put us all there. No. I apologise and I apologise to one and that’s the Iraqi people.
TONY JONES: Joshua Key, we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to us.
JOSHUA KEY: No, thank you