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    Non-violence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non-co-operation with evil.
           -Mahatma Gandhi

As it happens, I am just young enough that America was well past Vietnam by the time I was of an age to be drafted.  So I am quite conscious of the fact that when I criticize someone who avoided service, I speak as someone who never had to face the decisions that they had to make.  We can never truly know, of course, how we would actually react to a moral quandary until it is thrust upon us, and so whenever we criticize what we perceive as the moral failings of others, we must approach the matter with great humility, and, whenever possible, give folks the benefit of the doubt.

In particular, certain types of actions are more understandable than others; an action taken in haste, for instance, or one made under some kind of great external pressure, or one which, while we may disagree with the principle involved, is based on some coherent moral standard.  In addition, the story does not end with the initial decision or action; if the person in question has made a genuine effort to redeem themselves, feels real contrition, and seeks forgiveness, it is incumbent on us to weigh these countervailing facts in the balance, and they can often tip the scales.  Thus, Saul (later Paul) and Lord Jim are not eternally condemned, however despicable some of the acts in their early lives, because they dedicated their subsequent years to eradicating these moral stains.  In short, we should be slow to judge, eager to understand the circumstances, and willing to forgive the worthy.

Jack Todd deserted from the United States Army in December 1969 and fled to exile in Canada, rather than be sent to Vietnam.  How should his action be judged ?  On the evidence of this maudlin, self serving, unreflective memoir, I think harshly.  His action had none of the mitigating factors mentioned above.  It was not an action made in haste.  It was a product of long standing desire and several prior attempts.  It was not a result of other pressures, though his girlfriend, who he seems to have been attracted to solely because of her looks and whom he treated badly, had just broken up with him.  But most importantly, it does not seem to have been based on any moral principles.  As far as one can tell from this book anyway, Jack Todd ran away because he didn't want to go fight in the Vietnam War.  Period.

Unfortunately, Todd never really presents the case for why it was necessary to oppose the war, never mind why he felt compelled to desert.  The closest he comes is in describing how he turned against the War.  For the most part the process seems to have taken place at the University of Nebraska.  There he had several friends and a roommate who opposed the War and, significantly, several leaders of the student paper, which he aspired to edit, were vehemently anti-War.

He had his great epiphany during a conversation with a friend, Mick Lowe, one of those radicals from the Daily Nebraskan staff :

    We talked about international communism, and Mick emphasized that the pragmatic Ho Chi Minh
    was a Vietnamese nationalist first, a communist second.

    'Hey, Jack, did you have a Career Day when you were a senior at Scottsbluff, the way we did here at
    Lincoln Southeast ?'

    'Yeah, we did."

    'And did you get visits from all four branches of the service, wanting all the guys to enlist and
    telling you what a wonderful, invincible, ultramodern fighting machine we had, and how we were
    the most powerful nation on earth ?'

    'Sure."

    'Well, just answer me one thing: how is it that we're being fought to a standstill by a bunch of guys
    in black pajamas wearing sandals made out of old jeep tires ?  It just doesn't add up, but we both
    know that much is true.  Why ?'

    I had no answer.  Mick paused to light another Camel.

    'Because we're being shipped halfway 'round the world to go shoot some poor sonofabitch standing
    in a rice paddy about a hundred yards from his wife and kids, that's why.  They fight better because
    they're fighting for their own homes.  And what the hell are we fighting for ?  It's bull*** war,
    Jack.  I don't know about you, but I won't help fight it, period.'

    It was a step I could not imagine taking, but Mick finally wore me down on the war itself.  By the
    time he got out of the car that night, I was firmly in the antiwar camp.

Sadly enough, that is what passes for moral reasoning when you are 18 or 19, which is why healthy cultures listen to their elders rather than their youths.  The idea that Ho Chi Minh was essentially a benevolent democrat, whom American diplomats had handled poorly, is so discredited as to hardly need going over here.  More enlightening as regards Jack Todd is that at this pivotal moment in his life, the argument that swayed him was merely that we weren't winning the war and weren't likely to.  This tends to cast his desertion in an exceptionally unfavorable light.

All the boilerplate about the other guy fighting for his own land doesn't mean much; in almost any war one side or the other is fighting for their own land.  Most of this same conversation could have taken place between soldiers on either side at differing points in the Civil War, or between American GIs trying to displace Japanese soldiers from the Pacific or beat the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.  Does that mean that those soldiers would have been justified in deserting at that moment?  No, the mere fact that the fighting is difficult does not make a war wrong.  It is possible that what we were fighting for might have been so insignificant or immoral in itself as to make the war wrong, but Todd appears never to have given any thought to why we were there.  He certainly never gave a moments thought to the people of South Vietnam.  The fact that the war was going poorly would seem to have been the entirety of his rationale for not wanting to go.

Laid over this is a faint patina of intellectual justification.  He maintains that an English class was influential :

    We studied Keats and Shelley and Shakespeare, but we also looked at modern poetry, including the
    war poems of Wilfrid Owen and Randall Jarrell.  If Owen's bitter irony hinted that it might not
    have been sweet and proper to die for one's country in the War to End All Wars, and if Jarrell could
    write something as deft and angry as 'The Ballad of the Ball-Turrett Gunner' about World War II,
    then how much less sweet and proper was a war as ugly and pointless as the conflict in Vietnam?

This rather silly sentiment ignores the fact that Owen and Jarrell felt the same way about their wars, which are typically considered "just" wars, as Todd and his cohorts felt about Vietnam.  The main difference is only that the Baby Boom generation was large enough, and their elders indulged them enough, that they were able to gain a sufficient voice in the culture to cast Vietnam as "unjust."

Because the bitter truth is that all wars are unpopular, ugly, and pointless, particularly to the young men who have to go and fight them.  Confining ourselves just to America's wars :

    *    There were probably more Loyalists than rebels during the Revolution.

    *    The War of 1812 was extremely unpopular in the North, which was relatively Anglophile.

    *    Even men like U. S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln thought the Mexican-American War was
         disgraceful.

    *    The worst draft riots in U. S. history occurred in the North during the Civil War.  And the
          greatest piece of literature from that war (other than Grant's memoirs) is
          The Red Badge of Courage, hardly a pro-War book.

    *    The Spanish-American War was widely opposed, even President McKinley tried to avoid it, as
          an Imperialist adventure.

    *    Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on a specific pledge not to get the U. S. involved in WWI,
          used German U-Boat attacks to gin up moderate support for intervention, but then left office a
          broken and unpopular wreck, as the U. S. withdrew from his Internationalist folly.  The
          literature of that war, like Owen and the other British poets, or All Quiet on the Western Front,
          is obviously anti-War.

    *    FDR could not get America to join the Allies until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and then
          most Americans would have been content to punish the Japanese and ignore Europe.  No other
          war in human history produced a greater body of well-respected literature, and it is uniformly
         hostile to the War :  The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity, Thin Red Line,
         Catch-22, etc.

    *    Korea drove Truman from office.

    *    Vietnam destroyed the presidencies of Johnson and Nixon, albeit Nixon indirectly, and spawned
          the worst civil unrest since the Civil War.

    *    Even the Gulf War was largely unpopular and the war resolution barely made it through
          Congress, though all that was quickly forgotten after we won easily.

All these wars were basically unpopular, as well they should have been.  It's hard to see how any of them really accomplished very much.  Even the most justifiable, the Civil War, was probably unnecessary, as the South would have eventually ended slavery on its own, perhaps even on better terms for blacks than resulted from the forced emancipation, and it is likely that North and South would have reunified after a cooling off period, say forty or fifty years.

So I have no problem with a generalized pacifism or conscientious objector claim.  In fact, I greatly respect those, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who are so powerfully compelled by what they perceive as injustice that they use nonviolence as a weapon to combat it, but most importantly, that they are willing to accept the often horrific consequences of their civil disobedience.  Even though I might disagree with such people and with their claims, the clear and consistent moral argument that they make and that willingness to face its consequences, demonstrate tremendous courage, both moral and physical.  They are worthy of honor, even if wrong.

Jack Todd would like us to see him as such a person, but he is not.  Here's what he said at the U.S. consulate in Montreal when he renounced his citizenship :

    I argue that great countries require great sacrifices, certainly, but this time what is required to
    support the war in Vietnam is nothing less than the sacrifice of intelligence, the liquidation of
    thought itself.  When your country is doing something monstrous, it is monstrous to acquiesce;
    having deserted from the army, I have taken the further step now and signal my absolute opposition
    to an  America I no longer recognize as my own.  If this is the great sacrifice that is required to
    stand up for what I see as the most basic of freedoms--the freedom to refuse to fight an unjust
    war--then it is a sacrifice I am required to make by the very patriotism I feel for the United States
    of America.  Thomas Jefferson's America, not Richard Nixon's America.

For now we'll set aside the fact that, whatever his other sins, and they were legion, Richard Nixon never owned, nor raped, slaves.  Instead, focus on Todd's claims, that America was doing something "monstrous" and that in response he made a "great sacrifice".  If we accept his characterization of the War as a "monstrous" act, and take him at his word that he is a patriot, doesn't this impose a moral obligation ?  Isn't the great sacrifice that is called for that he stay in America and fight against the War, accepting the consequences of this, in fact hoping (as Gandhi and MLK argued) that the example he sets will help undermine the immoral system.  Or might he not even be obliged, if he believes what he's saying, to go help the North Vietnamese ?  Either of these courses of action would be morally courageous and understandable.  Instead, Jack Todd fled to Canada, where, as far as we can tell from his memoir, he spent his time in casual sexual entanglements, hanging around strippers, drug addicts, and other riff raff, with occasional somewhat desultory forays into anti-War activity.

It is possible to argue, as Todd tries here, that they very act of leaving the United States represented a tremendous sacrifice.   But he also notes that at the time he left he had nothing--no money, no property, no job, no family, no girlfriend, no nothing.  He didn't have to give up anything when he left.  All he had was himself, and perhaps not surprisingly, that's what he sought to protect.  And, let's face it, he went into exile in Canada for cripessake, not the Soviet Union or some other squalid backwater.  Canada is fairly similar to the United States and the border is so porous that he was able to visit his hometown back in Nebraska virtually at will.

In addition, if he'd just had sense enough to hang out there quietly for a few years, he'd be welcome back in the States by now.  Despite his feelings that his actions were some kind of nation-shaking blow which the U. S. would never forgive him for, Presidents Ford and Carter pardoned all those who avoided service, and they were free to resume their lives within just a few years after the fall of Saigon.  We treated the deserters better than we did the people of South Vietnam.  Meanwhile, Jack Todd having inflated his own rather insignificant act of desertion beyond any meaning it was realistically capable of bearing, was no longer a citizen of the country he supposedly loved.

Finally, what has his life in exile taught Jack Todd ?  What do his reflections on his decision to desert reveal that might be of interest to us now, thirty years later ?  Answer : apparently nothing :

    The war, left to the South Vietnamese, goes on until the spring of 1975.  Inevitably, their forces
    collapse.  With Saigon falling, my old friend Larry Grossman, still with the State Department, is
    called to the Philippines to translate for Vietnamese refugees pouring out of the country the United
    States destroyed in order to save.  I was a late convert to the antiwar movement in the fall of '67, but
    by the time the war finally ends I have spent nearly eight years fighting it in one way or another.  I
    have given up my country, my citizenship, my profession, my family, my belief in myself, my true
    love, everything but my life.  For this I will be called a coward, and perhaps the people who say that
    are right.  I feel it's the hardest, bravest thing I ever did, but it's not for me to judge.

Let us judge in his stead.  Jack Todd is probably not a coward.  He is merely, like many of his generation, monstrously selfish.  He gave up nothing by fleeing to Canada.  But he did take himself out of harms way.  There was nothing inevitable about the fall of South Vietnam.  The tragic demise of that ally was engineered by people like Jack Todd who simply, and perhaps justifiably, decided that their own comforts were more important than the freedom of the South Vietnamese people.  If he had the honesty to admit that, and argue why he was correct, it might make worthwhile reading.  If he expressed a single reservation about the fate of the young men who went and fought in his stead or about the South Vietnamese who, as he notes, were turned into refugees, who actually had to give up everything and risk their lives to flee, it might be possible to feel some sympathy for him.  If he had, those thirty years ago, the courage of his convictions, and had been willing to go to prison in order to vindicate his belief that the war was immoral; if he had loved his country enough to stay and fight against the war that he thought was so horrible, he would be a man to be admired.

Instead, he comes across as a person who is trapped in amber.  For him, time stopped in 1970.  For him, Nixon is still the enemy.  For him, it was the Vietnam War that cost him his "true love."  There were never any boat people.  Ho Chi Minh is still a misunderstood democrat.  For Jack Todd, it is still 1970 and it suffices that he did not want to go to Vietnam.  One searches these pages in vain for any evidence that he gave the decision much serious moral consideration at the time or that he has learned anything from it now.  There's certainly not much that we can learn from him, if he's learned nothing himself.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

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