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It's Time to End the Vietnam War

Deserters: Clinton should grant amnesty to all military dropouts like Randy Caudill.

September 24, 1997|CLANCY SIGAL | Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles

Poor Randy Caudill. Where was he when they passed out the amnesties for Vietnam-era draft resisters and military deserters?

Caudill is the arthritic, 48-year-old grandfather and farm equipment mechanic who in 1968 fled the U.S. Marine Corps to Canada, where he was granted legal status, married and raised a family of three daughters. Last week, almost three decades after his desertion, he was arrested at Port Angeles, Wash., as he tried to return to Winnipeg after visiting one of his daughters in Victoria. He's now back where he started, at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, awaiting a possible court martial.

It has been suggested that if Caudill had escaped to Canada to avoid military duty, he would not have been covered by Jimmy Carter's amnesty for draft resisters, since the amnesty did not include military deserters. Untrue. In the 1970s, President Ford also extended amnesty to military deserters, but only with a six-month "window." That's how most outstanding AWOLs got processed, often with "bad paper"--a less than honorable discharge. But a number of deserters--that is, GIs gone more than 30 days--either were too suspicious of government to take advantage of Ford's amnesty or were in such deep hiding they never heard of it. Some refused the amnesty on the principle that to accept a "pardon" was, in some way, to collude with a war they opposed.

Like so many volunteers, Caudill enlisted in the Marines fresh from high school and took off when he learned his unit was going to Vietnam. He may or may not have had political motives. In a way, it doesn't matter, since desertion, like enlistment itself, was a rite of passage through which many thousands of American teenagers passed during the Vietnam War.

Caudill is typical of many deserters I met when I helped smuggle them around the world on the antiwar "underground railway." Every large city, such as London, where I lived, had its "stationmaster." The railway stretched from Tokyo to Stockholm, Vancouver to Paris.

Unlike most draft resisters, who were middle class, with all that implies (access to lawyers, ease of presenting oneself to a board, etc.), deserters were overwhelmingly from middle American, blue collar or poor rural families with patriotic, religious values. They were John Wayne fans. Their reasons for deserting ranged from a reasoned resistance to the Vietnam War to being pissed off with their sergeant or an unwillingness to cut their long hair or sometimes plain homesickness. However, once they had crossed the desertion line, something quite profound tended to occur. Almost automatically, they became part of the antiwar movement. And, for the first time, they had to take themselves seriously. Desertion was a sobering act.

The U.S. antiwar movement and the Pentagon were both uneasy with deserters. Many movement activists were World War II combat veterans who disliked "slackers." And even hard-nosed military commanders were embarrassed to make an issue of desertion. It was the Great Unmentioned Fact. Yet in one year alone, 1969, Vietnam War desertions totaled 76,000, the equivalent of three full combat divisions with supply units.

From my point of view, the most interesting thing about deserters was how fast they grew up after the 31st day. (Incidentally, I met a number of Vietnam combat veterans who opted out after one or more tours of front-line duty.) You might go over the hill on impulse, but once back in the civilian world, you had some hard thinking to do. John Wayne and perhaps your own family hated you. It took guts to fight in Vietnam; it took a different sort of courage and moral self-probing not to.

It's curious, but I hardly ever met a serving enlisted man or woman who bore a grudge against the deserters.

It's time to end the Vietnam War. Pete Peterson, a former POW, is our new ambassador to Communist Vietnam and breaks bread with his former captors and torturers. Quietly, over the years, a number of Vietnam vets have been traveling to Vietnam to arrange medical aid to help reconstruct the country. A friend of mine, a former fighter pilot, repeatedly visits Vietnam to find MIG pilots he fought against, to talk shop. It's time.

One of President's Clinton's best friends, Frank Aller, was a draft resister. Clinton has always honored that friendship in words. He should take a final step by issuing, as a presidential edict, an amnesty covering all Vietnam-era military deserters who have failed, forgotten or refused to come in from the cold.

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