New book by veteran Michael Uhl dives into effort for amnesty for war objectors who sought refuge abroad during the Vietnam War
Michael Uhl at Counterpunch
As its forces mobilized on the borders of Ukraine, reports of substantial numbers of Russia’s draft-vulnerable men fleeing into exile flooded the US news media. Of particular relevance to the recent publication of my documentary memoir, Safe Return: Inside the Amnesty Movement for Vietnam War Deserters, are the accounts of battlefield desertions by Russian soldiers following the invasion and now publicized as well with increasing frequency. Far from being despised in the US, these acts of resistance– not just the draft evasions, but the desertions as well – have been held in high esteem as expression of legitimate opposition to the Russian invasion .
How, on the other hand, do we suppose the mass of Russian public opinion responds to accounts of Russian soldiers abandoning the battlefield? I suspect that the majority have viewed these acts much the way the US political and military establishments conflated resistance to an unjust war like Vietnam, over the course of which the incidents of desertion numbered in the hundreds of thousands, with how one would have expected those same deserting soldiers to act if their own land, their own homes were being attacked. Instead, in the conflated paradigm, the distinction between aggressive and defensive wars is collapsed, and American deserters were in the main denounced as misfits, shirkers, cowards or even traitors; Russians deserters are likely to be tarred with the same charges. In the meantime, we await how the outcome of the former Wagner commando’s – now a deserter – appeal for asylum in Norway will echo among his comrades in the trenches of Ukraine.
The comparison here is imperfect, of course, since the Vietnam War ended five decades ago, and the war in Ukraine drags on, its outcome far from certain. It is likely to be some time before we learn the fates of those who deserted the Russian ranks or fled to foreign soil to evade conscription. We do know something about what befell those who evaded the draft or deserted active service during the long decade of the Vietnam/American War. A movement for amnesty was organized in the US demanding their reintegration and repatriation without penalty. I tell that story in part in my account of the activities of the Safe Return Amnesty Committee. I say in part, because Safe Return occupied one corner, albeit a prominent one, within the larger confines of the amnesty movement, and primarily concentrated its efforts on defending the deserters who had less support than the draft resisters among members of the public not militantly opposed to the war.
Still, over the course of the roughly six years that the amnesty movement was active, late 1971 to early 1977, a good deal of public sympathy was eventually stirred for the American deserters. But when President Carter came to pardon draft resisters shortly after his inauguration in 1977, he left the resolution of those still in the active status of desertion to the whims of the military. The same solution was applied to all the dissident GIs already herded through the inquisitions of military justice and turned out with discharges that were less than honorable. Even congenitally centrist observers like the editors of the New Republic were wide eyed in acknowledging something fishy when reporting that those with “bad paper” numbered in the hundreds of thousands. To compound this stigma, a significant sector of legal and journalistic opinion, by no means entirely radical, held that the overwhelming majority of bad discharges involved offenses that would not be criminal in civilian society. Put it this way, that tainted label is not something you want on your resume when you go job hunting.
The Vietnam antiwar movement was a qualified success in aiding to end the land war in Southeast Asia, an outcome the dysfunctional state of our own fighting forces – aka the GI Resistance – contributed to significantly. But the scope of antiwar movement’s influence was anything but socially transformative, and thus impotent to power a post-war amnesty movement, albeit partially vindicated in the case of the draft evaders, to transcend the taboos that virtually every society associates with desertion. Not even when the war the deserters fled from was almost universally held to have been at the very least a mistake, and in many minds a war of aggression, no less than the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The explosive rates of discontent in the ranks during the Vietnam-fueled fiasco did effect at least one obvious consequence. Shortly after the Peace Accords with Vietnam were signed in January 1973, the conscript US Army was replaced with an All-Volunteer Force, an even less democratic, some would say mercenary, arrangement for sharing the burden of military service than the draft.
I expand on many of these themes in Safe Return an excerpt of which follows below. The book may be purchased from McFarland Books.
Safe Return: An Excerpt
By late December 1971 I was already calling myself a revolutionary. A whole generation of New Leftists consumed by their opposition to the Vietnam War had come to define themselves in similarly provocative terms. As a state of mind this pretense was not entirely delusional. Only those activists most unhinged from material reality believed the United States was living a genuinely revolutionary moment. But revolutionary zeal had become rampant throughout the politicized youth culture. The axiomatic beliefs shared by many – perhaps most – radicals within this loosely knit, endlessly factious collectivity called the Movement held that the American political system was a sham, and that capitalism as a viable engine to achieve social and economic justice had been totally discredited. Equally in disrepute was liberalism, the idea that the system could be reformed at a steady and gradual pace, an ideological wolf in sheep’s clothing presenting a more comforting appearance for maintaining the status quo. Aim the first blow at the liberals Chairman Mao had advised his own revolutionary cadres; our group wasn’t Maoist, but we certainly had our issues about liberals.
In the Movement we were known as CCI, short for Citizens Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. Founded in the wake of public dismay over the revelation of the My Lai massacre in November 1969, CCI’s goal was to elevate popular awareness to the much greater scope of American atrocities in the war zone. Over the ensuing two years we’d had an amazingly good run, terrific coverage in the press and electronic media, with our two major accomplishments, a National Veterans Inquiry, and the rump Dellums War Crimes hearings on Capitol Hill, both subjects of books from mainstream publishers.
We never did convince most Americans beyond radical veteran and Movement circles that war crimes committed by our troops
were both widespread and a de facto consequence of the manner in which the war was being conducted, primarily against South Vietnamese civilians. CCI had claimed that American war crimes were a matter of policy inherent in U.S. tactics: saturation bombing, free fire zones, forced removal of non-combatant civilians and destruction of their villages, and the systematic use of torture in the interrogation of detainees and prisoners. Looking back, I suppose that the most important contribution CCI made to the collective antiwar effort was to provide a forum for disaffected GIs like me who’d had their heads turned around in Vietnam and were inclined to tell that story to anyone on the home front willing to listen.
By late 1971 the war crimes issue was a dead letter. Nixon had temporarily succeeded in demobilizing the antiwar movement with his policy of Vietnamization, the gradual withdrawal of American ground forces which, because victory now depended on the U.S. backed Saigon regime to battle on without American infantry, the press gruesomely described as “changing the color of the corpses.” It was a savvy political move. Clearly what had come to bother most Americans about the Vietnam War was its utter endlessness, not least the interminable images on the nightly news of GIs being stuffed into body bags and brought home in flag draped coffins.
And still the war raged on with a full complement of American air and naval firepower at an intensity that was virtually undiminished despite the overall reduction in U.S. troops. Moreover, the field of hostilities would actually expand when both Laos and Cambodia, where covert war had been carried out for years, were openly invaded by American forces or their Army of South Vietnam surrogates. Far from “winding down,” from the Movement perspective the war had merely shifted into a phase that was likely to confuse, if not palliate, the mounting opposition among many so-called Middle Americans whose exhaustion with Vietnam had become a political obstacle to the Nixon administration’s hallucinatory dreams of “keeping” Indochina and sustaining the puppet regime in Saigon. It was in this atmosphere that in late 1971, Tod Ensign and I created Safe Return and entered the lists of the emerging Amnesty Movement.
What most disturbed Tod and me, and many others in the not yet depleted ranks of the antiwar movement, was that, behind
President Richard Nixon’s smokescreen of troop withdrawals, the public was being lured into a comfortable fiction that the U.S. role in the war was – or would soon be – over. Those informed feared worse. Tens of thousands of American troops still engaged in Vietnam combat in the early seventies, but the violence had now expanded openly throughout all of Indochina, with the relentless use of American air power as lethal to local populations as it had ever been. Looking for a new issue to prolong our own antiwar activism, Tod and I quickly shifted our attention to amnesty. We reasoned that a campaign positioned to anticipate a post-war political climate might become an adaptable vehicle for addressing a war vanishing from the headlines, but still far from over.
If we had not yet come to see that advocating on behalf of veterans and GIs would define our political work in the years ahead, that trajectory was already evident when we created Safe Return. Thus, our orientation in this emerging movement would not be on behalf of those who’d refused to serve, but those who’d come to resist the war as a result of entering the armed forces. Once in uniform, many would run afoul of a draconian system of command dominated military justice and institutionalized racism, and in epidemic numbers deserted, some to foreign exile.
On a wider political canvas, we demanded a universal amnesty without conditions for all those who resisted and were victimized by what we understood as an illegal war. We were certainly unambiguous in our public backing of resistance to the draft in any form, religious, philosophical, political or plain old self-interest. And while we acknowledged the sincerity of those who became conscientious objectors, we were arguing a unique position that would extend the blanket of amnesty over those who didn’t learn what was wrong with the Vietnam War until it was too late to avoid it. This was a class of men not schooled in religious argumentation or moral abstraction; a class of men who found no ready path to evade service through deferments, doctor’s letters, or informed political understanding; a class of men who would do the fighting and dying for 90% of their draft aged peers. There seems little doubt that, among the 10% of the draft age population who served, and the even smaller cohort who did the actual fighting in Vietnam, a majority of them, by any fair measure, came from the lower and marginalized strata of the working class. To the degree the politics we espoused at Safe Return had a consistent ideological edge, it was our espousal of class over moral politics.
Over Safe Return’s lifetime, whatever the unique character and content of each campaign or action, our pitch for amnesty possessed a singular and consistent message: to portray these many individual acts of defiance to military authority as a collective form of resistance. And such it was, we believed, in the temper of the times. Exactly how we fashioned that story line evolved with each successive episode of our trademark action, the voluntary surrender of a representative deserter under attention-getting circumstances tailored to each returnee: an escapade in Paris, a surrender on the floor of a presidential convention, a caper on Capitol Hill, a Welcome Home Christmas Party under the nose of the FBI at a Greenwich Village jazz club.
Harvey Weiner at the VVA Veteran:
Michael Uhl’s Safe Return: Inside the Amnesty Movement for Vietnam War Deserters (McFarland, 271 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), a literate part memoir, part history, part polemic, is the no-holds-barred story of a dynamic two-person organization that advocated universal unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft dodgers, draft resisters, deserters, and those with bad paper discharges.
Uhl served as a U.S. Army Lieutenant in Vietnam in 1968-69, where he led a combat intelligence team with the 11th Infantry Brigade. He wrote about his war experiences and political radicalization in the 2007 book, Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to Citizens’ Committee of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam.
The new book covers Uhl and Tod Ensign’s efforts from 1971-75 to create the Safe Return Amnesty Committee and its offshoot, Families of Deserters for Amnesty. Uhl chronicles and analyzes the groups’ tactics, strategies, successes, and failures. The failures include an inability to work with some individuals and other organizations with analogous goals but different agendas.
In pre-social media times, Safe Return generated an enormous amount of paper – newsletters, correspondence, flyers, advertisements, and staged public surrenders of several deserters (“semi-retired veterans”) and draft evaders, to publicize its message. This led in part to books, newspaper and magazine articles, congressional hearings, support by politicians and celebrities, and even two movies.
Uhl had hoped to translate the antiwar sentiment into universal amnesty for all and was always consistent in that uncompromising position. However, the elimination of the draft, he posits, extricated “the principal stone from the heels of draft-age youth, no longer requiring their service in the armed forces…, [such that] the grit of popular resistance was removed from the machinery of war.”
In 1974, President Ford created the Clemency Board. In January 1977, President Carter issued pardons for men who evaded the draft Vietnam War draft by leaving the country and those who did not register their local draft boards, but not for deserters. Carter later created a Special Discharge Upgrade Program, which could affect about half of all bad paper discharges. Who is to say that Uhl’s “cigar-box enterprise” did not have an immeasurable effect on all these events?
Marc Leepson, The VVA Veteran’s Arts Editor, asked me if I would be willing to review this book. I had no problem agreeing to do so. All books should be reviewed, particularly by those who might disagree with some of the book’s major premises.
A further question is whether my fellow Vietnam War veterans should read the book because they showed up then and did their duty. Of course, they should.
This well-written book is worth a read because you will learn about a particular part of the antiwar movement. However, it has been more than 60 years since politicians committed America to this unnecessary war, and then different politicians abandoned our South Vietnamese allies to their dismal fate.
These politicians are the ones against whom you may continue to hold a grudge, so that such horrendous mistakes might not happen again. On the other hand, after all this time, it may be healthier for you to be at peace with antiwar activists, draft dodgers (a couple of whom have been elected president), draft resisters, and “semi-retired veterans.”
Irwin Gratz at Maine Public
This September will mark 49 years since former President Gerald Ford issued the first partial amnesty to deserters from the Vietnam War, which did not apply to draft evaders who had fled to Canada.
Three years later, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon that included draft evaders.
To defend those Americans who chose not to participate in the war, Michael Uhl — a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Walpole, Maine — co-founded the Safe Return Amnesty Committee.
Now, he tells the story in a new book, Safe Return: Inside the Amnesty Movement for Vietnam War Deserters.
As he told Maine Public’s Irwin Gratz, the amnesty movement that emerged in the seventies was anchored to a firm political and moral stance:
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Uhl: And we felt that the military resistors reflected the class bias of the Vietnam War, that 90% of those of draft age over that 10-year period had not served.
And the 10% of those who did serve, including a smaller percentage of those, like me, who actually were in the war zone, came from the lower strata of the American working class and were overwhelmed and were disproportionately also people of color.
Gratz: Russia, of course, also recently saw a flight of young from their country, and the possible military service after the invasion of Ukraine.
While there are parallels here between both cases, there have been extremely high rates of desertion and draft evasion in Russia as there was in the United States. In the United States, there were almost 500,000 cases of desertion between 1963 and 1973. This reflected extremely high level of discontent in the ranks of the armed forces, and the Ukraine war, resistance among Russians is ongoing.
But in the first week, following Putin’s call-up of a draft, over 100,000 Russian draft-age men fled, and in the weeks following thousands more fled to Finland, to Armenia and to Turkey, so many so that those countries and most of the countries of Europe, unlike in the Vietnam War, they closed their borders and no country thus far has offered asylum to those draft resistors.
The key here is that the rates of resistance in unpopular wars, do not stir patriotism among those called upon to fight. But still you have the, you know, to go back to the American deserter cases, this question, here’s the dilemma.
The opprobrium that’s associated with the idea of desertion is extremely high. So here we have a case when the shoe is on the other foot. Americans might be unsympathetic to deserters among our own country people. But when it comes to the Russians, those cases are extremely widely reported and highly praised.
There’s another parallel here between these two wars. In fact, if you are the invaded, there’s one set of responses. If you’re the invader, then it’s a different set of responses. If they had been called upon to defend their own countries, then I’m absolutely certain you would not have had these high levels of desertion.