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Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam Hardcover – April 23, 2001
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Jack Todd made a fateful decision in 1969. A farm boy from a time and place where the obligation to serve in the military was taken for granted, Todd had just completed basic training at an army post near Seattle when he opted to take a Vietnam-veteran friend's advice and slip across the border into British Columbia rather than risk his life fighting in an unpopular war. His life in Canada was by no means easy; he spent time on Skid Row among fellow deserters and draft evaders, many of them parasitical criminals, and, although he was a veteran journalist, he had to start from scratch at a Vancouver paper, slowly winning the acceptance of his colleagues.
Todd renounced his American citizenship, which made him one of a handful of Vietnam-era deserters to have been ineligible for the general amnesty offered during Jimmy Carter's presidency--he could not even return to the United States for his mother's funeral. In this graceful memoir, Todd revisits what he calls his "absurd decision" to leave his country. Absurd, in part, because he later discovered he would not have been sent to Vietnam at all, but was instead slated to serve as a military journalist in Germany. For that decision he has many regrets, although he has clearly made a good life for himself in his adopted country. The cost was perhaps too great, though: "The effect of forced exile is felt not in any sudden tearing away but in the corrosive loss, over a period of time, of too many of the things that make you who you are." --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
"The effect of forced exile is felt not in any sudden tearing away but in corrosive loss, over a period of time, of too many of the things that make you what you are." The experience of exile is at the heart of this honest and very moving memoir by an award-winning columnist for the Montreal Gazette. Born into a poor farming family who sacrificed to send him to college, Todd left the University of Nebraska a semester before graduation in order to work as a reporter with the Miami Herald. He was happy with a new job and in love with his girlfriend, Mariela, but his world was torn apart when he was drafted in 1969. Although he had been an antiwar activist in college, he couldn't bear the idea of going into exile to avoid the war and decided that he would serve, against the advice of his mother and his closest friend, Sonny, who had been traumatized by combat duty in Vietnam. A breakup with Mariela and his strong feelings against the war finally caused Todd to desert just as his basic training was ending. He spent the next several years wandering from job to job in Canada, unable to cope with his feelings of loss. In a rage against Nixon, he renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1973, a decision he now regrets. Although he considers his decision to desert the "hardest, bravest thing I ever did," the author candidly depicts himself during that period as immature and unable to make thoughtful decisions or to sustain relationships with the women who loved him. Through his personal story, Todd conveys, in a voice that haunts and sings, the impact of an unpopular war on a generation of young Americans.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
When Jack's oldest school friend returns from the jungle & urges him to dodge the draft, Jack stuffs down his disquiet & enters the army. He almost completes basic training when the love of his life does a long-distant rejection that sends him into a tailspin out of which he makes a fateful decision.
It has taken this writer 30 years to come to terms with the guilt & shame of his desertion, to break his silence & tell his controversial, important & profoundly American story. Perhaps becoming one of Canada's most successful journalists & remarkable writers has given him the perspective & strength to tell this most difficult of tales.
If you are at all interested in how a deserter made his decision & then went along with it - read this book!
If, on the other hand, you have an aversion to anyone who deserted during the Viet Nam War - you had better avoid it!
Not an "easy" read although this author does have a way with words & scoops you along for the ride of a lifetime. It's like seeing inside of a man's mind - how he saw the world then & what he did about it.
If you want to read a master storyteller - then grab a copy - it is one disturbingly powerful memoir of a strange & dangerous time.
This intensely personal account follows Todd from childhood growing up in a small Nebraska town to a promising career at the Miami Herald to basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. Six weeks into basic training, Todd begins to contemplate flight northward as the dehumanization of the military experience and a growing antiwar conviction convince him to reluctantly leave his country. The decision is not made without Todd's painful acknowledgement of loss ("family, country, career, the woman I love") and moral agonizing over leaving his homeland of 23 years ("It's not that I live in America or that I am American. We are indistinguishable. You grow up the way I did, you don't know where your country leaves off and you start."). Ambivalence haunts him ("One instant I'm leaning one way, the next moment I've swung in the opposite direction. It's like watching a compass needle waver back and froth, back and forth, until it settles on true north.") until the morning early in 1970 when a friend escorts him over the Canadian border to freedom, and there is no turning back.
The memoir concentrates primarily on Todd's life as an exile in a country "that is so much like home that every morning when you get up you have to remind yourself that this is not home, that home is now a place where you can no longer go." Starting in Vancouver he drifts from city to city, on the verge of homelessness much of the time, never staying in any one place long enough to make lasting relationships or discover the security of stability. "The only constant seems to be this endless flight, running on and on and getting no place at all," he writes.
Even as Todd attempts to create a new life in this strange territory, he struggles to write about the exile experience in prose that is both poetic and poignant. "I worry at the theme of exile," he writes, "the meaning of existence on what is, for me in this endless winter, the wrong side of a three thousand-mile border."
By the time the war ends in 1975 Todd feels as if he has been "fighting it one way or another" for the past eight years since becoming a "late convert to the antiwar movement in 1967." Although draft dodgers and deserters are granted amnesty after the war, "it is too late for me," writes a deeply regretful Todd, who earlier made the "absurd decision" to renounce his American citizenship during a period of deep disillusionment. "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," he writes, "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." Todd stops short of claiming to be a casualty of war, but does place himself among many others of his generation who were "very different people after we had passed through that fire."
Today Todd is an award-winning journalist for the Montreal Gazette who has "spent half a life on each side of the border" and feels both American and Canadian "in roughly equal parts," although the Wildcat Hills of Nebraska, where he returns to visit as an outsider, will always be considered home "even if there aren't too many people out here who would care to claim me."
Todd's compelling story has waited more than a quarter of a century to be told and undoubtedly took much courage to write. Desertion is a different kind of war story than many that are included in the Vietnam War literary canon, but it is nevertheless a war story. Breaking the silence of desertion, Todd has created a story of conscience, bravery, remorse, and ultimately, hope.
Is it cowardly, or un-American, to avoid a war if you truly feel it is wrong? The U.S. government does not rule by divine right. Our country was formed as a direct result of Americans revolting against what they considered to be unjust government. If it is our obligation, today, to blindly follow our government's "authority", then it was equally the obligation of our fore-fathers to do so in the 1700's. How many Americans think the Fathers of the Revolution were traitors for not submitting to the authority of their government?
After WWII, many Germans said, "we were just following orders...". It was not a legitimate excuse then, no has it ever been. We each have the power of reason, the power to judge right from wrong, and it is our moral and ethical obligation to exercise that power. It is NEVER right to turn that power over to someone else - not to the government, not to Ronald Reagan or to Bill Clinton, not to religious "authority" - not to anyone! "Desertion" is an account of one young man, an average American, exercising this power. Jack Todd's account of his stuggle in determining what his duty was is well worth reading!
If you want to read a tremendous account of soldiers selflessly answering the call to arms for what they knew was a just cause, read "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young". Whether you thought the war was right or wrong, these men were laying their lives on the line, doing their duty as they saw it, no matter what the personal consequences. That in and of itself deserves respect.
On the other hand, if you want to read a great story about an American avoiding a war he knew to be unjust, read "Desertion". That action, when motivated by a desire to do the right thing, is also deserving of respect. It is possible for people to hold opposing opinions about the same issues. We shouldn't feel the need to ridicule or persecute those that hold beliefs different than our own (although, unfortunately, THAT seems to be the American Way).
JFK said, "War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today." Apparently, from reading some of the reactions to this book, that day still lies in the distant future.