Of War Resisters Then and Now

It was the middle of April 1970 and my brother and I were on the road. We were headed up to Canada during school vacation. I had just completed basic and advanced training in the military in Georgia and had returned to my job teaching social studies at the junior high school in the community where I had grown up.

Being on the road was part of the ethos of the 1960s and early 1970s. The open road was part of the literature and film of the 1950s and it melded perfectly with the counterculture movement of the 60s. There were James Dean and Jack Kerouac and Marlon Brando. All in motion and staking their claim on the seemingly endless continent in art and film and literature. In hot cars and junks and on motorcycles we explored the land and what it meant to come of age in a era of almost limitless possibilities for some.

Driving through New England by way of Vermont up into Canada was a different experience than today because of global warming. Although Vermont still does have snow-covered mountains in April, it was as if winter was still in full force in 1970.

Montreal was an exceptional city in terms of openness in those days, as was much of the U.S. We found someone to help us near McGill University (I had been accepted at McGill for graduate school a year before but had not enrolled there) and that person directed us to a clearinghouse for visitors that was just a few blocks away. Given the openness of society then, we received slips with people’s names on them and addresses, people who had freely provided their names to the clearinghouse and were willing to host visitors with no charge attached to their stay. It was remarkable… People willing to open up their apartments or homes to strangers without question. We found the same kind of hospitality on our return trip that took us back by way of Maine.

In Montreal, we visited the office of the American Deserters Committee. I can’t remember how we found the office, it was just beyond a border of McGill. I remember the first floor of the building where the office was located that contained a long rectangular room. It was mid morning when we arrived and young men in army fatigue jackets, of the exact kind I had just worn in Georgia, filed into the dimly lit space. I can’t remember why, perhaps it was the politics involved in a decision to leave the military and one’s country that caused me to feel such depression as we spoke with the people who had assembled. Most had been to Vietnam, or were slated to go to Vietnam. The men sat on wooden chairs that lined a wall. I don’t remember the exact details of the men’s stories, but I knew that the feeling that began in the office only grew as our discussion about the war continued. The closest that I can come to describing this feeling is one of grief and foreboding. It was similar to the feeling a person has when a loved one dies.

Some of the resisters discussed mistreatment in the military, while others talked about atrocities they either witnessed or heard about out in the field in Vietnam. At the time, amnesty was not even a remote possibility for these men and reports of severe abuse and torture came from some military brigs in the U.S. It was probably not possible to consider returning to the U.S. for most of these men. To attempt to be discharged from military service, or to make a political statement of resistance to the war, or to seek conscientious objector’s status would mean being sent to a stockade where beatings or mistreatment could happen. These images have remained with me forty-six years later with almost the same force on those cold mid April days. I can still picture the men sitting there with their military fatigue jackets, their names emblazoned over the front pocket.

There appear to be only a handful of war resisters left in Canada today, separate from the undetermined number who remained after the Vietnam War and did not apply for the limited amnesties under the Ford and Carter administrations. Resisters left the military without leave from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many returned to the U.S. years ago to face military imprisonment and bad discharges. There are about 15 remaining resisters living in Canada, fraught with fear despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s early support for their right to remain in Canada and the support of about 63% of the Canadian people. Some have petitioned Trudeau’s Liberal government for the right to remain (“Iraq war resisters who fled to Canada ask Justin Trudeau to allow them to stay,” The Guardian, August 2, 2016).

In the 1953 film From Here To Eternity, Captain Holmes, Private Prewitt’s commanding officer, says, “You should know that in the Army it’s not the individual that counts,” referring to Prewitt’s refusal to go along with the wishes of his commanding officer to become a company boxer while the shadow of World War II looms heavily on the Hawaiian military base where the film’s action takes place. Indeed, the place of an individual’s beliefs regarding the issues of war and peace and individual conscience have often been given short shrift once a soldier has signed on the dotted line to become a member of the military.

An argument has been made that while many in the military were drafted during the Vietnam War, those who enlist now do so out of completely free will. That argument is weak because many volunteers now come from the lower fifth quintile of the income ladder. If a person needs to join the military to escape poverty or make a life for himself or herself, then the voluntary part of the argument becomes a moot point. A military draft, of which I strongly oppose, did bring a greater, though still limited, cross-section of the society into the military during the Vietnam War.

What will happen to these soldiers in the current neoliberal political climate with endless wars being waged is anyone’s guess.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).