The military is hunting down Vietnam era deserters in an effort to set an example to deter the growing number of Iraq War military resisters who are fleeing to Canada.  Since the Iraq war began, “at least 8,000” members of the volunteer military have deserted. While the military denies that it is taking aggressive action to deter Iraq War resisters, the facts indicate otherwise.

Today, Marines are actually hunting down Vietnam era deserters.  In the summer of 2005, 40 years after the fact, the Marines tracked down deserter Gerome Conti, 65, and the police arrested him. Conti was held 5 months, 4 spent in solitary confinement, and then given an other-than-honorable discharge.

There have been at least 3 Vietnam-era Marine deserters tracked down and arrested since mid-January of this year.  In one case, on March 9th,  US Marine Allen Abney, 56, who has been living in exile in Canada since 1968, was arrested when crossing the Canadian/US border and transferred to military custody to face penalties. Mr. Abney is a dual US/Canadian citizen who often crossed the border over the years for shopping or other excursions without incident.  

Fortunately for Mr. Abney, his arrest was covered by Canadian and US media. This may explain why yesterday the US Marine Corps announced that Abney will probably be released from Camp Pendleton within a week. And, in the case of Mr. Abney, it is emphasized that he is not being held in a jail.

A common theme in the media reports are military statements that his arrest was not “an attempt to crack down on military deserters.”  Further, the Marine Corps stated that his arrest was “simply the result of a better checking and record-keeping process.”

Better “record-keeping process” indeed. The interesting fact is that Abney had crossed the border hundreds of times before his arrest. This trip Abney was arrested at the border because his name was in a database showing that he was wanted on a federal warrant that is issued when a service member deserts for 30 days or more.

Unfortunately, Abney never applied for amnesty  under the Carter program. However, it does not seem a stretch to theorize that this database is a new feature at the US-Canadian border or otherwise Mr. Abney would have been detected at one of the other hundreds of trips where he crossed the border. Would be interesting to find what other types of Americans, besides Vietnam war deserters, are listed in this database.

Today, military resisters from the Vietnam War remain in legal jeopardy because no universal amnesty was ever granted. Amnesty and pardon are two kinds of leniency recognized by law. The “practical effect of amnesty is virtually identical to that of a pardon, and American law recognizes little distinction between the two forms of clemency.”  Politically, a pardon forgives the crimes, while an amnesty is based on a reason to forget the offenses.  

During the Vietnam War era, 2 presidential amnesty programs were implemented by Executive Order. In 1974, President Ford offered a restricted, conditional amnesty but the offer expired on April 1, 1975.
The program was deemed a failure as only 19% of eligible persons applied for the Ford amnesty. And, in 1977, President Carter provided unconditional amnesty for draft resisters and a limited pardon for military deserters.

During the Vietnam War, war resisters were generally classified as either draft law violators or military resisters, which included AWOL and desertions.  It is estimated that 25,000 draft resisters still live in Canada. There are no reliable estimates regarding military resisters, which may number in the thousands. Today, military resisters still face legal actions and many are arrested when they return to the US:

“Today military resisters who return to the United States may still face the possibility of punishment in the form of criminal prosecution or a bad discharge. GI resisters, including those living in exile, remain in legal jeopardy. No universal amnesty was ever granted them. The two 1970s limited relief programs expired decades ago. Every year a small number are arrested upon returning to the US.”

“Unfortunately, universal and unconditional amnesty was never granted to military resisters. It is estimated that only 28,420 Vietnam Era military resisters received any form of legal relief – many of them received bad discharges – while another 550,000 never received any form of relief. To place this figure in perspective, the number of ex-GIs who never received legal relief roughly equals the number of soldiers who participated in the Gulf War of 1990 and 1991. This is another way in which our country has yet to fully come to terms with the legacy of the war in Southeast Asia.”

In Canada, peace activists plan a peace monument to honor Vietnam War draft resisters who fled to Canada and the Canadians who provided aid to be recognized at a reunion in July of this year. The swiftboating of Democrats who were war heroes, like Sen. Kerry and Rep. Murtha, show that the GOP is not ready to embrace war resisters as peace heroes. But it is long past overdue for this country to move on past the Vietnam war. It is time that President Bush used his Executive Order powers to show that he truly is a “compassionate conservative” by providing amnesty to all Vietnam war resisters, both draft resisters and military resisters, that is unconditional and operates as a matter of law with no need for applications or board reviews to determine who is worthy of amnesty. Rather, as soon as Bush signs his name to the Executive Order, amnesty is granted to all.

It is true that past amnesty distinguished between a war deserter as a “major, serious offense” versus draft evasion as just a “serious offense.” But, in the context of the Vietnam war, there was no practical difference between draft law violators and military deserters other than the primary factors of money and contacts. For many draft law violators, they had sufficient money and contacts to leave the country whereas many poorer young Americans simply faced conscription. In fact, the distinguishing fact between draft law violators, military deserters and a new category that we will call “other evaders” once again is money and family connections. The “other evaders” included the young men whose family had the money to buy a medical deferment for pimples on fannies, send their son to college for an educational deferment, or had the connections to get their son on the coveted National Guard waiting lists. While not recognized by prior amnesty programs, this category of “other evaders” was used by middle class and rich families to keep the son from being used as canon fodder in Vietnam.

However, the purpose of the Ford and Carter amnesty programs was to forget the “offenses” of refusing to serve in Vietnam. President Ford proclaimed that amnesty was needed because “reconciliation calls for an act of mercy to bind the nation’s wounds and to heal the scars of divisiveness.” It is time for this country to truly heal from the collective wounds of the war, to free these Americans from their isolation from family and friends, to free their minds and souls from the political myth that somehow their evasion was more offensive than the deferments and other evasions practiced by the middle class and rich, and to free them from being toys in Bush’s game of psychological warfare against the men and women today who choose not to serve in the Iraq war.

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