Desertion In the Time of Vietnam ,by Jack Todd

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by Jack Todd

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Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd

Hardcover - 293 pages
First Edition, April 23, 2001
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN 0-618-09155-6

            Jack Todd (born 1946) wasn't a pacifist when he was a kid growing up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He and his best friend Sonny Walter played war, and amused themselves by fighting until they were bloody. They carried rifles on hikes in the woods, fantasized that they were searching for fugitive serial killer Charlie Starkweather, and shot at anything that moved. They were also trouble-makers, and Todd describes his adolescence as the time when he graduated from throwing stones at street lights to drag racing on Main Street. [58-59]

Desertion In the Time of Vietnam by Jack Todd

            Jack's dream to become a United States Marine came true, but the Corps discharged him in 1967 because of a knee injury.

            He was a reporter for the Miami Herald in the era of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ted Kennedy's drive off the Chappaquiddick bridge, Charles Manson's massacre, and Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's first steps on the moon. It was also the era of the Nixon-Agnew administration -- with the great cultural divide between love-it-or-leave-it and the peace movement. It was the era of the police riot at the Democratic National Convention [20-45].

            Jack and a young Cuban-American woman named Mariela were in love.

            Sonny fought in Vietnam, and Jack saw him come home an emotional wreck, afraid of everything from noises to darkness.

            In 1969 Jack received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. Sonny begged him to go to Canada, and showed him photographs of the gore. Nevertheless, Jack reported to the induction center in Denver. He felt a bit of envy for a lucky guy who had been seriously mangled in a motorcycle accident and got sent home 4-F, but Jack was told he was 1-A, and in 1970 he went to basic training. [71]

            Experiences in basic training caused his conscience to torment him ....

Excerpts from Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd [103-104]

            ... On a rainy afternoon ten days before Christmas we go for bayonet training.

            ... We spend the rest of the afternoon screaming 'Kill!' driving the bayonets into the dummies. 'Stick it in his bellybutton and pull UP!' the sergeants yell. 'Tear his guts out! If you cannot free your weapon after he is dead, fire one round and your weapon will come free!' (But if you had one round, we want to ask, wouldn't you just shoot him dead in the first place?)

            ... We're halfway to the barracks when we hear the bells of the base chapel tolling the old Christmas carol: 'Peace on earth and mercy mild / God and sinners reconcil'd.'

            ... Peace on earth, bayonets and church bells. I feel like I've been slapped. Screaming 'Kill!' and then hearing 'peace on earth' from the chapel. What are we supposed to do? Get down on our knees and pray to God for a chance to stick a bayonet in a man's bellybutton and pull 'UP'? I feel sick, disgusted with myself as much as anything. The young guys, the men who believe in the war, you can't blame them. But I know better. I know the brass in the Pentagon wuld find it perectly moral and acceptable to go to chapel and sing Christmas carols and pray for the strength to kill some poor Vietnamese peasant, but it's wrong, and their version of muscular Christianity does not make it right.

            ... 'Get your ass back to the back of my platoon, Private, and when we get back you are doin' pushups until you're ready for Social Security!' There's no point in arguing. The sergeant is right. I am messing up his platoon -- and I don't belong in this man's army.

            During the 1969-1970 Christmas leave, Jack hitchhiked to California, then north, and escaped to Canada.

Excerpt from Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd [138-139]

            You wake one morning, haggard and unshaven, and you feel the pursuit at your back even if it's not there yet. You see it in the mirrored sunglasses of every highway patrolman, every short-haired guy in a suit who might be an FBI agent, You become lean and nervous and watchful, you glance back along the street to see if anyone is following, you sleep with your pants and shoes beside the bed for a quick getaway. I'm not yet wanted for desertion, not even AWOL until midnight, January 4, when my leave expires. I have every right to be drifting around the U.S., a young soldier on leave, my destination no one's business but my own -- but once you begin to think like an outlaw, you never go back. Never. Within a few days I will be wanted, within a month J. Edgar Hoover's crewcut FBI men will officially start looking for me. I have a head start, because I'm already looking back over my shoulder for them.

            I should hitch straight to Seattle now, but there is unfinished business: if I am going to leave America forever, I have to see San Francisco first. If America has a soul and conscience, it is in San Francisco. The Berkeley free speech movement, Haight-Ashbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the City Lights bookstore, Ginsberg and Kerouac and Gray Snyder, Henry Miller up in Big Sur, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead.

Table of Contents

Desertion In the Time of Vietnam ,
by Jack Todd

Prologue : Waiting For Charlie,
  Nebraska, 1958			  1

Part I	   Tending To Ruin		  9
Part II    In The Winter of Altamont	 67
Part III   Nothing Left to Lose 	153
Part IV    Fault Line			235

Epilogue - August, 1999 		279
Acknowledgements			291

            The boss at the Vancouver Sun congratulated Jack on his escape and gave him a job, but a strike put him out of work a week later. [185-194] After years of assimilation, Jack eventually became an award-winning sports columnist for the Montreal Gazette, and still lives in Montreal.

            Jack has made several trips back to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, which he still calls "home" -- it's like "looking for ghosts" but "it's still home." [282] In 1975 he saw his mother for the first time in six years. Jack's father died in a traffic accident in 1984, and Jack returned for the funeral. He went home again in 1985 for his 20th high school reunion. However, after Jack's mother died in 1988, the Reagan administration prohibited him from going home for the funeral, despite President Carter's earlier amnesty for all draft resisters and deserters. [284]

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for

            The book is more than the memoir of Jack Todd. Although he often tells the story with an Alice's Restaurant style of ironic humor, there can be no overstatement of how sad the reality is. It's the unfortunate story of a whole generation of idealistic youth who wanted to change the world, but who were not only ideologically but also personally stomped down by the unfeeling politics beyond their control. link
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Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd

Book Description
From the Publisher

          In 1969, Jack Todd was twenty-three and happy beyond his dreams. He had left behind a hardscrabble youth in a small Nebraska town, had an exciting and enviable job as a reporter on the Miami Herald, and was wildly in love with his beautiful Cuban-American girlfriend. As the war in Vietnam drew closer, he assumed that he would fight, as the men in his family had always fought, though he was increasingly troubled by America's role there. His oldest friend had just returned from Vietnam and was already showing signs of the war-caused trauma that would destroy him; he had seen and done things too terrible to describe. He begged Jack to dodge the draft, to go to Canada. Nevertheless Jack entered the army and completed basic training when, on Christmas leave, he made an agonizing decision. By now deeply opposed to the war, he crossed the border into Canada, leaving behind his family, the girl he loved -- and his beloved homeland.

          Now one of Canada's most successful journalists, Jack Todd is a remarkable writer of great power and vibrancy. It has taken him thirty years to come to terms with the guilt and shame of desertion, to break the silence, to tell this controversial, important, profoundly American story. In a dark century, when many "only obeyed orders," he chose not to. This is an intensely moving personal story told with passion and literary verve, as well as an eloquent account of a tortured time in American history. It is hard to put down, and impossible to forget.

Book Review
reprinted with the permission of

          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

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Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd
Published 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-6180-9155-6

From the Back Cover

"America lost some of its best men in the Vietnam war - including those who chose exile. Desertion mitigates that loss by bringing back a voice, long missing, to finish the story. Jack Todd's is a clear, brave, truthful rendition of the other experience this nation had, and we need it now more than ever."

-- James Carroll, author of
An American Requiem : God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
Constantine's Sword : The Church and the Jews -- A History

"Jack Todd has written a deeply personal, wholly compelling memoir about a time in American history that haunts us all. We can only be grateful for the power and straightforward honesty of his writing. This book will live."

-- Robert Kotlowitz, author of
Before Their Time : A Memoir

"Desertion is an intensely moving, unique war story. In a voice that captures both the moral stalwartness and impetuousness of youth, Jack Todd delineates the hidden costs of the Vietnam war, how it not only tore apart the lives of the men who served, but equally derailed the life on one man who refused to serve."

-- Jill Ciment, author of
Half a Life
Teeth of the Dog : A Novel

"Jack Todd, in his remarkable, harrowing tale, shines light on an all too easy forgotten aspect of the Vietnam era, with the immediacy of a journalist and the lyracism of a novelist. Desertion is a fascinating read, all the more so for its being true."

-- David Rakoff, author of
Fraud : Essays

This is an link for ISBN 0618091556 --
Desertion In the Time of Vietnam , by Jack Todd (Nonfiction)

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by Jack Todd