Published on Monday, May 28, 2001 in Straight Goods
US Media Stonewall Canadian Journalist's Story of Vietnam Desertion
Montreal sportswriter Jack Todd returns to Nebraska and to a national media that doesn't want to revisit the nightmare war and America's moral lapses
by Mick Lowe
SCOTTSBLUFF, NEBRASKA -- Last week on Monday around midday a pronghorn antelope paused from grazing on the tender spring grass of the Nebraska Panhandle to gaze upon a passing scene: a tall man, no longer young, hunches over the wheel of a rented car, lead-footing it up the arrow-straight highway that runs north out of Kimball. The man's name is Jack Todd.
Todd is about to complete, not without some trepidation, a journey that began 32years earlier, when he left his home and family here and boarded a bus for a U.S. Army Induction Center in Denver, Colorado.
Although he swore an oath to his country and its military two days later, Todd did the unthinkable just before Christmas, 1969: he deserted from the Army in wartime and hitchhiked to Vancouver rather than serve his country in Vietnam.
Like an estimated 100,000 other young Americans who became draft dodgers (including this writer) and deserters, Todd chose Canada, where he remains to this day, over the prosecution of what he considered an unjust war in Vietnam.
Now a National Newspaper Award winning sportswriter with the Montreal Gazette, Todd has also done something that none of the rest of us has ever done: he has written, and just published, a moving memoir of the days and years both before and after he became a deserter from the U. S. Army and a fugitive from American justice.
Published simultaneously in Canada and the United States, the book's Canadian name is The Taste of Metal, while its American edition is titled Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam.
The Taste of Metal was warmly received by most critics and was a featured excerpt in the Globe and Mail's Book section, and in the Gazette. Desertion, on the other hand, has been studiously ignored by most American reviewers and the media at large.
A gifted schoolboy, scholar, athlete, the six foot seven inch Todd set a state high jump record that remained on the books long after he left the country, and attended the University of Nebraska on an athletic scholarship. Tonight Todd will realize a long-standing dream: he will read from the book - his first - before a hometown crowd at Scottsbluff's Copperfield bookstore.
What is far less clear - and this fills him with anxiety bordering on foreboding as he drives across the gently rolling, treeless hills of the Panhandle - is the kind of reception he will receive.
For Scottsbluff, population 15,000 is a deeply conservative town in a deeply conservative region that has been variously described as "the heart of the heart of the country", but also as "the buckle of the Bible Belt."
Patriotism and a sense of duty to one's country run deep out here, as they did in Jack's own family and in the families of most of his friends. As he recounts in his book, Todd's closest boyhood friend Sonny Walter saw combat in Vietnam, and never fully recovered from the experience. Another boyhood friend, Ron Bales, was killed in action there.
Had he written about almost any other subject, Jack Todd would almost certainly be assured a hero's welcome of the "local boy makes good" variety. But now, even three decades after the events he recounts, Todd fears he is as likely to be attacked verbally, and perhaps physically, as he is to be congratulated.
Because, as he has learned from telling his own life story, America is still living In the Time of Vietnam.
Contrast with Kerrey's treatement
That this is so was brought forcefully home by the story of another Nebraskan, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, which was published in the New York Times Magazine on April 25th, just two days after Todd's book was released in the U.S.
Although both their lives were irrevocably altered by the War in Vietnam, the two Nebraskans chose very different paths when it came to the War. Kerrey, who is three years older than Todd, had joined the Navy as a gung-ho warrior, ready to personally assault Hanoi itself, as he was fond of saying later - not without irony - "with a knife in my teeth."
Handsome, blonde and charismatic, Kerrey joined the SEALs, an elite naval commando unit, and, as a 25-year-old lieutenant, he became commander of Delta Platoon, Seals Team One, Fire Team Bravo, a seven-man unit that dubbed itself "Kerrey's Raiders."
Kerrey emerged from the Vietnam War as a bona fide war hero, the recipient of a Bronze Star and the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for military gallantry, and he lost part of one leg during his final firefight in Vietnam.
He rarely wore the Medal of Honor, though, and became an anti-war activist upon his return to the States. Despite Vietnam - some might even say because of it - Kerrey's life appeared to be blessed. He returned to Nebraska, where he became wealthy as the owner of a chain of restaurants and fitness clubs, and eventually he was elected a governor of the state on the Democratic ticket.
Kerrey's war-hero status, his youthful good looks, and his highly-publicized affair with Hollywood actress Debra Winger brought a rare touch of glamour to the Governor's Mansion in Lincoln. When he decided to move into national politics, Kerrey was twice elected to the United States Senate with relative ease.
But, like a hero of Greek tragedy, Kerrey was about to meet his nemesis, a reporter named Gregory L. Vistica. A specialist in national security matters, Vistica heard disturbing rumours about Kerrey's war record in 1998, and he began to scour U.S. Navy Archives from the Vietnam War era in search of confirmation or rebuttal.
What Vistica eventually learned was this: that, on the night of February 25, 1969, Kerrey's Raiders had attacked a tiny village on the Mekong Delta called Than Phong, 75 miles southeast of Saigon. Although accounts of what happened that night in Than Phong vary significantly, one thing was clear: 13 unarmed women and children were killed by Kerrey's platoon, who themselves took no casualties.
The most experienced veteran of Kerrey's Raiders, Gerhard Klann, would later tell Vistica that he and his platoon mates had killed the civilians in cold blood, under Kerrey's orders. Many of the particulars of Klann's account were corroborated by a surviving Vietnamese eyewitness who, according to Vistica, had no way of knowing Klann's version.
For his part, Kerrey has never actually denied the massacre, but he has never confirmed it either. "Please understand," Kerrey wrote Vistica in an e-mail message in December, "that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire." "It's entirely possible that I'm blacking a lot of it out," Kerrey conceded in an interview with Vistica in April.
At the heart of the dispute over the action that night is whether Kerrey's platoon actually drew enemy fire from the direction of the village. When first confronted with evidence of the encounter in 1998 Kerrey insisted this was so, though he seemed less certain in later interviews.
What is certain is that Kerrey gave his men orders to open fire with everything they had, and 1,200 rounds of ammunition were expended in a matter of seconds, or at most a very few minutes. Klann claims that Kerrey ordered the platoon to fire into the village huts from point-blank range. What is also certain is the sight that greeted Kerrey once he looked inside one of the hooches: "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead. I was expecting to find Viet Cong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children."
In repeated interviews about the Thanh Phong incident, Kerrey always stops just short of attempting to justify his actions that night. But he does place the events in a firm context. Because Thanh Phong and the surrounding region was a Viet Cong stronghold it had been declared a "free-fire zone," where American and South Vietnamese troops could open fire on "targets of opportunity" without the authorization of higher command.
Moreover, the ranking South Vietnamese official in the area, Tiet Lun Duc, was a strong proponent of the strategic hamlet program, where villagers were to be relocated into larger, centralized compounds that could be more easily controlled, and defended, by the South Vietnamese military and their American allies. "We want people to be government of Vietnam," one American official quoted Duc as telling the locals. "Come out with us, and we will take this area back. You who do not come out, we will consider you to be Viet Cong. You are the enemy. You will die."
What also appears certain is that Kerrey has lived with the terrible secret of that night ever since. "It's far more than guilt, it's the shame. You can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don't think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."
Kerrey was awarded the Bronze Star by a grateful nation for his actions at Thanh Phong. He never returned the medal.
Jack Todd elected not to kill for his country. He and Kerrey were at the University of Nebraska for one year together, though the two never met. While Kerrey was training for Vietnam, Todd began a promising journalistic career by becoming the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan.
Todd enjoyed summer student internships at ever more prestigious U.S. dailies - the Akron Beacon Journal, the Detroit Free Press, the Miami Herald - until, in the fall of 1969, the Herald offered him a full-time job. By accepting the position and not returning to University for his final semester, Todd lost his student deferment.
"There are things that can't catch you," Todd writes. "The Selective Service is not one of them." By a route that was torturous both physically and mentally, Todd ended up coming to Canada after beginning his basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington.
It is a decision that cost him his burgeoning career, his country, his family, and the woman he loved. Like many another American war resisters of the time, Todd gravitated to Vancouver's notorious downtown east side, where he became destitute and disoriented.
I had first met Todd when we were both at the Daily Nebraskan and, when I arrived in Vancouver as a draft dodger five months after him, Jack shared what little he had - a tiny Kitsilano apartment, food, and money - with me.
We drifted apart soon after, and have been in only sporadic touch over the three decades since, though Jack asked me to read his book in galley proofs. I did, and found it courageous and wonderfully evocative of the western Nebraska upbringing we both shared.
But, by confronting and retelling our story as war resisters, Jack also caused me to recall our actions of thirty years ago. I never once regretted my decision to come to Canada, then or now, and I was "pardoned" by President Jimmy Carter in April 1977.
Although I'm free to go back to the States I rarely do, and I consider this country, and my Canadian citizenship, one of the best things that ever happened to me.
A few days before the Kerrey story broke in the Times, Jack e-mailed me a heads-up about it, and I followed the revelations about our fellow Nebraskan with keen interest.
A week or so after the allegations about Kerrey were published I went to the Web site of the daily paper in Lincoln, the Journal-Star, to look for a story about something else and found an interactive reader poll.
The question: Do the allegations about Bob Kerrey (who has retired as Nebraska's senator four months earlier) change your feelings towards him? I make the mistake of clicking on the link and am appalled at what I find in a flood of responses from people ranging in age from 17 to 92, from all over the United States. They are overwhelmingly supportive of Kerrey. Several are openly critical of those who "fled to Canada." The tone, with only one or two exceptions, is very much "my country right or wrong," and I am given to understand that killing for one's country, even if that means gunning down women, children and elders, intentionally or otherwise, is on a higher moral plane than having dodged the draft.
It is as if we did not exist. As if there had been no anti-war movement, no My Lai massacre, as if nothing had been learned from history. Astonished and deeply disturbed, I call Jack. "For us up here, it's 'The war was wrong, we were right, even (Vietnam War architect and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert) MacNamara admits the war was wrong, let's get on with it.' "
But in the States, Jack senses, feelings are quite different. "You wonder if they took a poll right now, whether a majority of Americans wouldn't still support the war."
The book is proving a tough sell in the American market, Jack adds, and his editor in New York has even suggested over lunch that book editors at the major dailies like the New York and L.A. Times are reluctant to review it because they don't want to be seen as promoting the work of a deserter.
Is he still planning to read in Scottsbluff?
"Ye-eah, though I wonder what will happen. I don't mind being criticized, but I'm not looking to get into a fight over this, either." I know exactly what he means. The last thing I wanted to be doing right now is re-fighting the Vietnam War.
A wall of silence?
I call Jack's editor at Houghton Mifflin in New York, Elaine Pfefferblit, but she's reluctant to repeat her suspicions about The Times on the record. She also replies in the negative when I ask her whether there's a "wall of silence" developing towards Jack's book in the U.S. "It's early days yet," she insists, adding hopefully that the critical notice necessary to bring Jack's voice to centre stage may still be forthcoming.
How does she explain the warm reception the book has received in Canada compared to the cold shoulder it seems to be getting in the States? "Oh, well, Vietnam is not the tender issue up there that it is down here." We are not the only ones, it seems, re-fighting Vietnam. Jack has described Pfefferblit to me as a sixty-something leftist New York Jew, and I'm curious to get her take on Bob Kerrey.
What bothers her most, Pfefferblit says, is the way Kerrey traded on his "war-hero" status for so many years without ever disclosing anything about what the Times called that "awful night in Than Phong."
Can anything be done to heal America's Vietnam War wounds? Pfefferblit pauses. "I don't think so. I don't see that happening for at least the next thirty years." I infer she means until after we are all dead. "Some things should not be forgiven and should not heal. We should always remember that our country did terrible things . . ."
I'm eager to learn how Jack's reading went, so I call him first thing Tuesday morning at his motel room in Scottsbluff. "It was great," he says. "There were about a hundred people, maybe 20 or 30 from my high school class. There was only one negative guy, he was very a muscular knucklehead. 'Aren't you afraid to show your face around here after cowering in Canada and refusing to help defend your country?' he asked."
"I told him that my country didn't need me or anyone else to defend it, that it was never in any danger," Jack says quietly. Other than that, he adds brightly and with more than a hint of relief, "it was like a love-in. My high school basketball coach stood up and said even though he was a World War II veteran that I was a person of good character and that he believed I did the right thing by going to Canada. A classmate who was a state wrestling champion came up to me afterwards and told me he and a bunch of the other guys who came were watching out for me, that they had my back kind-of-thing, in case anybody tried to make trouble." His lone vocal critic, Jack was told, was a local cop whose brother had flown choppers in Vietnam. Jack thought he'd be careful driving around town, all the same. Old outlaw habits die hard.
"Next to the O'Brien quote," Jack concludes, "last night was the best thing that's happened to me because of the book so far." Pfefferblit has faxed me the quote from Tim O'Brien. If the Vietnam War is to have a literary chronicler who will live after us, it may well be O'Brien, who is both an award winning novelist and a veteran of combat in Vietnam.
This is what O'Brien wrote about Jack's book: "This book deserves a high place in the literature of America's war in Vietnam. Gracefully and eloquently and honestly, without falling into the traps of self-pity or misspent anger, Jack Todd has written a stunning account of his desertion from the U. S. Army in 1969.
"I doubt that Mr. Todd would call himself a hero - certainly most so-called 'patriotic' Americans would not - but having read this frank, beautiful memoir, I can think of no better term to describe a man of such incredible integrity and moral courage.
"In tight, powerful prose, Mr. Todd captures the terror and doubts and humiliations that must necessarily accompany such acts of spiritual and political valor."
Amen to that, brother, amen to that.
Mick Lowe is a Sudbury-based freelance writer and columnist.
© Straight Goods, 2000-2001