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New book from a Maine veteran explores the movement to give amnesty to war deserters

Michael Uhl (right) with his wife Susan Connery and dog Jack.
Michael Uhl
Michael Uhl (right) with his wife Susan Connery and dog Jack.

This September will mark 49 years since former President Gerald Ford issued the first partial amnesty to deserters from the Vietnam War, which did not apply to draft evaders who had fled to Canada.

Three years later, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon that included draft evaders.

To defend those Americans who chose not to participate in the war, Michael Uhl — a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Walpole, Maine — co-founded the Safe Return Amnesty Committee.

Now, he tells the story in a new book, Safe Return: Inside the Amnesty Movement for Vietnam War Deserters.

As he told Maine Public's Irwin Gratz, the amnesty movement that emerged in the seventies was anchored to a firm political and moral stance:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Uhl: And we felt that the military resistors reflected the class bias of the Vietnam War, that 90% of those of draft age over that 10-year period had not served.

And the 10% of those who did serve, including a smaller percentage of those, like me, who actually were in the war zone, came from the lower strata of the American working class and were overwhelmed and were disproportionately also people of color.

Michael Uhl around the time he served in the Vietnam War.
Michael Uhl
Michael Uhl around the time he served in the Vietnam War.

Gratz: Russia, of course, also recently saw a flight of young from their country, and the possible military service after the invasion of Ukraine.

While there are parallels here between both cases, there have been extremely high rates of desertion and draft evasion in Russia as there was in the United States. In the United States, there were almost 500,000 cases of desertion between 1963 and 1973. This reflected extremely high level of discontent in the ranks of the armed forces, and the Ukraine war, resistance among Russians is ongoing.

But in the first week, following Putin's call-up of a draft, over 100,000 Russian draft-age men fled, and in the weeks following thousands more fled to Finland, to Armenia and to Turkey, so many so that those countries and most of the countries of Europe, unlike in the Vietnam War, they closed their borders and no country thus far has offered asylum to those draft resistors.

The key here is that the rates of resistance in unpopular wars, do not stir patriotism among those called upon to fight. But still you have the, you know, to go back to the American deserter cases, this question, here's the dilemma.

The opprobrium that's associated with the idea of desertion is extremely high. So here we have a case when the shoe is on the other foot. Americans might be unsympathetic to deserters among our own country people. But when it comes to the Russians, those cases are extremely widely reported and highly praised.

There's another parallel here between these two wars. In fact, if you are the invaded, there's one set of responses. If you're the invader, then it's a different set of responses. If they had been called upon to defend their own countries, then I'm absolutely certain you would not have had these high levels of desertion.