America has spawned many ex-patriots during the last fifty years. Perhaps the most famous among them were African-American musicians who left the US for Europe’s less racist environment. This blog is about an American military ex-patriot friend that I saw again for the first time in 37 years. I met him on my first visit to Sweden in 1970, when he had recently arrived in Stockholm after having gone AWOL (absent without leave) from the US army. During Mynta’s last year’s tour, I had found his name in a Swedish DVD phone directory, which contained all publicly listed phone numbers for the whole country. Such a publication is not so daunting for a country of only nine million people. I had surprised my old friend with my call, but we were unable to meet until this year.
During his basic US Army training in South Carolina and Tennessee, all new recruits had to have a Southern name. I’ll call him Billy Joe, since he prefers that I not use his actual name. However, I have permission to tell his story, which I want to tell, because it illuminates a lingering unresolved national wound from the Vietnam war.
Billy Joe was trained in helicopter maintenance, though he went on to work as a helicopter gunner as well as an infantry squad leader. He didn’t want to talk about the gory details of his combat experiences during the war. But he did tell me of one episode, in which his squad was supposed to hike five kilometers into the jungle and set up a perimeter to observe potential enemy, i.e. Viet Cong, activity. Naturally, this was an extremely dangerous mission. Billy Joe questioned each of the men in his squad as to how long they had yet to serve before returning home. Their duty times ranged from a few days to a few months. He asked each of them what they wanted to do, and all of the men replied that they just wanted to go home safely. And so, instead of going deep into the jungle, Billy Joe led his men a relatively short distance from their base, from which they set up their guard perimeter, and spent a safe night with no enemy activity.
Upon his return home from Vietnam, Billy Joe was given a three week leave to visit his family, having only six months remaining to complete his total military service obligation. Exactly during this time period, the US expanded the war beyond Vietnam and invaded Cambodia. During the first few weeks of the Cambodian invasion, the US lost more helicopters than it had in several previous years in Vietnam. Around this time, Billy Joe received new orders to report for duty, to be shipped out to Cambodia. At this point, Billy Joe made the decision that he simply could not…would not return to his unit to fly helicopters in the Cambodian invasion.
While on leave, Billy Joe traveled to New York to visit his parents. His father was a World War II veteran, who had served the army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) section as a German-speaking interpreter during the interrogations leading up to the Nuremburg trials following the war. Billy Joe’s father remembered clearly that the Nuremburg trials had established the principle that an individual soldier could not be excused for committing war crimes simply by saying that he was following orders. In Billy Joe’s father’s opinion, the US occupation of Vietnam and subsequent invasion of Cambodia could in the future well be considered a war crime. Thus, his father told Billy Joe that if he chose to desert the military and leave the country, he would be proud to purchase his plane ticket. And so, Billy Joe packed his bags, told his parents and friends goodbye, and flew to Sweden to apply for humanitarian asylum.
I met Billy Joe at the Swedish school offering classes in Swedish language classes for immigrants. I had previously lived in Germany, but was during this time staying out of the US to avoid the draft. I stayed out of the country until the law changed in 1973, and the draft was abolished. Draft evasion is similar to avoiding a process server who wants to serve a legal document to notify you (for example) that you’re being sued. Military desertion is a crime that is punishable by death in wartime, and for which there is no statute of limitations in peacetime.
Billy Joe and I talked about the possibility of his joining me in my first (overland) trip to India, that I was contemplating at the time. It turned out instead that he met a Swedish woman, fell in love, and declined to join me on my trip. I saw him for the last time (until we met again yesterday) upon my return to Sweden from India and Afghanistan in 1973. By that time, he and his girlfriend had a young baby. (They never married. They later separated. Their son is now 37 years old, living in Munich Germany, and working in viral research.)
Billy Joe is now married to a different Swedish woman, with whom he has a 21 year old son. He has worked in various professions, from 22 years in the IT industry, to being a chef/restauranteur. After age 55, he lost his job working for a large corporation as an IT technician, following the decline in the IT industry. (He’s now 62.) He was given two years’ salary as severance pay. He is currently unemployed, receiving unemployment benefits from the Swedish government. He plans to open his own seasonal landscaping/garden design business as soon as weather permits. Unless an attractive job appears, he expects to become officially retired soon at age 62, at which point he will receive Sweden’s (by American standards) generous retirement pension benefits. However, the pension fund that he had built up through contributions during his 22 years working in IT is tied to the stock market, and has lost 30-40% of its value.
These are the main milestones of Billy Joe’s life path. I commented to Billy Joe that he had become completely Swedish. He answered, “No!”, he is still an American with an American passport. Inside, he still feels like an American, not a Swede. Though American law allows dual citizenship, Swedish law does not. Becoming a Swedish citizen would have forced him to renounce his American citizenship, which he does not intend to ever do. But because there is no statute of limitations for army desertion, Billy Joe has never dared to attempt to return to the states since he left back in1970.
I asked Billy Joe what it would take for him to be able to return safely to the states. He said he would need a presidential pardon. He’s requested it before, and the closest he came to receiving it was (perhaps surprisingly) from Ronald Reagan. Clinton refused a pardon but allowed his American passport to be renewed through the American embassy in Stockholm. He plans to apply again for a pardon as soon as a new Obama-nominated American ambassador to Sweden is confirmed. In the meantime, he’s traveled to Canada and other countries around the world. His parents used to visit him in Sweden every year. His father is deceased, and his mother is too old to make the strenuous trip to Sweden. Billy Joe calls to talk with his mother in Scottsdale every day.
We talked at length about the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. With a potential withdrawal from Iraq on the horizon, Afghanistan (and eventually Pakistan) becomes the next military quagmire facing the US. The main parallel is that the US is occupying a distant foreign country without a workable plan to rebuild the county so that the US doesn’t simply cause a civil war to break out, as between the Shias and Sunnis of Iraq. Our soldiers aren’t trained or otherwise prepared to create the cultural bonds with the people that would be essential for genuine nation building. Instead, they create ever more resistance among the general population by the on-going indefinite military occupation, the cultural insensitivity, and the collatoral damage of civilian deaths during military operations. Unfortunately, the US is repeating the same mistakes the Russians made in Afghanistan. We can’t expect to succeed by relying only on military “surges” to battle our way to success in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. This is the ultimate lesson of Vietnam.
Billy Joe reads the NY Times online every day. I confirmed what he already knew…that it is not yet possible for any politician seeking US national office to state unequivocally that the Vietnam War was a mistake…a futile squandering of over fifty thousand American lives. For a politician to state this (to me) obvious truth would invite the criticism that he was undermining our current military efforts, encouraging the enemy, and dishonoring those Americans who have already died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not a practical strategy for winning elections. (The same thing applies to any would-be politician who might think of declaring him/herself to be an atheist. But that’s a subject for another day.) Historical details about how Nixon and Kissinger prolonged the war to facilitate Nixon’s re-election only confirm the righteousness of Billy Joe’s stance against taking part in the Cambodian invasion. Nonetheless, this political taboo against openly and honestly examining the shameful episodes in America’s political/military history works against Billy Joe ever being pardoned for his crime.
It’s interesting that Billy Joe observes that the US has tried to keep a low profile in Sweden during the Bush years. From the point of view of many Europeans, the US has begun to resemble the former Soviet Union. The USSR invaded and occupied Afghanistan…now it’s the US’s turn. The USSR had its Gulag Archipeligo (Alexander Solshinitzen’s term for the Soviet system of prisons from which so many Russians never returned.) The US has Guantanamo, Bagram, and other secret prisons where internationally-agreed-upon human rights standards do not apply. The US has demonstrated that it will bring about regime change by invasion and occupation, if necessary, just as Russia did in Soviet Georgia last year.
Billy Joe says that though it hasn’t received any press, that there are a number of American soldiers that have deserted from Iraq. Certainly, the press has reported on the disturbing number of suicides among American soldiers currently serving. Another interesting insight from Billy Joe’s perspective is that there were many Vietnam draftees who had attended college and who really didn’t want to be on the front lines. In our current volunteer army, the education level of the average soldier is probably lower than in Vietnam times, since the military career option offers one of the only ways of escaping poverty and unemployment of the inner cities and poor rural areas who are suffering the most from our current economic decline. Also, in order to meet recruitment needs demanded by our current wars, the military has been forced to lower its entry standards in terms of education levels or previous criminal records.
I commented to Billy Joe that, in my experience, the Swedish lifestyle is closer to American than any other country I’ve visited. [Perhaps Canada’s is closest, but I visited there only briefly.] Still he wishes that he could go back at least just once to visit his old neighborhoods where he grew up in Manhattan and Queens. He has been able to visit vicariously through the amazing technology of Google Earth. He’s traveled through the old neighborhoods, recognizing that many of the same businesses are still in existence. The buildings themselves are mostly unchanged. I told him about my regular visits to my roots in Georgia and Alabama, as well as Susan’s visits to her old neighborhoods in Detroit. Billy Joe made an observation that had never occurred to me: the neighborhoods of New York City have changed probably less in appearance than those in any other place in the country. It’s just too bad that (so far) he just can’t go home again.