The Case for Amnesty

We do not have and, in the circumstances, we cannot have accurate statistics on desertion and draft evasion for the past seven years. It seems likely that desertion has been as high in the war in Southeast Asia as in any other war in which we have been involved, although since draftees were allowed to buy substitutes during the Civil War, the comparison is bound to be faulty. In 1970 the desertion rate in Vietnam was 52 per thousand—twice the rate of the Korean war. In 1971, up to September, the rate was 73.5 per thousand. Many of these deserters were subsequently returned to military control. As for draft evaders, estimates run between fifty and one hundred thousand, but since many potential draftees took cover before being formally inducted, these figures are almost meaningless.

This high incidence of desertion and draft evasion is not, I submit, a commentary on the American character, but a commentary on the war; after all, there was neither large-scale desertion nor draft evasion in World War II, and the national character does not change in a single generation. What is by now inescapably clear is that the Vietnam war is regarded by a large part of our population—particularly the young—as unnecessary in inception, immoral in conduct, and futile in objective. What is clear, too, is that more than any other war since that of 1861-65 it has caused deep and bitter division in our society. The task confronting us is therefore not dissimilar to that which Presidents Lincoln and Andrew Johnson faced; it is not merely that of ending the conflict in Asia but of healing the wounds of war in our own society, and of restoring—it is Jefferson speaking—“to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

Both the term and the concept of amnesty are very old. The word is Greek—amnestia—and means forgetfulness, oblivion, the erasing from memory.* I cite this not out of pedantry but because it illuminates the problem that Senator Taft of Ohio has raised: whether there can in fact be conditional amnesty. Can there be partial oblivion, can there be a qualified erasing from the memory? Can draft evaders who take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Senator Taft—working out and presumably expiating their sins for a period of up to three years—during these years of forced service forget or erase from their memory this unhappy chapter of their history and ours? After the guns have fallen silent and the bombs have ceased to rain down on Vietnam and Laos, will deserters who are tried and punished for their military offenses be able to put the war out of their minds?

And indeed while these unfortunates are doing penance in various ways, will the nation be able to forget the deep moral differences that animated those who fled their country or their regiments rather than violate their consciences? If it is oblivion we want, or even reconciliation and…

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