The Lieutenant

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1970.  I am sitting on the edge of a stone fountain in a plaza in downtown Vancouver, watching the peace demonstration all around me.  Having deserted from the United States Army just a few months ago, I finally have Landed Immigrant status, a job, and a rented room of my own.  As was the tradition of American army deserters in Canada, I am wearing my army field jacket with my name and unit patches on.  While this made us vulnerable to targeting by the police – we were, after all, wanted by the F.B.I. – it also showed our solidarity and deserter esprit de corps.  Next to me sat a Chinese Canadian civilian friend of my age, ironically wearing an American army jacket he’d bought at a surplus store.  All around us the crowd swirled and chanted anti-war slogans.

As I look through the crowd, I notice a man unlike any other man there.  Like me, he wears a U.S. Army field jacket. But this man walks like a tiger.  He stands straight and tall, and his eyes look hard ahead with a thousand yard stare.  Although he is Caucasian, his skin is dark and weathered from the sun.  His aura reeks of death.  He walks the determined walk of a soldier on a mission.

The man spots me watching him at a distance.  I have looked at him a little too long, and he sensed it.  He turns his head and meets my eyes.

The man immediately turns and walks straight toward me.  As he gets closer, I see the black 1st Lieutenant’s bars, the Airborne (paratrooper) jump badge, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and his unit patches on his jacket.

“What the hell is an elite Airborne officer doing here in Canada?”  I think. “Is he here to arrest me and drag me back to the States?”  I have no idea what is going on.

He stops directly in front of me. Completely ignoring my Chinese Canadian friend who is also wearing an army jacket, he barks, “You an army deserter?”

“Yes sir!” I answer by reflex before I can stop myself.

“What was your MOS?” he commands.

“91A10,” I reply, again by reflex before I can stop myself.  “Oh, shit,” I think, “I’m really in for it now.”

“I’m a deserter too,” he says. “I got back from ‘Nam and I deserted the next day. I’ve been here a couple of days.”  I look at him in total disbelief. “An elite Airborne officer, deserting?” I think. “And why would he desert after fighting in Viet Nam? Everyone else deserts to avoid going to Viet Nam.” I have no way to make sense of what he is saying.  It would be years before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would even be invented, and I did not understand where he might be coming from. I had heard fragmentary stories of atrocities and horrors of Viet Nam and been influenced by returning soldiers saying the war was wrong and not to go, but I had never heard any officer criticize the war.

“I went to the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors,” he says, “but they won’t help me.  They think I’m a spy.”

At the word “spy” my blood froze. The counselors at the Committee were the experts. They organized the support systems for American war resisters in Canada, they set up the networks, they figured out how we could evade capture, and they screened all newcomers to weed out spies and troublemakers. If they thought he was a spy, who was I to question their judgment? There had been a recent article in the paper reporting that the F.B.I. was recruiting from among officers returning from Viet Nam.

“I don’t know anyone here,” he says, “will you help me?”

A rush of thoughts go through my mind.  I know the system.  I know what he needs to do to find a job offer, to sneak back and forth across the border, to apply for Landed Immigrant status.  But this is vital information as to how the underground railroad works. If I give him information and he is a spy, it would place all the other deserters and draft resisters at risk. The F.B.I. would know our system, and this would help them target us.

Yet, his plea seemed urgent and real. I didn’t know what to do. Should I believe him? I decided that I could not jeopardize everyone in order to help one man whom I didn’t even know.

“No,” I said. He immediately turned and walked away.

In the struggle to survive and make it in a new country, I forgot about this one small incident in the many bigger events in my life. Only years later did I even remember and think about it again. While the decision I made may have been the rational one at the time, in hindsight I began to doubt myself.

Knowing what I do now about PTSD and how the horrors of the war affected the soldiers, I realize that it’s possible that he was telling the truth. In Veterans for Peace today, I know combat veterans who returned from Viet Nam and immediately joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and organized against the war. One Special Forces sergeant in Viet Nam returned and rode with Jane Fonda in the U.S. leg of her FTA (F–k The Army) tour.  Two former lieutenants, both Viet Nam veterans, share this very blog with me. One former Marine sergeant returned from the war and developed an anti-war GI newspaper on base with other Viet Nam veterans, part of a much larger movement of GI resistance including underground newspapers.  So this unknown lieutenant might have been telling the truth. Lieutenant, if you are out there somewhere and you told the truth, I apologize to you. I hope that you made it somehow, and are OK. I hope that the demons I saw in your body language and your aura have been released, and that your life now is good.

Yet in talking about this incident with friends today, others think it’s still possible he was a spy. They ask, “Why didn’t he say more about himself?  Why didn’t he explain why he deserted?  What didn’t he want to tell you?” Spy, or not?  I will probably never know.

But if he was a spy he didn’t do much damage, because our system continued to work. Draft resisters and deserters continued to flow into Canada, the underground railroad continued to help them, and they continued to survive and succeed in their new country. Now, forty-two years later, I have served a lifetime in a peace movement constantly spied on by our government. From COINTELPRO in the ‘60’s, being spied on by the San Francisco Police during Gulf War 1 as a member of United “Bay Area Veterans against War in the Middle East,” to continued federal electronic spying now, being spied upon has been a simple fact of life. One just marches on.

In the old days, I feared and hated spies. But in 36 years as a social worker, I have since gone with the police into people’s homes to stop them from committing suicide, and to rescue disabled elders from life threatening abuse and neglect. I have also talked with active duty and retired police officers, former CIA agents, and military intelligence veterans. I have heard their personal struggles and concerns, debated politics with them. At some point, one must see beyond one’s own fear and stop hating. They, like us vets, were used by the one percent. They are human, and while I may not always agree with them, I see their humanity clearly and compassionately.

Lieutenant, if you were a spy, I hope that you eventually reflected on the meaning of it all, that you somehow found your own peace, and that you lived to reach a comfortable and happy retirement.

About Michael Wong

Michael Wong refused U.S. Army orders and deserted to Canada during the Viet Nam war. He currently is a member of Veterans for Peace (vice president of the San Francisco chapter), and the Veterans Writers Group led by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is featured in the movie “Sir! No Sir!” about GI resistance to the Viet Nam war, and in the anthology, “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is a social worker with a Master of Social Work degree.

Comments

  1. spyshoppee says:

    beautiful

  2. Doug Zachary says:

    Mike, Thank you friend; for years I have wanted you to say more about those years in Canada; this story is a jewel. Thank you for sharing these memories. There was a balancing act in those days around who to trust and with what. I am sure that I made flawed decisions from time to time. I feel very strong about one incident in which I had fingered someone in the town I was organizing in and years later, too late, became convinced that I had been wrong. There was so much turmoil, so much at stake in our struggle as war resisters … we can be forgiven a fair amount. Remembering – this I know for certain: I was never going to give anyone up to the Police. Where I come from we do not rat each other out, in any circumstances. But, did I serve as an agent of the oppression in anyone’s live with respect to race, gender, class, etc? Have I not served, even, as an internalized colonizer within? Mike, I hope your Lieutenant survived well; I am very pleased that you have, and with such grace and elegance. I am delighted and surprised to be here at the barricades with you
    , Doug

  3. michael uhl says:

    Mike, It’s obvious that you gave this piece a lot of thought and work, and that it touches a deep place in your own consciousness. I worked with many US military deserters from 1971-76, and the only LT I knew, or knew-of, was co-editor of AMEX/Canada magazine, a voice of the US exile community out of Toronto. This LT, perhaps fearing deployment to VN, chose exile, and spent it productively, opposing the war and getting his PhD in history at York U. under Gabriel Kolko.

    In any case pig baiting was common in the Vietnam antiwar movement. As a former LT in military intelligence, I ran into a bit of it back then when I was first in the movement in New York. Some well known writer, an upper Westside liberal and out-of-touch elitist who probably thought all soldiers were war criminals started a rumor that I was a cop. It really upset me when I heard about it. I immediately called Noam Chomsky, who I’d been working with, and who knew the woman in question. He called her and that was the end of it.

    Still, as you point out, Cointelpro was real.. aimed with deadly force at African American groups in particular like the Panthers. But VVAW was also not immune from infiltration. The Feds had an informer in the VVAW DC office during the April ’71 encampment on the Mall, Dewey Canyon III, and, of course, the whole Gainesville 8 melodrama was resolved when the police informant among them refused to testify against the others. Both these incidences are in the historical record.

    As for the case you write of, it’s hard to get a handle on. If there were other officer-deserters in Canadian exile back then besides the one I mention, or in Sweden, they weren’t involved in antiwar politics that I’d ever heard of. As a principal at Safe Return: Committee in Support of Self-retired Veterans [Deserters] – a groups seeking to win amnesty for all war resisters, including those in the military, I was in a position to hear.

    There could have been other officers who just kept a low profile, became landed immigrants and figured they’d be in exile for the long haul, so adaptation, not protest, was a priority. That was certainly the case with many, if not most, of the expatriate draft evaders in Canada, and I suspect, at least some of the deserters as well. Although in the latter case, adaptation was often more difficult since deserters typically lacked class privileges that allowed draft evaders to find employment, and just generally transition to a “foreign” culture.

    The activist community in exile was always a minority, and the cadre activists like the LT at AMEX, even fewer.. As for your guy being a pig or a spy, I found that very unlikely given your description of his appearance and demeanor; he was anything but covert! Maybe it was stolen valor and he got his costume at the Army Navy store! But, whatever his station or role, your concern for his soul and welfare is genuine, and, for me, the strongest element of your piece.

  4. Nickie Ashley says:

    Thank you Mike. This, like all your life work, is wonderful and amazing.

  5. Floyd Henderson says:

    Mike, thank you for this piece. In many ways it has opened my mind. I went to Canada in early 1970, after battling with my draft board over CO status, refusing induction and the threat of my older brothers turning my whereabouts over to the FBI. I left the same day that I made the decision to leave. I packed what I could into my old car, called my friend Bill and asked if he wanted to tske a road trip to Winnipeg, and off we went. I went through all of what you describe, and probably the things you haven’t described. Once established in Winnipeg, I spent some time working with the Winnipeg chapter of The Committee to Assist War Objectors. I met several US military deserters and was always amazed and humbled by their stories. On one occasion I was asked to speak on CBC radio about draft resisters living in Winnipeg. As I left their studio in downtown Winnipeg, I expected to be met by the RCMP and the FBI, and was almost disappointed when there was no one there at all. On another occasion, I was retuning to Winnipeg from a trip to Toronto, arriving at the Winnipeg airport. A man approached me as I was walking out of the terminal. He asked me if my name was Floyd Henderson. When I answered that I was, he asked if I had any intention of returning to the United States. I refused to talk to him unless he told me who he was. He never told me, he just walked away. My high school girl friend’s family, back in Minnesota, received several visits from the FBI asking for my whereabouts, and requesting that they try and talk me into returning should they speak to me. There were spies out there, and we knew that there were people watching. At least one of the deserters I met in Winnipeg resembled your Lieutenant. The same 1000 yard stare and hard eyes, but haunted, too. I doubt that he was a spy, but who can know for certain. All we can do is hope that some peace was found by everyone in that awful time.

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