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9.25.2010

the taste of metal: war resister memoir by canadian journalist jack todd

Just before classes started, I added to my growing library of war resister literature* by reading The Taste of Metal: A Deserter's Story by Jack Todd. Todd is a sports columnist for The Montreal Gazette and a novelist. Originally from Nebraska, Todd deserted from the US military in 1970 and came to Canada, settling first in Vancouver before moving to Montreal.

A Taste of Metal is an excellent read - gritty and unsparing, compassionate and keenly observed. For me it was interesting to compare this book to the deserter's story I'm most familiar with, Joshua Key's The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq, which I've written about here and here, among other posts.

Josh's book focuses on why he joined the Army and his experiences in Iraq - what he witnessed and was forced to participate in. After Josh realizes he cannot return to Iraq, the book follows his desperate struggle to live underground in the US, before finally finding refuge in Canada - or at least among the Canadian people.

A Taste of Metal, on the other hand, focuses on the writer's wrenching decision to go AWOL and leave the US, and his struggle to find his footing in Canada. In this sense, it's an excellent counterpart to Josh Key's book.

Jack Todd never went to Vietnam. Fortunately for him, a childhood friend had been there and survived, and pleaded with him not to go. Even though Todd opposed the war, he couldn't conceive of deserting and leaving behind everything he knew. During basic training, he met a soldier who had applied for conscientious objector status, a figure of towering physical and moral strength.
Almost every night when I'm on supply guard duty, Powers drops by at some point. He doesn't seem to need more than three or four hours' sleep, so we sit there night after night, talking about Thoreau and Sakharov and Camus and arguing about the war. We agree that it's stupid, callous, destructive, murderous, probably illegal, and certainly immoral. We disagree only about our own responsibility for bringing it to an end.

Powers argues that if I believe it is criminal for the U.S. to go on killing people, then I have a moral obligation to refuse to fight: "Man, you're part of the machine or you're out. You can't have it both ways. You want to be a nice little soldier boy for a couple of years, do your time, then go back to Miami and join a couple of peace marches for your conscience? Work for George McGovern or Gene McCarthy in '72 and hope they straighten out this mess? Is that it? That's chickenshit, man. If we're all like you, then those bastards can go right on dropping napalm on babies for a hundred years, because nothing's going to change."

His friend's influence, along with the photographs his boyhood friend had showed him - including a necklace made of human ears, cut off of North Vietnamese - push his already troubled conscience to the limit. Todd decides to go AWOL.
Powers wants to roll at first light the next morning. I spend a sleepless night in the apartment downstairs. I feel the pain of old ties breaking, the sense of loss overwhelming: my parents, Mariela, all my old friends back in Scottsbluff, my lost career. All because of this war and the things it is doing to people. No matter what happens, I'm an American — as American as Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew or Dean Rusk or Henry Kissinger or any of those generals in Washington — so why should I have to go into exile for my beliefs? Why should I have to give up my life in Miami and shatter my parents and turn my back on my country and go into exile when I was born in the USA, when I tried to become a Marine Corps officer, when my patriotism runs at least as deep as theirs and possibly deeper? I would fight any war except this one, so why does it have to be this one? Who turned my country over to these maniacs anyway, and when are we going to get it back? What kind of madmen decide to defoliate an agricultural country on the other side of the world in order to "save" it? I have been brought up to despise injustice, and this is injustice — massive, powerful, state-supported injustice.

There is nothing left to be done. I have written editorials and marched, protested and argued and carried placards, worked for Bobby Kennedy, hoped for Eugene McCarthy after Kennedy was shot. And still the war grinds on, madness carried along by its own momentum. The only thing left is to walk away.

It's not quite that easy, but he does it.
The night of January 3, 1970, with Powers waiting to drive me to Vancouver early the next morning, I call home. My mother answers, and in the instant after I hear her voice I think I can't possibly tell her. Then I just blurt it all out

"Mom, I'm not going back to the army, I've made up my mind, the war is wrong, I can't be part of it, I'm going to desert and I'm going to Canada tomorrow morning."

She catches her breath. She's tougher than I am, tougher than Pop, tougher than any of us. She knows I need her to be steady and she is. She speaks slowly. I can tell she's determined not to let her emotions get in the way.

"Well, you know we'll support you whatever you decide to do. I know you've thought about this a lot and you know I hate this war, but this is going to be hard for you, real hard."

"I know, Mom. I know it's going to be hard for you, too. But I have to do it. It's wrong to be a part of it, you know? I feel awful but I don't feel like I have a choice."

"You're sure you don't want to go back and wait to see what school you get in the army? What if you get journalism?"

"That would just make it worse, If I did, I'd feel like I had to ask for infantry. Writing press releases for the army would be the most dishonest thing I could do. It would be like writing speeches for Nixon. It would make me sick."

"You know if you go you might never get to come home again."

"I know, Mom. I've thought about that a lot."

"And you know we might never see you again. We're getting old, your Pop and I. We can't afford to go traveling and we've never even been on a plane, anyway."

"I know. I'll find some way to get you up to Canada. You should see the world anyway. You can't just stay in Scottsbluff all your life."

"Oh yes, I can. You know what Faulkner said, how if a man was meant to travel he'd of been long-ways like a road or a wagon instead of up-and-down-ways like a tree or a fence post? Well, I'm like that. I was meant to stay put."

I laugh. At least she can kid about it a little. And she has to know that if not for her, I would not be going to Canada. She taught me about books, taught me to think for myself, taught me to be skeptical about people in power. If it wasn't for her I would never have become a reader, never have gone to university. . . .

Her voice breaks a little then. She knows how silly that is, talking about sending pots of food all the way to Canada, but somehow it's a comfort to pretend that she can. We talk around it awhile longer, but the truth is out there, dangling along the thousands of miles of telephone wire between us. Given her age, their poverty, the distance, it's possible we will never see each other again.

Being permitted to stay in Canada legally wasn't a sure thing, and came close to not happening. Once in the country, Todd floundered for a while, struggling with poverty and alcohol abuse on Vancouver's downtown Eastside.
There aren't many places on the continent worse than Hastings Street. Every town has its skid row, but Hastings is the skid row for an entire country. It's where you end up when you have nowhere else to go. You've bounced out of Winnipeg or worn out your welcome in Sudbury or taken the bus down from Prince George with the pay from a summer's logging fat in your pocket and forgotten the way back. It's warm enough in Vancouver so you won't freeze to death in the winter, so when the rest of it is gone — family and friends, jobs and money and hope — you stop here in this beautiful place at the tag end of the continent, two blocks short of the water, and you try to get numb enough to die.

I'm luckier than most. They've been taken down by cheap rum, glue, smack, wine, beatings, rape, prison, frozen nights sleeping on Toronto sidewalks — or maybe just the demons that live in the back of their minds. They end up here, dazed and broke and bleeding sitting in a doorway, sprawled on a park bench, shuffling along side walks slick with frozen spittle begging quarters from strangers scraping together enough to get a needle back into a ravaged arm or a flask of cheap brandy or a few filthy balls of scavenged Kleenex soaked with glue, jammed between the gum and upper lip so the fumes explode behind their eyes.

Days when they're almost sober they sit for hours in the White Lunch drinking coffee with extra cream and sugar because the cream and sugar are food, sort of, trying to eat a bit, hands shaking, the terrors of withdrawal nibbling at the corners of their minds. Then they score enough for another bottle or another needle and crawl into a doorway and pull the world shut behind them, nothing left except the warm, dumb place at the end of consciousness when you go down under the water for the third time. Bobbing beneath the surface, hoping not to come up ever again, not to go back to the shakes and the terror and the cops whacking the soles of your feet with their nightsticks when you’ve lost your shoes.

Hastings Street is a derelict's paradise, a symphony of misery. They come here all the way from Toronto and Halifax and Newfoundland, chasing a warmer place to die. The only thing that makes me different is the beast, because the beast has not yet crawled behind my eyes and taken over, although if I stay down here long enough it will get me, too. Beyond that there is no pretense. No point remembering that not so long ago I had another life, a job and a car and a beautiful woman and a future. . . . I haven’t started panhandling, not crazy enough or drunk enough yet, but that will come. That makes me different, maybe, but not different in a way you’d notice when we’re all sitting side by side on a park bench at the end of a winter afternoon, waiting for time to pass.

Todd flirts with dissolution, but surfaces intact. I found this part of the story particularly gripping. Many years ago, I briefly did some volunteer work visiting indigent people with AIDS at a New York City hospital. Most of the patients had been sex workers and drug addicts - but before that, many of them had lived ordinary middle-class lives, complete with families, jobs, homes. It's astonishing how easy it can be to fall through the cracks, and for many people, how impossible it becomes to climb back out.

Todd mentions that in 1970, after the US's secret bombing of Cambodia was revealed, after the murders at Kent State, the volunteer group that helped US war resisters in Vancouver was processing 100 people each week, with similar numbers arriving in Toronto and Montreal. Imagine 300 war resisters coming to Canada each week! I'd give anything to see that kind of resistance now.

Instead, we need passports to cross the border, and the government unleashes all its resources trying to kick out some 50 people.

One person who helped Todd - a total stranger who takes some very real chances for him - says, "It's hard for Canadians to find something we can do to help stop the war. If I have a chance to do something tangible, I want to do it."

A Taste of Metal is a ground-level view of resistance to war: what it takes to make that fateful choice, and what it costs. It's an excellent book.

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*
Pat Barker, Regeneration
Siegfried Sassoon, Sherston Trilogy
Matthew Bin, L.M.F.
John Hagan, Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada
Joshua Key, A Deserter's Tale
A. L. Kennedy, Day
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Christopher Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

[With thanks to Allan for always adding to my collection.]

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