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Taking the Hard Way Out
By Paul Wisovaty (Reviewer)
GI Resister: The Story of How One American Soldier and His Family Fought the War in Vietnam
By Dick Perrin with Tim McCarthy
A couple of years after I got back from Vietnam, I was commiserating with a fellow college student who had just gotten his draft notice. At one point I said something like, "If you decide to go to Canada, I'll support you." His response startled me, although it shouldn't have. "That's easy for you to say," he snapped. "I didn't see you going to Canada when you got drafted."
Good point. It was a lot easier to oppose the war with a DD214 in my pocket than with an active duty military ID card. It was a lot easier to go to DC and shout obscenities at the White House while I was drawing the GI Bill to help pay for the trip. My dad (a World War II vet) had a lot easier time accepting my opposition to the war knowing I'd been there. Strutting around the University of Illinois in 1968 with a 9th Infantry Division patch on my fatigue shirt made all of that a lot easier. Nobody challenged me. I had the best of both worlds. Dick Perrin, author of "GI Resister," didn't have that luxury.
Perrin has written a very readable and personal account of "our" generation - the kids who grew up with John Wayne movies and listening to stories from their dads about "The Big One," the kids who believed everything their government told them, because anything less would have been heresy. There are a couple of differences between me and Dick Perrin (they both go in his favor), and they are these: he figured it all out a lot sooner than I did, and he had the courage to act on that knowledge.
Perrin takes us from his high school days in Vermont to his enlistment in the Army, his stint at Fort Sill, Oklahoma (where he was court-martialed for "leaving base without a pass"), to his desertion from active duty in Germany and subsequent relocation to France. The Paris chapter includes a cast of well-known characters, including Danny "The Red" Cohn-Bendit (leader of the Spring 1968 riots), Stokely Carmichael and Jane Fonda. He joined Carmichael in an American network TV news interview, and Jane even invited him to a pre-release screening of "Barbarella." Less prominent protagonists include several multinational expatriates, burned-out philosophers, and even an undercover CID agent. Halfway through the book, I almost thought I was reading a John le Carre novel.
But Perrin wasn't writing a spy novel, and he didn't spend his time sitting around a sleazy bar in Paris lamenting the fall of Western civilization. He was an activist. He spoke out against the war while at Fort Sill, which led to his court-martial for an offense that, at worst, would've gotten him one extra day of KP if he'd just kept his mouth shut. Following his desertion and move to France, he helped to organize RITA (Resisters Inside the Army), offering information, support and encouragement to other anti-war active-duty military personnel. RITA put out a newsletter called ACT, which was distributed "all over western Europe and beyond." When he moved to Canada a couple of years later, he and his wife, having formed the Regina Committee of American deserters, operated a safe house for deserters and draft-dodgers who had gone north of the border. Like I said, Perrin wasn't just another disenchanted Sixties guy who tuned in, turned on and dropped out.
I said earlier that Perrin has written a "personal" account. As may be assumed, dropping a bomb on your World War II-era parents that you're deserting from the U. S. Army could not have been an easy decision. By the time he was granted amnesty in 1977, he had reconciled with them, and they had come full circle to support his decision. If that sounds like a happy ending, I suppose it is. But there had to be a lot of bumps in the road to get there, and those bumps had to take a toll.
Perrin closes "GI Resister" with the suggestion that "maybe all the old hawks will have to die first" before this country can step back and "repudiate the terrible and unjustified devastation we leveled upon Southeast Asia and upon our own country." I'd go a little further. As I tell my high school students every year, I'm afraid that every last man and woman in my generation - the American Legion guys, Junior, me, Dick, Joe and Barry, all of us - will have to be dead and buried before that can happen. If I'm wrong (not unlikely), then Dick Perrin's book may have performed one very valuable service. Whenever that day of reconciliation may be, "GI Resister" may have moved us a day, a week or a month closer to it. If so, it will have done its job.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer.
He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.