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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Safe Return: Inside the Amnesty Movement for Vietnam War Deserters
by Michael Uhl
Michael Uhl is a familiar name, although I couldn't place him when I saw his book on the VVAW list of titles needing reviewers. I looked him up on Amazon; he has authored a dozen books! Three are about his Vietnam experience and anti-war work; I had to respect that. The others are tourist guides to Chicago, and I don't plan to visit there anytime soon.
Safe Return is a fascinating book, and Michael Uhl is a good, effective writer. From the very first page, this is a gripping story, a memoir of his experiences in the years after he returned from Vietnam. Together with a trusted friend, Tod Ensign, who was not a veteran, Uhl created an organization called Safe Return and worked tirelessly for years to seek total amnesty for "draft resisters" and deserters, most of whom lived overseas to avoid arrest or interference from FBI and CIA spooks. Mr. Ensign is no longer with us but would approve of this book. Michael Uhl worked tirelessly at a time when amnesty was definitely off the table. Although they worked closely for several intense years, there is not a single negative word or hint of disapproval of Ensign's actions anywhere in this book. Slowly, carefully, they moved the idea of amnesty toward the center of the table, attracting attention with events that drew the mainstream media. When a few exiled guys came home, Uhl and Ensign attracted a lot of media by addressing the GI's record or history and staging public events that would shine the spotlight on wives and families affected by the situation. In one case, they shepherded a deserter back, saw him sentenced to seven months confinement, and helped him be released in time to catch a flight to Sweden and attend the birth of his son!
If there is one thing I felt was missing from this history; it might have been more impactful if he told us a little about what the deserters and draft refusers have accomplished since the amnesties. Were they able to return to mainstream American society and raise families that have contributed? Where are they today, and what lasting effects did their traumatic separations from home and family have on them? They drop out of sight in Uhl's book once they achieve their pardons or serve their sentences.
What makes this book worthwhile are the intense stories of human beings who have turned their backs on the American military's institutional violence. Surprisingly, Safe Return received a lot of grief and opposition from other organizations that were also seeking amnesty for Vietnam War deserters. Very few were doing this work, especially at first, and it is tragic to read about other organizations in Canada, Sweden, and England, including VVAW, who seemed to be opposing Safe Return to gain publicity and appear as the most effective group addressing this problem. These revelations were especially moving for me, as I have been treated this way. It is sad to find that other groups want to "use" you in some way to attract attention is untimely or off the subject, but that might lead to attracting donations of money or additional publicity. I have told some of them, "I was used by the military, and I won't allow myself to be used again." Still, as the head of a desperately needed international organization, Michael Uhl had to swallow his pride at times and utilize all of his diplomatic skills to work together with other organizations to do what he could to right a terrible wrong.
As the Vietnam War neared an end, America's cruelty and barbarism were coming home to many cities, towns, and college campuses throughout the American landscape. The FBI pursued anti-war activists with terrifying methods, and there were no more effective activists than the young men who went into self-prescribed exile overseas. They knew they could never return and visit relatives or friends. Some have never returned, but the desire to come home won out for many. But, they did not want to go to jail for acting upon their moral beliefs.
American "authority," the frightful entity we called The Establishment, had come into full bloom, and anyone who questioned or refused to participate was treated with unthinkable harshness. Michael Uhl saw the terrible extent of this institutional cruelty up close, and his book records the history very movingly and effectively. Of course, in the end, President Jimmy Carter granted full amnesty to Vietnam-era deserters and draft resisters, but the sad history of those times must never be forgotten. The way the government treated a few of its dissenting individuals reveals much about the political atmosphere of the times. Safe Return presents an insightful look at a neglected tidbit of American history. It is a good read and recommended.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.