The Polk Progress was a Nebraska treasure that ceased publication in late 1989 after 82 years as a weekly newspaper. From 1955 until its last issue, the editor and publisher was the late Norris Alfred. In its last few months, the Progress had 900 subscribers in 45 states. Alfred was a remarkable Nebraskan with an uncanny eye for connecting the present with the future. Prairie Fire has collaborated with the Alfred family, the University of Nebraska School of Journalism and the Nebraska State Historical Society to locate and archive many of Norris's writings. We are capitalizing on our good fortune to present many of the Norris Alfred writings to our readership. We believe that his observations are as fresh and relevant to today's world as they were when originally written.
“I Want Him Home”
Sept. 19, 2971
Last November a journalism student from the University of Nebraska spent a day interviewing us and one of the many questions she asked was, “What do you think of amnesty for those who fled to Canada rather than fight in Vietnam?” We had managed to handle her previous questions, even coming up with a credible answer for “Why did you paint your doors red?” We replied, “The doors needed painting.”
We stumbled on the amnesty question. It wasn’t that we hadn’t thought about it. As we watched with dismay, disgust and anger the antics of our military establishment in Vietnam, we realized more and more how right those kids were who had the moral courage to protest individually (It’s much easier to protest as one of a group.) by refusing to be drafted and skipping the country. Our debate with ourself had always been a “Yes, but…” argument in the belief that the strength of a nation depends on citizens serving when called.
There has been much vociferous urging out of Washington, D.C., particularly during ex-President Nixon’s administration, for the need to “remain strong” since. In the view of Nixon and his cohorts, the world is a fearful place. Much as we have always discounted the self-serving rhetoric out of Washington, that paranoia had made an unconscious impression because it was constantly emphasized. It was the hard-sell technique of the ad agency boys, a segment of national life that was overly represented in Nixon’s administration.
What has finally brought us around to favoring unconditional amnesty for draft dodgers is the realization that our nation’s strength is not measured by its military clout. In a democratic society it’s individual strength that forms national strength. And individuals differ. Not only on what is right and wrong, but on every other subject under the sun, including the best brand of seed corn. It’s this diversity that is the strength. It must be nourished. There is no strength in uniformity. The fascists taught us that.
The military stresses uniformity—in dress, behavior and belief. It’s belief that’s always the sticker. In the name of our government the military establishment asked the draftees to believe that the Vietnam war was necessary; couldn’t be avoided; that halfway around the world in a jungle country the United States was being “defended”; the killing had to be. Many potential draftees didn’t believe that. Some of them had strong enough convictions they skipped the country.
The years went by and the war continued. Americans were killed. Vietnamese were killed. Nobody won anything. Nobody proved anything. A country was being physically destroyed. An entire way of life was irretrievably changed. Finally, four years after promising to do so, Richard Nixon said he “ended” the war. It didn’t end. All that ended was the sending of American combat troops to Vietnam.
American families lost sons. Entire Vietnamese families died.The Vietnam war caused a generation of sorrow in America and has resulted in a half century of sorrow in Vietnam. Neither the American military nor the civilian government has ever muttered one apologetic or contrite word for the “dubious ideals” that put this country’s soldiers in Vietnam. To be contrite or apologetic would mean admitting a mistake. This is the crux of the decision on draft dodgers and deserters. To grant unconditional amnesty is to admit the war was wrong.
Our government wants the draft dodgers and deserters to admit they were wrong and accept conditional amnesty and “earn” forgiveness for their sins. What is needed is a national administration big enough to admit error. To tell the boys—all is forgiven, come home. Those “boys” are 10 years older and most of them probably won’t come home, having made a new life in another country. But they deserve to have the stigma of criminal conduct stricken from their records.
Even if the U.S. government does grant unconditional amnesty, this still doesn’t solve the personal problem of the draft dodger, the deserter. He must face his fellow citizens when he returns. This won’t be easy. Whatever the government does, there are many who will always judge the draft dodger a coward. This is easy, the convenient rationale, even though it isn’t true.
Courage comes in many forms. There is the courage necessary to face an armed enemy, and no one denies the man in uniform his bravery. Also, one must remember it is easier to be brave when in a group. As one of many fighting the same battle, courage has support. This helps.
The draft dodger, the deserter, fights alone. He says, “I must not go along with the others in this war. I cannot agree.” He gives up his country, his family, all that he holds dear, because his conscience tells him he must. This is also courage and must be recognized as such.
Granted, some skipped out for other reasons, including fear. The majority did it because the Vietnam war was morally reprehensible. It was a war General Eisenhower warned against. It was a war General MacArthur could not understand, “Oh no! Not those little people.”
This nation lost part of its strength when those kids, who refused to accept the Pentagon’s propaganda, left the country. The nation needs them. As one Vietnam vet, a helicopter pilot, stated it in a Mike Royko column, when commenting on a boyhood pal who fled to Canada, “He can’t come home because he felt he couldn’t rest with his conscience if he was involved with killing people. My moral stance isn’t that clear. But I can live with his disagreeing with me. I want him home.”