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For Unconditional Amnesty


By Peter Frawley

OVER THE PAST few years the question of amnesty for war resisters has been debated farily thoroughly. You'd think that by now the more shoddy arguments, pro or con, would have been eliminated.

It's disappointing, then, to hear people continue to argue, as Betty Ford did recently, that amnesty would make a "mockery" of the sacrifices made by Americans who died in the war. Prominent people who use this argument tend to be those most responsible for the futile deaths. Moreover, there is even an organization of parents of soldiers killed in the war that is working for universal, unconditional amnesty. The organization, Gold Star Parents for Amnesty, has tried repeatedly to reach the President and Mrs. Ford, but with no results.

It's unnecessary to repeat here the basic arguments in favor of amnesty. Since 1972 polls have shown that a large majority of Americans think the Vietnam war was a mistake. It seems safe to infer that most of these people favor, or at least would accept, the idea of amnesty. At any rate, there seems little doubt that Jimmy Carter plans some kind of action on the matter. But the question remains: how far will he go?

During the presidential campaign Carter said he would grant a blanket "pardon" to the 4000 or so draft resisters still wanted by the military, and that he would consider the 30,000-90,000 deserters on a case-by-case basis. He said nothing about the 800,000 Vietnam-era vets with less-than-honorable discharges, the million who failed to register for the draft and are therefore liable for prosecution, and the thousands of civilian war resisters. A fair amnesty should include all these categories.

Those who oppose universal amnesty take pains to distinguish deserters from draft resisters. The latter, they argue, may have been honestly opposed to the war for reasons of conscience, since they refused to participate from the beginning. Deserters, on the other hand, took an oath to serve in the military, and then reneged on their commitments. Opponents often portray deserters as cowards who fled the battlefield.

In fact, the only difference between deserters and draft resisters is the time they chose to end their involvement in the war--before or after induction. And this difference related directly to class, race, and educational background.

Draft resisters are largely white, upper-middle class, and college-educated. Caught up in the campus anti-war movement, they had ready access to draft counseling and the resources to go to Canada or Europe.

Deserters, on the other hand, are heavily black and Hispanic, poor, and less-educated. They are also younger: many were drafted at eighteen. Many applied for conscientious objector status, but found it nearly impossible to secure once inside the military. Their only option was to desert or to protest--often earning a less-than-honorable discharge for the latter.

Carter himself seems to understand the narrowness of the distinction between draft resisters and deserters. "Where I come from," he has said, "most of the men who went off to fight in Vietnam were poor. They didn't know where Canada was. They didn't have the money to hide from the draft in college."

But Carter's proposed individual review of deserters' cases would inadvertently discriminate against those for whom he expresses concern. It would ostensibly distinguish between those left for reasons of conscience and those with less idealistic motives or who deserted under fire. However, President Ford's Clemency Board estimated that only one-tenth of one per cent of all deserters left during battles. The government also concedes that interviews with deserters do not reveal true motives, but rather the individual's ability to say what the review board wants to hear. This ability clearly relates to class, race and education.

Given Carter's own understanding of the issue, his campaign rhetoric of "love" and compassion for the poor, his indebtedness to black voters, and his characterization of the Vietnam war as "racist," it would be hypocritical for him to grant an amnesty that effectively discriminated according to race and class.

A non-discriminatory amnesty must also include Vietnam-era vets with less-than-honorable discharges. Bad discharges were issued disproportionately to minorities (who also according to the military's own statistics, received stiffer court-martial sentences than whites for identical offenses). Ninety per cent of bad discharges were issued administratively, without a court-martial, mostly for offenses that would not be crimes in civilian life. Yet the consequences for a less-than-honorable discharge is severe: veteran's benefits are denied, good jobs are almost impossible to obtain. Bad discharges help to account for the nearly half-million Vietnam-era vets who are unemployed.

The reasons for bad discharges range from anti-war protests to problems indirectly caused or aggravated by the war, such as racial conflict and drug abuse. Sometimes the reasons are listed vaguely as "apathy" or "disrespect." Men who never should have been drafted in the first place received bad discharges only because they were too much trouble to train. They are the victims of overeager recruiters seeking to fill quotas swollen by the war. The list of warcaused injustices accounting for bad discharges is almost endless.

THE REMEDY IS to change all discharges to a single-type. Again, a case-by-case review would be discriminatory and unnecessary. To be totally fair and comprehensive, Carter's amnesty should also waive the section of the U.S. Immigration Act that prohibits re-entry, even after charges have been dropped, of men who have avoided military service and subsequently changed their citizenship. Amnesty should also expunge the criminal records of the thousands of civilians arrested during non-violent protests and grant immunity from prosecution to men who did not register for the draft.

And it should be an amnesty, which makes no judgment, as opposed to a pardon, which implies guilt. Many who are eligible for amnesty or a pardon have indicated they would refuse to accept the latter, since they do not believe they committed a crime by refusing to participate in an unjust war.

Jimmy Carter has nothing to lose by declaring a universal, unconditional amnesty. Groups like the VFW and the American Legion, who are adamantly opposed to any form of amnesty, will probably protest even if Carter proclaims only a partial amnesty or "pardon." But a limited amnesty would generate protests indefinitely among the excluded victims of the Vietnam tragedy. It would certainly subvert any goal of reconciliation.

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