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The Taste of Metal: A Deserter’s Story

by Jack Todd

The searing stories of the Americans who went to Vietnam to fight and bleed and die are written in the novels and short stories of Tim O’Brien and in memoirs like Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War. The broader history of American involvement you’ll find elsewhere: as Caputo wrote in 1996, these are stories that have nothing to do with politics or power, influence, or national interests. They are – simply, horrifyingly – about the things men do in war and the things war does to them.

And the men who didn’t go to war? So far, there’s no lasting literature of the thousands who refused to serve. Of those who burned their draft cards and went to jail. Of those who dodged to Canada. Or who, like Jack Todd, came here as deserters.

It’s as a sharply personal account that Todd’s memoir, The Taste of Metal, works, but it’s also fascinating in its penetration of the pall of fear and doubt that prevailed over the United States in the late 1960s.

Todd, now an award-winning columnist with Montreal’s Gazette, was raised in Nebraska, where he was a recruitment-poster all-American boy almost from the start. Growing up in the post-Second World War American heartland, he was obsessed with soldiers and their wars. He was going to be a tank commander, he’d decided by about Grade 8. Or maybe a fighter pilot.

By 1966, when Todd was a high school track and basketball star headed on scholarship to the University of Nebraska, his fervour hadn’t waned. He was worried, though, that the war his government had going in Southeast Asia was going to be over before he could get there.

So he signed up for Marine Corps officer training. They were the best of the best and they looked the best in their uniforms. The deal was you concentrated on school during the year then spent six weeks of your summer’s vacation at basic training. On graduation you did some more training and then – presto! – you were a Marine lieutenant, aimed for Vietnam.

Todd didn’t make it through his first summer of basic before his knees blew out and the Marines deemed him NPQ – “Not Physically Qualified” – and sent him packing. But even as childhood dreams vanished in a medical discharge, he’d begun to understand that he wasn’t cut out to be a soldier, and that the more he looked at it, the likelier it seemed that his country was launched on a tragically mistaken course in Vietnam.

Flash forward to 1969: Todd was a rising young reporter on the staff of the Miami Herald when the U.S. Army got around to drafting him. They didn’t care about his knees; they didn’t care how committedly anti-war he was now, nor that he was in love with a Cuban woman, Mariela. So long as he could stand up and hang on to a rifle, they’d take him.

He thought about dodging to Canada, but there was too much between him and the border. Patriotism. Love of family. Fear. Shame. And so he went, to Fort Dix, Washington, where the Army cut his hair, dressed him in fatigues, and screamed in his face in preparation for Vietnam.

In fact, the nearer Todd got to completing basic training, the more it looked like he’d be spared from the war. He was a journalist, after all, and the Army’s call for press releases was endless. Yet, still, he didn’t know whether he could stay. The war was wrong, that was all there was to it. Then, over the phone, came a breakup with Mariela, and he was decided: he was going to Canada.

And so, in the first days of January 1970, Jack Todd deserted the U.S. Army and went to Vancouver. He had a little money and the clothes he was wearing. Everything else – family, career, friends, country, dreams –
was behind him. The worst part was, he couldn’t be sure that in abandoning all he hadn’t left himself behind.

Todd’s account of his years on this side of the border is filled with frustration and doubt and disappointments. He did find a way to survive, and stretches of happiness. For the most part, though, the life he depicts is a haunted one, ghosts of his former life and what might have been floating up at every turn.

The Taste of Metal is a powerful book: fresh in the writing, unflinching, courageous, affecting. Philip Caputo was, of course, right when he wrote that for those who didn’t come of age in the United States in the 1960s, it’s next to impossible to get a grasp of what those years were like. From writers like Caputo and Herr and O’Brien we have the stories of those who went to Vietnam and died or were wounded. From Jack Todd we come closer to understanding the terrible costs to those who stayed back and survived.