The Marine Corps and the Deserter

Mon, 22 Sep 1997 10:36:03 -0400 (EDT)

Sixties folk,
As a former Marine officer who occasionally had to serve as the
military magistrate at Camp Pendleton, I would like to clarify what is
happening to this unfortunate 31-year deserter.
The first thing that everyone should pay attention to is that this
man is not in jail--the "brig," as Marines call it. Just as in civilian
law, the Marine Corps cannot arbitrarily place people in jail. The
command must convince a supposedly impartial officer, a "military \
magistrate, that the accused is a danger to him/herself or others or a
flight risk. (The "flight risk" provision exists because the military
has no such thing as bail.) I will admit to you that the average officer
serving as military magistrate, even though he/she was supposed to be
immune from command pressure and reprisal, would err on the side of
caution, ordering the accused to confinement rather than risk acquiring
a reputation for being too easy or, worse yet, too liberal.
I will further admit to you that, had this individual come before
me as duty magistrate, I probably would have considered him a flight
risk. Here's why: He is well-established with a job and a family in
Canada. What is to stop him from simply catching a bus off the base and
returning to Canada, never again to cross the U.S. border? (No, the
"restriction" mentioned in the article would not prevent that. He is not
under guard; he is only under orders to stay put.)
The fact that the military magistrate obviously felt no qualms about
releasing this man to a separations company tells me two things: (1) That
the Marine Corps is predisposed to treat this man as leniently as possible;
and (2) that he has already been offered a discharge in lieu of court-
martial. In fact, I knew of two or three other cases like this one in
which the Marine Corps did exactly that--promised the accused that he would
be discharged if he gave his word to await the processing. Believe me, as
one who served in Vietnam and later as an officer, the Corps is not eager
to rehash all the bitterness of Vietnam. Would that it were in a larger
sense; we'd all be better off.
The second thing to consider here, as I said before, is that he is
not confined or under guard. I'm sure that he could go at any time. I
suspect, however, that he gave the military magistrate his word to stay,
and that's what he is doing.
Finally, though we all deplored that war, myself included, desertion is
a federal crime. Does anyone seriously believe that, because the war was
unpopular and at least wrongheaded (if not immoral and unjust), the Marine
Corps has any choice about detaining this man and somehow clearing the
record? It looks to me as if the Corps is trying to get out of this as
gracefully and as gently as they can. Mark my words: In reasonably
short order, he will be back in Canada resuming the life he has made up
Now, whether the U.S. government should extend the amnesty for that
war is a different issue, but one the Corps has no control over. Where is
the "outrage" here? Don't forget that the man knew what he was risking
in crossing the border. Frankly, as a Vietnam veteran who in 1965 perhaps
made the "wrong choice," I have much more respect for people like David
Harris who, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, openly and lovingly broke an
unjust law with a willingness to suffer the consequences than I do for
this unfortunate guy who thought he could have it both ways.
Semper fi,
Ed Palm
Chair, Language Division
Glenville State College
Major, USMC (Ret.)