12 September 2007

Deserters, defectors, traitors ... a return to Dresnok

A couple of months ago, Thinking through my fingers raised the issue of Joe Dresnok, US defector to north Korea, and the decision of CBS to devote a substantial portion of a Sixty Minutes program to his case. I made comment which, to my distress, was clumsily expressed and so gave the impression that I had taken exception to his post - not my intention, and I regret my clumsiness.

I've been turning over in my mind what might lead to such radical differences of viewpoint between us. It's an internal dialogue that has analysed itself to death, and lost its way, and contradicted itself, many times over. I've decided to try putting fingers to keyboard, simply to put my own mind straight and perhaps lay it to rest. This time, I've run a rough draft of this item past Jim Putnam; I post it here with his blessing, and expect his side of the discussion in due course. Jim is one of the most open and compassionate human beings I know - which, for me at least, is what makes examination of our differences in this matter worthwhile.

There were two initial areas of disagreement between us, which I think need to be considered separately. One of them is how we view defectors or deserters in general, and Dresnok in particular. The other is whether or not the story should have been given the degree of prime US airtime which it received.

In response to my suggestion that news should not be censored by declaring a story off limits, Jim agreed. He pointed out that there is finite space for only a minority of possible news stories, that most never see the light of day, and that the difference lies in editorial judgment. In that, I have to concede, he is quite right. Jim and I have in the past agreed that something is out of kilter when extensive word counts are expended on the doings of Paris Hilton while Iraqi civilian suffering gets hardly a mention.

But ... there is no objective criterion for clearly distinguishing the exact line between editorial judgment and censorship. If the imbalance is deliberate suppression of the Iraqi items, it constitutes censorship. If it simply reflects a preference of most readers for Ms Hilton, then it does not (though it can still be poor journalistic judgment). If I argue for less Paris Hilton and more Iraq, I am debating an issue of perceived quality; but if I seek removal of all reference to Paris Hilton, I am attempting censorship of my own. If I object to each and every mention of Paris Hilton, I am trading a very fine and hazy line between the two.

In the specific case of Dresnok, Jim also described the item as a "non-story". I'm inclined to feel that the term cannot, by definition, be applied to an item which has aroused such passionate feelings in one who viewed it. If it matters, (as it obviously did to Jim), then it has to be a strong candidate with a claim on publication.

Enough of that for now. I'll pull it back in at the end, when I've chewed over the second aspect: attitudes to defectors and deserters.

Jim didn't use the word defector; he said deserter. I'm the one who introduced defector, and for a reason. To a large extent, the two words describe the same thing; every deserter to the enemy, which is the class of deserters containing Dresnok, is a defector; but the words have different emotional colours; defector has less personal charge.

The words have also, courtesy of the cold war, acquired different colloquial meanings by common usage. When Dresnok left his unit, he was deserting; when he chose to go and live a life in North Korea, he was defecting. Both aspects have to be considered. If I am to understand why this desertion, or defection, means so much to some people and yet not to me, I have to go back to first principles.

I place a high value (some who know me would say too high) on loyalty. But I also believe that loyalty has to be willingly given, or built, and earned, in the first place, not assumed or taken, nor imposed, nor inherited by default. I don't, therefore, feel an automatic disapproval of the defector. If I disapprove, it will be because a freely given loyalty was betrayed, or because unnecessary harm was done. A defector who sells the lives of those whose names s/he knows fro a position of trust, for instance, is despicable for that act of betrayal, not for the act of defection.

Dresnok’s defection does not seem to have involved any such betrayal. The unit from which he defected was already known to the North Koreans; their lives and safety were not compromised by his defection. There was a psychological propaganda effect, no doubt; but that was the product of Western psychology, not Dresnok's action - and besides, I do not recognise a duty on free citizens to act only in the propaganda interests of their state.

Desertion carries implications of a different sort of harm: running out on one's comrades in arms at time of peril, leaving them to their fate. That's not applicable to Dresnok's case, either: his unit were not in combat. I know that to leave a military unit is always treated as if it were under fire; but that's how militaries impose coercive unity over commonsense and natural fear, not a god given law of human behaviour.

So much for background philosophy. Now, what about motivations - the reasons which lead a person to desert and defect? There are probably as many reasons as there are defectors/deserters, but let's grab an obvious handful: idealism, personal gain, love, hate, fear, despair. I won't drag you through all of them, but the first matters to me on principle and the last, I suspect, is central to Dresnok's specific case.

The first, idealism, raises immediate issues for people like Jim and me, who regularly argue the importance of following our consciences. I don't for one moment think that Dresnok's desertion was an act of idealistic conscience, but put that aside or the moment and consider the principle. If I simultaneously believe that a deserter is always an object of contempt and also that a person must follow their conscience, then what do I make of (to take a clichéd example) the German soldier who, in 1943, deserts rather than execute French civilians or escort Jews to the camps? Or, to take a greyer example from my youth, the 1960s US conscript who deserted and then defected to Sweden rather than fight what s/he saw as an unjust war in Vietnam? How is the ideological deserter or defector (or, for that matter, "draft dodger") different from the conscientious objector?

I suppose one answer is that the soldier concerned should just refuse orders and take the consequences. That our young 1943 German, for instance, should accept the firing squad (or, worse, the meat hook) as the sacrificial price of moral high ground. I can't accept that - especially in the case of a conscript. I prefer that those of good conscience go on living amongst us as examples, not coöperate in their own extermination, incarceration or relegation to the social scrap heap.

Many moons ago, when I was another person, I voluntarily put on a uniform which I then discovered required me to commit what I regarded as immoral actions. I never had to make the decision between obedience and conscience, because my dilemma was noticed and seen as unreliability. I was discharged - but, if that hadn't happened, I sincerely like to hope and imagine that I would have had the courage to desert.

Move on to the particular, I'm sure I wouldn't like Dresnok, if I met him, but that's neither here nor there. Reading his file, the motive was probably desperation. You don't have to be a likable, noble or good person to be desperate. Dresnok had a miserable life. A bleak childhood led to miserable adulthood and armed service which he hated. I, too, would be desperate if his life were mine.

Exactly how desperate he was is illustrated by the means of his defection (it was, in my view, more defection than desertion; but feel free to substitute the other word if you disagree). He ran across a minefield. What would it take to make you run across a minefield? Me, I can't imagine doing it at all. Suicide would be far easier. I've seen what minefields do to human beings; the most likely outcome was a long, slow, agonising death - or return to his existing hell hole of a life but as a paraplegic. OK, it happens that he made it, and that's why we're discussing him now; but the odds were against it, and his desperation had to be pretty intense and terminal to make him try it.

If that level of desperation prompts me to criticise anybody, it would be the society in general, and the military in particular, which engendered it. I can think of few stories more worth attention in an overcrowded media than how a human being came to be so broken that he did the unthinkable. At a more abstract level, I think it good for any free society to be confronted, in serious depth and at serious length, with views of itself which question its own myths and assumptions.

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