Home Swede Home: Why Some Vietnam Dodgers Haven't Returned

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Bill Schiller, who grew up in Chicago, remembers an incident five years ago that convinced him once and for all that he was right to have stayed in Sweden rather than go back to the United States.

He was approached by a visiting U.S. college student, who was seeking information about an event in history. The student, who sounded a little embarrassed, said that his Swedish friends seemed to know all about this event while he knew next to nothing.

The event was the Vietnam War.

Schiller answered the young man's questions that day, but he left a few things unsaid.

He did not say that Vietnam was the reason he had come to Sweden in 1970. He did not say that he had come here to avoid being drafted into the Army, to make sure that he would not have to kill or die in a war he detested.

He did not say that Sweden was still home to 100 or so men like himself who fled to this nation to avoid that war, who have made lives here and intend to die here.

Schiller described the young man as ignorant and characteristically American.

``I was dumbfounded, shocked and not surprised at all,'' said Schiller, 47, a short, intense man with dark hair and a short, graying beard, recalling the exchange over a beer in a smoky Stockholm bar.

``Most Americans know nothing of the world,'' said Schiller, an English-language broadcaster with Radio Sweden, leaning forward across the small table. ``(They) can be so stupid, arrogant, dangerous and ruthless. They know nothing because they can't pay attention to anything for more than 30 seconds.

``The people of the United Mistakes have smiles that will knock you off your feet, but they'll smile while they slit your throats, saying they're doing it for your own good. I can't live in that country. I take some satisfaction in living in a country that hasn't been to war for a hundred and fifty years. And I'm proud I don't have blood on my hands.''

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an estimated 900 young U.S. citizens looking to avoid serving in the Vietnam War came to neutral Sweden, the only nation to accept both draft dodgers and military deserters as a matter of principle. (That principle has shifted somewhat in the current international atmosphere: Sweden's foreign ministry has said that it would be ``politically impossible'' to grant asylum to deserters from any U.N.-sanctioned war in the Persian Gulf.)

Most of the 900 left Sweden long ago, some bound for Canada, many headed back to the U.S. Only about 100 remain now, 20 years or longer after they arrived, 15 years after the war ended, 13 after Jimmy Carter issued the amnesty that gave them the option of going home.

Those 100, most of them anyway, stayed on because they succeeded in building satisfying lives; they established Swedish careers, married Swedish women, fathered Swedish-American children.

A troubled few are still here only because they have nowhere else to go. They wander the streets, passing in and out of drug clinics, jails and mental institutions.

The attitudes of the 100 men toward the land of their birth are surprisingly varied and not entirely negative.

More than a few remain contemptuous of the U.S., for reasons both personal and political; some of them, like Schiller, renounced their U.S. citizenship with gusto.

They see the country of their birth as an aggressive, militaristic land, driven by greed and infested with crime, controlled by big corporations and unconcerned about the millions trapped in desperate poverty. Some of them cannot help but judge U.S. foreign policy in terms of ``The War.''

``Before George Bush calls for a Nuremberg trial for Saddam Hussein, he'd better think about all the unpunished Vietnam War criminals back in the States,'' said Joe Stewart, 43, a Brooklyn-born draft dodger who works as a handyman and who, despite his views, has retained his U.S. citizenship.

And yet there are those who say that as they enter middle age they become more American every day.

``I'm proud to be an American,'' said Steve Kinnaman, 45, who grew up in Indianapolis and now works in a child-care center. ``I wish I could be more American than I am.''

Men like Kinnaman find much to admire about the U.S. in terms of warmth, energy, openness, flexibility, spontaneity and diversity - qualities they find in short supply in Sweden.

Some even speak understandingly of the U.S. conviction that it alone has the moral standing and international clout to serve as the world's policeman. That conviction, of course, helped produce Vietnam.

Which sentiments dominate the community is hard to say. Because, in truth, the community no longer exists the way it once did.

In the old days, the early 1970s, the Americans clung to one another for political and psychological support. They had a newsletter, the American War Resister; an organization, the American Deserters Committee, and a hangout, the Alternative Stomach.

Now, most have lost touch with all but one or two of their fellows. Every few years, there is a reunion of sorts, prompted by the return visit of someone who went home years earlier. The reunion invariably ends in a promise to get together more often. But the promise invariably goes unfulfilled.

One fact has not changed. The youthful act of defiance that brought them here remains the defining event of their lives.

``You never really get over it,'' said David Minugh, 44, who grew up on Long Island and now teaches American literature at the University of Stockholm, serving in effect as that institution's resident American.

``Me and America, we've been divorced, and we've been reconciled,'' said Minugh, who deserted his Army unit in 1970. ``But you never escape the fact that you wish the divorce had never happened.

``You can't get away from it. You'd like to have been good and loyal and done your duty to your country and kept your conscience clear. But you didn't see any way around doing what you did. And you still don't.''

Minugh's decision to desert, like his approach to life in general, was thoughtful and methodical.

A 1968 graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Minugh was in Germany on a fellowship when he found out that he was to be drafted. Talking to Germans about World War II, he learned how much young Germans resented their elders for not having resisted that war - and how long he would have to live with his own decision.

He would not claim to be a conscientious objector; he was not against all wars, just Vietnam. So he accepted induction into the Army, in the hope that he would not have to make the next decision.

That hope was soon dashed. He was told he was to become an interrogator and was sent off to Texas to learn Vietnamese. That gave him 32 weeks, the length of his language course, to make up his mind.

Deciding to desert, he put in for a leave. And a few days before he was to have been shipped to Vietnam, he flew to Sweden instead.

``It was a leap into the dark,'' he said.

He learned the language, moved to a university town, established himself as a professional translator, married a Swedish woman who spoke no English, set up housekeeping in a remote farmhouse, learned the local folk dances and generally became ``a super-Swede.''

But as the war ended, his Americanism began to reassert itself.

In the fall of 1976, with his marriage beginning to disintegrate, he moved to Stockholm to what he thought was a temporary job teaching American literature at the university. In the winter of 1977, he went to Toronto for a deserters' conference. In the spring of that year, after Carter's amnesty, he went home to resolve his case. Now, he had another decision to make.

``It really wasn't that hard,'' he recalled. ``When I went back to the States, I felt like a ghost. And even though my marriage was failing and I thought I was going to be out of a job, I knew I could work here (in Sweden). Having to start over there didn't seem worth the trouble. And the gap between rich and poor troubled me. I didn't want to be face-to-face with the appalling poverty that is allowed to exist there.''

So he chose to stay in Sweden and serve as a sort of intermediary between his two countries. He is paid to try to explain the U.S. to Sweden. No longer ``super-Swede,'' he goes back to Wesleyan every few summers to teach, and worries that he is not Swedish enough anymore.

He and his second wife, who also is Swedish, have three sons, Jonathan Henry, Kevin Anders and Michael Edward. Those names were chosen because they sound Swedish to Swedes and American to Americans.

``We wanted to keep their options open,'' said Minugh, who has kept his citizenship.

Steve Kinnaman also wants very much to keep the U.S. option for his two young children, Joel and Sandra. He sends them to English-speaking schools.

That he should want such a path for his children represents the culmination of a remarkable journey, both physically and emotionally.

David Kinnaman, as Steve was known for the first half of his life, deserted the Army in Thailand in May 1967. It was so early in the war then that the young soldier, who came from Midwestern working-class stock, had never heard of anyone deserting.

He did so after receiving orders sending him to Vietnam, orders he was certain were meant to punish him for voicing the opinion, which he had reached only after arriving in Thailand, that the war was wrong.

For the next four years, he lived as a fugitive, mostly in Laos. He posed as a Canadian vagabond, assuming the name Steve, and tried to be invisible; his family gave him up for dead.

Occasionally, he acted as an information-gatherer for anti-war organizations in the West. Eventually, that activity got him into trouble with the authorities and left him no choice but to flee to Sweden.

Once in Stockholm, Kinnaman threw himself into the communal life the deserters had fashioned, warmed by the presence of Americans who felt as he did and determined to give his ordeal some political meaning. He soon became one of the community's leaders. He wrote and spoke and demonstrated against the war. He organized the meetings and marched in the marches.

He was so angry and bitter at first that he waited two years after arriving in Sweden before letting his parents know that he was alive. But, in the end, his anti-war activity helped him come to terms with his country.

He studied U.S. foreign policy, and his rage became softened by understanding. He learned how many Americans had opposed the war, and his bitterness lost its sting. He saw in Carter's amnesty a nation confessing its error, and his warmth for the place was rekindled.

In recent years, he has reconciled with his family, visited the U.S. often and liked it. Now, sitting in the living room of his cluttered 240-year-old house, he seems at peace with his two countries.

His roots in Sweden are deep - this summer he married Bitte, Joel and Sandra's Swedish mother, after living with her for 14 years - and his love for the place is real. Going back home to stay is not a practical option. But it is a thought, one that never quite goes away.

``Many times, I've thought many times about moving back,'' he said. ``My period of hating America was over a long, long time ago. I'm an American, and I'm never going to get away from it.''