In Sweden, Matthew Turner reveals a different side of the Vietnam War, specifically the fate of deserters in Japan. In 1968, the Vietnam War rages in Southeast Asia, and soldiers have realized the senselessness of the war. Some soldiers, taking advantage of medical leave while in Japan, go AWOL. With help from JATEC (the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to U.S. Anti-War Deserters), a clandestine group within the Beheiren organization, some American deserters escape to Sweden, a neutral country and a metaphor for freedom.
Sweden follows the stories of three people: Harper, an African American Marine from Alabama, injured in battle and transported to a Japanese hospital to recuperate. When he discovers that he is being sent back to Vietnam, JATEC agrees to help him escape. Flynn, an Irish American from a potato farm in Idaho, is in the Navy. Grappling with addiction, he is given medical leave in Japan, where like Harper, he decides to flee; JATEC will also help him. Finally, Masuda is a member of JATEC. A jazz-loving, trumpet playing anti-war advocate, Masuda cares deeply about helping the American soldiers.
In the stories of Harper, Flynn, and Masuda, Turner opens the readers’ eyes to an entirely different side of the Vietnam War and the secret network of people who tried to help deserters. Turner is clearly fluent with Japanese culture, history, and cities. This knowledge, though, is often distracting and detracts from the narrative since the characters often descend into tangential lectures about history and culture. As a result, there is a lot of filler within Sweden, and better editing would have improved this book’s narrative and character development. Nevertheless, the content is historically fascinating, and Turner knows his stuff.