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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
by Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke
(Monthly Review Press, 2021)
There are many "universal truths" regarding the American war in Vietnam, legends, and myths that have been accepted all these 50+ years despite abundant evidence and common-sense thinking. There are still folks who believe American soldiers remain incarcerated in secret North Vietnamese prisons, or in Russian prisons where they were sent for some obscure reason. Somehow, it is generally accepted that American POWs were tortured in North Vietnamese prisons, most notably the Hoa Lo or "Hanoi Hilton" where such notables as John McCain, Janes Stockdale, and Jeremiah Denton became famous via their accounts of institutionalized mistreatment at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. Their plight was accepted as being virtually the same as that of Korean War POWs, subjected to "brainwashing" and physical tortures. We simply accepted that Communists would abuse our Americans imprisoned in a North Vietnamese prison. This general acceptance was supported by a number of popular movies, including The Manchurian Candidate, Rolling Thunder, Some Kind of Hero, The Deerhunter, and Sylvester Stallone's macho man Rambo series.
I bought it. Looking back at my experiences in the army, my greatest fear was of becoming a prisoner of war and being tortured, so I bought those stories without question. When John McCain ran for President, I just accepted that his arm wouldn't work due to tortures inflicted at the Hanoi Hilton.
A couple of years ago, I enjoyed a lunch with Heath Lee, the author of the 2019 book The League of Wives, described on the back cover as "The true story of the fierce band of women who battled Washington—and Hanoi—to bring their husbands home from the jungles of Vietnam." Also, "These American servicemen had endured years of brutal torture, kept shackled and starving in solitary confinement, in rat-infested, mosquito-laden prisons, the worst of which was the Hanoi Hilton." We enjoyed delicious sandwiches and delightful conversation centered upon the rigors of trying to publicize a book in the day's America. That was pre-COVID. We have stayed in touch, and Heath was kind enough to attend the publishing party for my book Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter. Heath's "book tour" has taken her hither and yon across America; her book is a best-seller and has been optioned to become a movie produced by Reese Witherspoon.
Heath Lee is a valued friend and fellow writer, and I have the utmost respect for her background as a curator at several museums. She appreciates history and has achieved outstanding success with her books. She did an enormous amount of research, including many interviews with the wives who became frustrated in trying to learn anything about their husbands' welfare or to see any realistic effort to bring their husbands home. It is a spellbinding book, revealing a backstory from the Vietnam War that was unfamiliar or forgotten to most of us. A splendid contribution to the history of that terrible time, and I recommended the book in my review in the fall issue of The Veteran.
A few weeks ago, I learned of Jerry Lembcke's new book, Dissenting POWs. Confident that Heath Lee would be interested in a new look at the history of the Vietnam POWs, and especially the revelatory disclosure that a number of them were insisting that they had not been tortured, I emailed her. To be honest, I hoped she would order the book to learn more about the subject that had brought her so much recognition. That would contribute one more sale to Jerry Lembcke, who I also consider a friend. I immediately ordered the book! And, the very next day, Heath Lee answered my email with a suggestion that Lembcke's book was the work of an unpatriotic communist! I have suggested that we get together for another lunch, hoping it might give me an opportunity to defend one friend against the misperceptions of another. Sadly, the "fourth wave" of the dreaded COVID Coronavirus pandemic has caused us to postpone that lunch for a while.
Jerry Lembcke is the author of The Spitting Image, a landmark book exposing the probability that all those stories about returning Vietnam vets being spit on or called "baby killer" upon their arrival at home airports were completely suspect, improbable, and undocumented. He had also done a book titled Hanoi Jane about Jane Fonda, decrying the "fantasies of betrayal" that have followed Jane Fonda among many Vietnam vets for the past fifty years. His book PTSD tells the story of the American society's and government's reluctance to deal with the unanticipated mental anguish that resulted from sending us off to a tragically mismanaged and unnecessary war on the other side of the planet. Altogether, Jerry Lembcke has authored eight books, all dealing with some aspect of the Vietnam War, and each helping to define the truth of what really happened.
Dissenting POWs is a terrific book! It reveals that the highest-ranking POWs, especially Air Wing Commander Stockdale, Navy Commander Denton, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Risner decided that their Vietnamese guards' compassionate treatment while attempting to educate them on the history of the Vietnamese independence movement was actually an attempt at mind control. The prisoners agreed to resist, and the officers to enforce a standard of absolute non-compliance with the enemy. They would not be viewed as "brainwashed" by their communist captors. However, they did make concessions to their captors, and they conspired to say they had been tortured into talking. The book rather diplomatically wonders if they were simply managing a story they thought would benefit the entire POW population once they were released, or if it was a function of their officers' authoritative personalities. They insisted upon a chain of command by rank within the prison and insisted that all lower-ranking personnel comply with their ruse. In fact, they expected the lower-ranking to resist to the extent that they would, in fact, invite tortures by their captors! When a number of enlisted men from South Vietnam were transported north and imprisoned in and near the Hanoi Hilton, they dared to express strong anti-war attitudes in direct opposition to the officers' plan. Sound familiar? Stockdale assured them that he would, once they were freed, have them court-martialed for treason and refusal to obey orders. He did carry out his threat, but the matter was quickly tossed out of court. The most divisive war since the Civil War was over, and no one wanted to revisit the acrimony. The tales of torture and patriotic resistance became the accepted history, and the POWs attempted to return to "normal" American life.
In December of 1970, Canadian journalist Michael Maclear interviewed a few lower-ranked POWs in Hanoi and was surprised to find some very sincere anti-war opinions and acceptance of the Vietnamese need for independence. Six of them signed letters decrying the "many innocent people dying a totally needless and senseless death" from the American bombings. One of the prisoners was Navy Captain Gene Wilber. In June of 1973, then Rear Admiral Stockdale charged Wilber and another former POW with "mutiny, aiding the enemy, conspiracy, soliciting other prisoners to violate the Code of Conduct, and causing or attempting to cause insubordination and disloyalty." In September of the same year, the two officers were issued letters of censure and retired "in the best interests of the naval service." Tom Wilber, co-author of Dissenting POWs with Jerry Lembcke, is the son of Gene Wilber.
Members of VVAW will likely recognize the basic elements of this story. The senior officers were the products of a prescribed training regimen that demanded they perform their patriotic duties to the utmost, maintaining the highest standards of loyalty to America and traditions of honor taught in the military academies. Sadly, far too many of them construed those requirements as conferring upon them superhuman powers and inferring upon them the overreaching authority, rank, benefits, and justifications nearly as all-powerful as the ancient gods. Arrogant and hubristic, they "played the game" with ferocity and contempt for all human life except, of course, their own.
The story told in Dissenting POWs is all too familiar when we think about it. Often referred to as "lifers" by their lower-ranking troops, they were arrogant and unfeeling, and by 1973 had created so much resistance and ill-will that much of the American military was in a state of near-mutiny, unwilling to continue the immoral, unnecessary, and incredibly destructive war any longer. Far too often, the war had been revealed as an all-out rush to gain promotions, medals, or an office in the Pentagon, and the lives of the troops be damned. Ultimately, their strategies were not ordained from above, and in the end, they failed miserably. James Stockdale authored a book telling his side of the POW story. Now, at long last, Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke have researched what really happened and authored Dissenting POWs, and to this Vietnam veteran at least, it is a far more realistic and recognizable history. It is a story of GI resistance to the war in Vietnam, and to the absurd, malevolent behavior that crafted the stories, the POW officers told. Yes, they conspired to mislead America, and they were all too successful for a time. Well, time's up! Dissenting POWs tells a very different story. I hope this book will be passed around to the many Americans who, like Heath Lee, continue to believe the false history of the war in Vietnam as told by the officers who conceived and carried out the atrocities against the Vietnamese people, and against their own American troops! The front cover of Dissenting POWs says "From Vietnam's Hoa Lo prison to America today." Exactly! Congrats to Tom Wilber and VVAW member Jerry Lembcke for revealing the truth about what happened at the "Hanoi Hilton," and so much more.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW and the author of two books about the Vietnam War.