Books: A Dreyfus case in Vietnam

Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam by Monika Jensen- Stevenson Norton pounds 18.95
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The Independent Culture
The more we learn about the Vietnam war, the more we excavate deeper and deeper layers of evil and insanity. Here is a story to astound even those who think they know all about the nightmare world of "Nam" - a kind of Dreyfus case without a happy ending. In 1965 an American Marine named Robert Garwood was captured by the Vietcong, suffered 14 years of captivity, and then returned to the USA four years after the war had ended to find himself court-martialled as the only "grunt" in history to have gone over to the enemy. There was no Zola to defend him, but here at last he finds a champion in the journalist Monika Jensen-Stevenson.

The author tells an all-too human story of cowardice and buck-passing, whose cumulative effect was to take Garwood close to a firing squad twice over, once with the Vietcong and once with his own people. In September 1965 Garwood, not even an infantryman but a simple driver, was ordered by an incompetent officer to drive into no-man's land on an inconsequential errand. Ambushed by the Vietcong, he was taken captive and at first exhibited in a 6' by 5' outdoor bamboo cage, with no roof and suspended 4' above the ground; sometimes he would be put in a punishment cell only 5' high and 3' wide, with his feet fastened in stocks. Then he was put in a POW camp, where he was starved, beaten and interrogated incessantly; the fact that he had gone on his errand armed with just a revolver was taken as proof by the Vietcong that he "must be" a CIA agent.

Garwood summoned the will to live by trying to help other American prisoners to survive. With amazing natural talent for languages, he soon mastered the nuances of Vietnamese language and culture, and was able to devise ways to steal food and smuggle it in to his compatriots. But his talents as a scavenger were his undoing, for the suspicion arose among other American prisoners that he must have gone over to the enemy or that he had been suborned and was being used by them as a spy. Such suspicions were encouraged by the Vietcong, who were masters of psychological warfare. They liked to convince the POWs that some among them had been "turned" and were now their agents, thus breeding endless suspicion: nobody knew where they stood, or what was truth and reality and what lies or fantasy. Additionally, cowardly prisoners toadied to their captors either by ratting on Garwood's food missions or telling the VC what they wanted to hear: that Garwood was indeed a CIA operative. When the most sycophantic prisoners were released early, they tried to cover the tracks of their own collaboration with the enemy by alleging that Garwood, retained by the Vietnamese precisely because he would not cooperate, had deserted to the enemy and was even leading them on raids against his erstwhile Marine comrades.

Tiring of Garwood's obduracy, the Vietcong condemned him to death in 1970 after a mock trial before a "people's tribunal". The day before his scheduled execution, the camp where he was being held was bombed by American planes and he was the only survivor. Concussed and badly wounded, he awoke to find himself in yet another POW camp, this time largely housing South Vietnamese prisoners, and there he remained until his release in 1979. Once he returned to the USA, he was again subjected to endless interrogations and "debriefings" before being court-martialled on five separate charges: desertion; persuading US forces not to fight; mistreatment of other US prisoners; wearing enemy uniform and weapons; and accepting a position as interrogator with the VC. Jensen-Stevenson argues persuasively that the US authorities were determined to convict him and would heed no evidence that worked against their preconceptions. On the one hand they accepted as gospel the self-serving denunciations of the true collaborators who had known him in the POW camp; on the other, they were angry at Garwood for having exposed them as liars - no less a personage than Henry Kissinger had stated categorically in 1975 that there were no US prisoners or even deserters left in Vietnam.

Alongside her main story the author provides a subplot about a Marine Colonel named Tom McKenney, who was part of a "dirty tricks" hit squad specially trained to "take out" US deserters and malingerers. McKenney, a gung-ho character with the kind of fervent moral certainty displayed in John Wayne's flagwaving movie The Green Berets, came to loathe Garwood, who throughout his 14 years of captivity was portrayed in US propaganda as the Benedict Arnold of the Vietnam War. The author's sections dealing with McKenney are the most horrible in the book. It is possible, just, to argue that the Vietcong were driven to their atrocities by a desperate fight for homeland against a foreign aggressor. But what could possibly justify the dark world of lies, backstabbing, treachery and assassination mounted by the CIA and other covert operations groups? So deep was their cynicism that these men refused to rescue their own pilots who had ditched in the China Sea, even when they had their location pinpointed, and left them to die a horrible death in the water.

On his return to the US McKenney pondered the evils he had witnessed, noted all the lies and falsehoods, and was able to establish conclusively that Garwood was the victim of a spectacular miscarriage of justice. Jensen-Stevenson's book ends with a scene of redemption as McKenney passionately seeks forgiveness from the man he had once sought to kill. But the US government never admitted its mistakes and its cover-ups. Despite being due $150,000 in back pay, Garwood was never paid a cent by the Marine Corps and held in limbo, neither in the Corps nor out of it, until 1986, when he was released to make a living as an odd-job man. It is difficult adequately to convey the quality of eternal nightmare that pervades this book.