T. Wilber u.a.: Dissenting POWs

Dissenting POWs. From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today

Wilber, Tom; Lembcke, Jerry
New York, NY 2021: Monthly Review Press
Anzahl Seiten
160 S.
€ 95,52
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Paul Benedikt Glatz, Berlin

Dissenting POWs rediscovers the story of American servicemen who came to critically view their nation's war while imprisoned in North Vietnam. The book challenges widely held ideas of the POW (prisoner of war) experience as one of heroic resisters against enemy exploitation and torture, a key narrative of postwar revisionism and a popular trope in memory culture. Instead, there were diverse perspectives among captured U.S. servicemen, including opposition against their nation’s war and solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle for independence. Jerry Lembcke, author of several books deconstructing Vietnam myths, and Tom Wilber, son of an American POW, draw on archival sources and a critical re-reading of published material as well as new oral history accounts from the United States and Vietnam. Their book complements previous studies on the POW and MIA (missing in action) issues and their mythification and political impact with the little-known perspective of oppositional men among the captives.1

The recent controversy over the POW/MIA flag – the "most enduring symbol through which Americans came to remember the war in Vietnam" (p. 112) – evinces how the matter has been politicized and emotionally loaded, not least because of its critical role in military heritage as well as in postwar careers of such men as Senators John McCain and Jeremiah Denton.2 Their stories contributed to the dominant narrative of "prisoners-at-war" (p. 23) who after capture continued their heroic fight by enduring torture. This ideal was established by high-ranking pilots shot-down early in the conflict. In North Vietnamese prisons they claimed authority over their fellow captives, demanded from them to bear physical violence, and to withstand offers of better conditions in return for antiwar statements. Their "hero-prisoner story" (p. 18) countered the images promoted by the North Vietnamese and their allies of captured airmen, helpless but nevertheless treated humanely. Reports by POWs of such fair conditions, in turn, were denounced as something between treason and opportunism. Without trivializing the hardships of often several years in jail, Wilber and Lembcke dissect personal accounts by former POWs. They point out contradictions, distinguish between physical punishment measures and deliberate violence, reconstruct different phases in the history of the prisons, and conclude that brutal treatment and torture were less common and systematic than purported.

Antiwar statements by POWs, the dominant narrative goes, had been pressed out of Americans by the North Vietnamese through torture and psychological manipulation. Wilber and Lembcke argue instead that POWs' opposition against the war was real and grew along with antiwar sentiment in the U.S. armed forces in general. Among the dissenters were senior officers who discussed how the U.S. intervention was illegal and shared their thoughts with fellow prisoners and in a televized interview. However, American journalists did not take their antiwar message seriously, but presented it as North Vietnamese propaganda – a typical example of trivializing statements from supposedly unlikely protestors, which we know from the case of deserters in exile.3 Next to pilots, there were ground troops among the prisoners and in turn the dissidents. They had more diverse ethnic and social backgrounds and, according to the authors, were more likely to critically view the American war and to develop empathy with the Vietnamese. They sent letters to politicians, wrote messages to GIs, and read statements to be aired via Radio Hanoi. Despite POW leaders’ orders to stop such activities and threats of disciplinary charges, many of the dissenters continued protesting the war and met with visiting American peace activists, such as Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clark. Although charges for collaboration with the enemy upon release in 1973 were eventually dropped, they deepened the conflicts among the former POWs. One of those accused did not stand the prospects of another prison sentence and a life with dishonorable discharges and committed suicide. Early reporting on the dissident perspective after the war, including an appearance by an oppositional POW on 60 Minutes was soon replaced with stories manifesting the hero-prisoner narrative.

Beyond their focus on the war and the postwar years, Lembcke and Wilber place the POW experience into a broader cultural historical context in order to understand the genesis and the persistence of the one-sided narrative. They find answers in the mindset of the Cold War era and the fear of communist infiltration and brainwashing. During the Korean War, any publicized statement by POWs was viewed with great skepticism. The archetype of the brainwashed POW, turned traitor or collaborator, would become the backdrop for the discrediting of dissident POWs in Vietnam. The authors argue furthermore that the expectations of U.S. servicemen going to Vietnam would considerably influence their latter memory of their war- and prison experiences. Their pre-Vietnam ideas of captivity and torture had been developed from popular cultural texts set in the Korean War. Several films of the time dealt with charges against returned POWs of collaboration with the enemy, often presented as the result of brainwashing and character weakness. Moreover, in pre-Vietnam films, Wilber and Lembcke observe racist depictions of the Asian enemies applying brutal and sadist torture methods against captured Westerners. On this basis, Wilber and Lembcke analyze U.S. POWs’ behaviour in Vietnam and their memory of their prison experience.

Beyond the Korean and Vietnam War eras, the authors find roots of the hero-prisoner story in captivity narratives of the colonial era. These involved a complex mix of violence against captives, their temptations to stay with their captors, the commitment to remain loyal with their fellow colonists, and their Christian beliefs. Such tensions and correlations between the Self and the Other were critical in the making of an American identity then, and, Wilber and Lembcke suggest, during the Vietnam War. Here, too, captured Americans must proof their will and ability to endure the brutality of a racialized Other, and autobiographical accounts echoed the traditional narratives when they presented torture as a "test of will and faith to be passed." (p. 124) It is particularly intriguing to read about how the POW leaders themselves told of how they underwent self-mutilation, from fasting to self-inflicted physical injuries, in an effort of self-discipline and self-assurance, often with a religious subtext.

Dissenting POWs reintegrates the dissident prisoners of the Vietnam War into the larger American antiwar movement of oppositional servicepeople, veterans, and deserters. Beyond the selection of antiwar activists of the Vietnam- and later conflicts presented in the final sections of the book, who according to the authors carry on the "[h]eritage of [c]onscience" (p. 130) despite repression and revisionist discourse, I would have welcomed a more structurally oriented concluding analysis of the invaluable findings of Dissenting POWs and a discussion of the stimuli for debate and research it opens. A view beyond the United States and Vietnam, for instance, would have demonstrated the critical role of the POW issue, and arguably POW dissent, in the international Vietnam debates, East and West.4 Notwithstanding, Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke have crafted an exemplary study of history and memory, offering answers from a wide range of sources and documents, and explaining the construction and persistence of narratives through biography, culture, politics, and national identities. Their remarkable book deconstructs not only widely held historical concepts of the Vietnam War but makes us alert of their repercussions in present-day culture and politics. Certainly, Dissenting POWs will inspire new directions in research and debate.

1 See for example H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. How and Why Belief in Live POWs Has Possessed a Nation, New Brunswick 1993, and Michael J. Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home. POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War, Chapel Hill 2009.
2 To many a symbol paying tribute to war veterans, the flag’s history is actually one of right-wing revisionism. However, through former President Donald Trump’s veteran-discrediting move to take the flag off the White House rooftop, its standing among the political mainstream was further solidified recently, and the new President Joe Biden returned it to its prominent place. See H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam & Other American Fantasies, Amherst 2000, pp. 173–174, and „POW/MIA Flag Flies Atop White House Once More after Removal by Trump Administration“, Stars and Stripes (Online), 9 April 2021 (https://www.stripes.com/news/us/pow-mia-flag-flies-atop-white-house-once-more-after-removal-by-trump-administration-1.669191 – accessed on 19 September 2021).
3 See for example my own findings: Paul Benedikt Glatz, Vietnam’s Prodigal Heroes. American Deserters, International Protest, European Exile, and Amnesty, Lanham 2021, pp. 13–15.
4 North Vietnam aimed to maintain moral superiority through the humane treatment of captured Americans and thus secure solidarity not only in Eastern states, but also in the West. In fact, Sweden, sanctuary for U.S. deserters since 1967, offered to mediate in the case of the POWs. With the insights of Dissenting POWs in mind, a new look at Eastern portrayals of the American POWs seems worthwhile, such as the documentary film Pilots in Pajamas of 1968. See on the latter Christina Schwenkel, „Imaging Humanity. Socialist Film and Transnational Memories of the War in Vietnam“, in Chiara De Cesari and Ann Rigney (eds.), Transnational Memory. Circulation, Articulation, Scales, Berlin 2014, pp. 219–244.

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