Dissenting POWs charts the record of US prisoners in Vietnam who opposed that imperialist war, in a vital contribution to the anti-war movement in the present, argues John Clarke

Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (Monthly Review Press 2021), 181pp.

The Vietnam War was a huge and bloody effort that US imperialism undertook to try and defeat an heroic liberation struggle. It is matter of historical record that this culminated in an ignominious withdrawal of US troops in the face of unbreakable resistance from the Vietnamese people. It is also well established that the whole undertaking became a source of national trauma for America, with an enormous and determined movement taking to the streets to demand an end to the war. This social mobilisation, we must also remember, resonated powerfully within the ranks of the military itself.

Given that opposition to US aggression spread among those who were expected to inflict it on the Vietnamese, the question of how this may have played out among those who were captured by Vietnamese forces, and became prisoners of war, is an intriguing one. What went on inside the places in which these prisoners were confined? How has the official discourse responded to evidence of sympathy among POWs for the Vietnamese struggle? How has the real record of POW dissent been kept alive and how has it contributed to anti-war sentiment in the years that have followed? Dissenting POWs, by Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke, provides us with powerful insights into such important questions.

The authors begin their introduction to the book on Memorial Day of 2012, when President Barack Obama declared that: ‘Today begins the fiftieth commemoration of our war in Vietnam’ and thereby prompted nation-wide efforts to explore the record of that conflict (p.8). Though it may not have been at the forefront of Obama’s mind when he made this call, the issue of the POWs was a major part of the record that was being revisited. Apart from anything else, it was a huge sticking point in the negotiations to end the war, with Nixon insisting that the withdrawal of US troops would not take place without the release of the POWs, while the Vietnamese side maintained that ‘there would be no prisoner return until the United States pulled out’ (p.9). The Nixon administration was ‘seizing upon the POW issue and weaponizing it as a negotiating lever to delay the war’s end’ (p.9).

Whatever the cynical motives that drove the White House to act as it did, there was very understandable concern for the well being of the POWs in the US that was displayed across the political spectrum. The release of 591 prisoners by the Vietnamese, in February and March of 1973, was met with an officially directed ‘Operation Homecoming’ that ‘surpassed anything mounted for previous generations of war veterans’ (p.10). Underlying all of this was an emerging patriotic POW narrative that was being crafted, in large measure, in order to help heal wounded US pride after the withdrawal of its troops. Central to this effort was the publication, in 1976, of John Hubbell’s POW: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973, prepared with the active support of the Pentagon (p.15).

Forgotten voices

‘But amid the celebrations, there was discord’ (p.11). Media reports revealed that eight enlisted men among the POWs might be prosecuted for ‘having expressed their opposition to the war while held as prisoners’ (p.11). Two officers, who had been shot down and captured, including Gene Wilber (the father of one of the authors), were also facing charges (p.11).

The book is able to draw upon very extensive preliminary work undertaken by Tom Wilber. He interviewed more than a dozen of the Vietnamese people who worked at Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ in which many of the POWs were confined. He also uncovered wide ranging documentary evidence, including ‘POW’s handwritten reflections’ in the course of more that thirty visits to Vietnam. All of this work has helped make it possible to ‘challenge the conventional historical accounts of the POW experience and debunk the legends that have grown around it’ (p.11).

It is of central importance to this book that it shows so clearly that ‘class disparities’ and racial inequalities within US society drove POW dissent to a huge degree and framed the efforts of the senior offices to contain it. Throughout the entire narrative that unfolds, we see the efforts of the Senior Ranking Officers (SROs) to ensure that the POWs remained patriotic and defiant ‘prisoners at war’ and to crush any signs of the sympathy that those in the lower ranks were much more likely to feel for the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese (p.12).

The steps that were taken during the period of captivity to ensure loyalty to the US war of aggression among the prisoners, would be compounded afterwards by a very deliberate and systematic effort to discredit those who dissented. The US establishment would close ranks around shaping the dominant historical record in ways that supported the official line. Wilber and Lembcke strive to counter that official discourse with this book. As they powerfully explain,

‘The banishment of POW dissent from memory leaves a void in American political culture where new generations of uniformed war resisters will look for role models, and civilian activists will look for allies in their efforts to end U.S. wars of aggression. Filling that void is the mission of this book’ (p.14).

‘The hardcore holdout-POW is the central figure in the history of the American version of the Vietnam War POW experience’ (p.15). Those driving that narrative ‘would portray the prison experience as, in a sense, another war front, another theater-of-war, in which the POWs fought gallantly “behind enemy lines” and came out on top as hero-warriors’ (p.18). The SROs among the prisoners worked from the outset to lay the basis for this version of events. Officers like James Stockdale, the most senior naval officer taken prisoner, enforced the notion of continuing the war effort, even insisting that lenient treatment of POWs by the Vietnamese must be considered an effort in ‘brainwashing’. For Stockdale, ‘enforcement of noncompliance among his junior POWs had to be absolute’ (p.18).

The claim that POWs faced torture ‘is the centrepiece of the prisoner-at-war narrative’ (p.21). The authors show how this was ‘elevated into a canon in the hero-prisoner myth/legend that would be brought back from Hanoi by the SROs in 1973’ (p.22). In examining these allegations, the book presents a picture that is, to say the least, considerably more nuanced than the myth makers have suggested, but the key question is that heroic defiance in the face of an utterly brutal enemy was an absolutely indispensable component of the official account that was presented after the return of the POWs.

By 1967, reports of major anti-war protests in the US were reaching the POWs in Hoa Lo and it is clear that the prison administration was anxious to ensure this information was made available to them. American peace activists who visited the facility were also able to ensure that the scale of the resistance to the war was made clear. The impact on many of the POWs of the movement against the war in the US can be seen in the admission of the reactionary author, John Hubbell, that by 1971, ‘at least 30% and perhaps as many as 50% of the prisoners were disillusioned about the war and becoming increasingly cynical about it’ (p.26).

Class lines

It was decisive that, by this time, the class composition of the POWs had undergone a major change. A prison population of downed pilots, drawn from the officer corps, was now being augmented by enlisted soldiers who had been captured in the South. Unlike the officers, these regular soldiers would have actually had contact with ordinary Vietnamese people, and they also had their own grievances against the US military command structure. The SROs felt class-based fear and racist loathing at the prospect of affinity between these soldiers and those guarding them. They felt that ‘enlisted men collaborated [with the enemy] almost instinctively’ (p.34). The authors give a dramatic account of how these seething class tensions continued to escalate:

‘By the time of the POWs’ release in early 1973, the war within the walls of Hoa Lo was more than that between prisoners and their guards. The tensions between officers and enlisted men, universal in military organizations, had hardened into class lines across which officers risked the welfare of enlisted men for the sake of their own hero-captive reputations and enlisted men openly dismissed the authority of the officers’ (p.35).

The difficulties facing the SROs were compounded by the fact that two senior officers, Edison Miller and Gene Wilber, were also outspoken and determined opponents of the war. The extensive efforts, in captivity and afterwards, to contain, intimidate and delegitimise these two men is an important and revealing component of the book, dealt with extensively in its second chapter. The veritable character assassination that Wilber was subjected to, during a CBS interview conducted by Mike Wallace, is indicative of the premium placed on neutralising these two officer POWs by the entire US establishment (p.52). It’s striking that, though they were both very much career officers, these two men came from working-class backgrounds and were significantly at odds with the military hierarchy in spite of their own elevated positions.

The book considers ‘The Peace Committee’ of eight enlisted POW’s, who also spoke out against the war, and provides profiles of each of them. They did indeed exemplify the way in which the issues of class and racial injustice in the US influenced POW dissent. As the authors say of one of the eight, James Daly, ‘… it was the chemistry of his time at war and in captivity with his growing up experience that was epiphanous’ (p.60).

These enlisted men were only too aware of the racism with which the US occupiers treated the Vietnamese, and the SROs were not wrong to fear that this would lead them to identify with their captors more than they did with their commanders. Where the officially approved Hubbell account says of the prison’s chief jailer, Le Van Vuong, that he was ‘full of hatred for his American prisoners [and] soon revealed himself to be sadist’ (p.70), enlisted POW, John Young, had a very different memory of the same man: ‘I learned to look at him as a friend. He was sort of like an uncle. He taught us patience and understanding’ (p.70). As with Miller and Wilber, plans to prosecute the eight for their expressions of dissent were abandoned in favour of a strategy of discrediting them.

The POW narrative that was developed after their release focused as much as it could on the constructed saga of patriotic defiance under inhuman conditions of captivity. This was augmented by the promotion of the ‘missing in action’ myth which held that the Vietnamese continued to hold many US prisoners they had secretly taken captive. This, of course, was the stuff of Hollywood legend (p.95).

The large quantity of books and films that followed the release of the POWs drew on the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ narrative that had first emerged out of the Korean War. ‘Brainwashed POWs was the paradigm, the background assumption, used by Americans for making sense out of the fragments of information that they had about what went on behind the bars and walls in Hanoi’ (p.77). In this version of the experience of captivity, those who held up embodied patriotic values, but those who fell short expressed not only personal inadequacies but a deeper problem within US society: ‘… the war in Vietnam was lost to political liberalism, permissive parenting, economic entitlements, and a pernicious feminism that sapped the national will-to-war’ (p.84). This opened the door to the perspective of the dissenting POW as weak, indoctrinated and mentally unstable. This view was strong enough to have even limited the readiness of many in the anti-war movement to make common cause with POWs who came out against the war (p.91).

Discrediting dissent

This form of ‘medicalising’ POW dissent was carried over from similar efforts that had already been directed against other members of the armed forces who spoke out against the war. The first Watergate break-in targeted the office of the psychiatrist Daniel Ellsberg, a Marine Corps veteran who had exposed the misleading of the public over the conduct of the war in what became known as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ (p.101). In 1972, the New York Times ran a story on the ‘mental problems’ of those who had served in Vietnam. This was followed by ‘a steady beat of stories about soldiers home from Vietnam with psychological derangements’ (p.101). A wide range of popular films developed the same theme of ‘Vietnam veterans as damaged goods’ (p.101) and ‘the die was cast with Rambo’ (p.102).

Wilber and Lembcke explore how racism formed a major part of the process of justifying the war of aggression in Vietnam and of fostering the notion of the defiant hero prisoner. The memoirs of some POWs are laced with racist contempt and hatred for the Vietnamese. One such account claims to have witnessed acts of cruelty towards animals and asserts: ‘You could not generate much respect for people such as that. We prisoners could not expect much better treatment than they gave their animals and that’s about what we got’ (p.121). Predictably, this writer, Ralph Gaither, describes his captors as ‘a bunch of gooks’ (p.121).

The authors suggest that such explicit racism was largely driven by the need to justify ‘the return of US expansionism in the post Second World War years’ (p.119). As they put it, a ‘crisis of legitimacy that began with the war in Korea grew to dangerous levels during the Vietnam war years, requiring nourishment for the American images of Self and Other’ (p.120).

The book points to the ongoing efforts of those who dissented within the ranks of the military during Vietnam war to challenge subsequent US military aggression. In their final chapter, they give an account of how such veterans have continued to contribute to anti-war struggles. They are strongly of the view that those who stood out against the war as dissenting POWs didn’t do so in vain. They conclude that: ‘Fifty years after the war in Vietnam, the acts of conscience displayed there, and the reaction they provoked, continue to drive American political culture’ (p.139).

Dissenting POWs is an important work that is appearing at a time when it is badly needed. In Vietnam, the US faced a people who refused to submit and who resisted its vast military power heroically. Yet, the troops that this imperialist giant sent against the liberation struggle of the Vietnamese brought with them experiences of life in class divided and racist America. After they were captured by the liberation forces, many of them could only conclude that they had more in common with the Vietnamese than with the officers who commanded them.

The POW dissent that emerged in captivity was challenged by patriotic senior officers and was later discredited and pushed from view by the US establishment to the greatest degree possible. Yet the tradition of that dissent continues to resonate to this day. At a time when US military power remains a great threat throughout the world, and an intensifying pursuit of global rivalry adds a new element of danger to this, the record of the POWs who opposed the Vietnam war from within captivity is a precious one. To their great credit, Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke have set out that record, clearly and powerfully, in their book.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.