“We Forced Them to Be Brutal to Us”

by W.D. Ehrhart

Does anyone ever notice those ubiquitous black-and-white POW/MIA flags anymore? You see them everywhere: post offices; federal, state, and municipal buildings; many banks and other privately owned properties; even at all the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I’d be willing to bet that almost no one under the age of 40 has any idea what those flags are supposed to represent, or how and why they got where they are. Indeed, even most people over 40 probably don’t know or have long since ceased to think about it.

But for over a quarter of a century, the issue of American prisoners of war and missing in action in Vietnam (POW/MIA) was seldom far from the headlines. It became the raison d’être for Richard Nixon’s continuation of the war, and the argument for refusing to grant diplomatic recognition to Vietnam for another two decades.

H. Bruce Franklin’s MIA, or Mythmaking in America convincingly detailed how the myth of the POW/MIA became mythology. And Elliot Gruner’s Prisoners of Culture explained how the POWs were transformed from survivors into heroes. Both books were published in 1993, and neither was a bestseller, but soon after they were published, the Clinton administration extended diplomatic recognition to Vietnam, and the POW/MIA issue faded into obscurity.

But now comes a new book that illuminates a side of the POW story that has been largely neglected: the story of POWs who willingly and voluntarily opposed and spoke out against the war while they were still in captivity: Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today by Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke (Monthly Review Press, 2021).

The accepted understanding of those “dissenting POWs” is that they were cowards, traitors, weak, brainwashed, or seeking to curry favor with their captors. The authors argue otherwise.

Tom Wilber is the son of one of these “dissenting POWs,” Commander Gene Wilber. Jerry Lembcke is the author of the myth-busting book The Spitting Image (1998). They have produced an important book that challenges the argument that dissenting POWs were somehow psychologically damaged, weak, or otherwise compromised, but were instead motivated by conscience, morality, and logic.

Wilber and Lembcke explain how senior ranking officers (SROs), all of them career military men, took control of their subordinates in the camps, and demanded adherence to what these men saw as their “duty” to sacrifice and suffer for the United States of America. As Navy commander and future U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton admitted years later, “We forced them to be brutal to us.”

In the wake of the apparent weakness of American POWs during the Korean War—largely mythology itself—for senior career military men like Denton, James Stockdale, and Robinson Risner “torture became a way to confirm their worth as American warriors…. When the torture they wanted from the Vietnamese wasn’t forthcoming, they provoked it. When that didn’t work, they inflicted their own damage.” As Stockdale later wrote, he wanted his wife and his sons to be “proud” of him.

When a few SROs opted out of that masochistic approach, these men ostracized them and threatened them with court-martial in post-captivity, a threat that Stockdale and others tried unsuccessfully to carry out. They did, however, win the cultural war to portray the Vietnamese as sadistic, inhuman monsters who routinely and with relish resorted to torture, and few former POWs dared to challenge their version of captivity.

The public perception of that experience was powerfully fostered by the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia, the ubiquitous metal bracelets sold by the Victory in Vietnam Association (later renamed Voices in Vital America), and the Hollywood film industry through dozens of movies starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Gene Hackman, not to mention the incredibly successful campaign to create and display the POW/MIA flag.

Like Franklin’s and Gruner’s books, Dissenting POWs is not going to make the New York Times Bestseller List, nor will it alter most people’s perceptions of the American POW experience during the Vietnam War. But at least, for the sake of posterity and accurate history, the book exists for those who care to know. It illuminates an entirely neglected aspect of that sorry episode in American history that the Vietnamese call the American War.

Photo: The POW/MIA flag, flying over the New Hampshire State House in Concord, December 12, 2012. Cropped from photo by AlexiusHoratius, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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