Verdict First, Evidence Later: The Case For Bobby Garwood

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Verdict First, Evidence Later: The Case For Bobby Garwood

Postby admin » Mon Nov 06, 2017 6:33 am

Part 1 of 2

Chapter 12: Verdict First, Evidence Later: The Case For Bobby Garwood
by Monika Jensen-Stevenson
From Revised and Expanded Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
© 2004 by Kristina Borjesson





Monika Jensen-Stevenson is the author of Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam, which was optioned by Columbia Pictures, and coauthor of Kiss the Boys Goodbye. A former Emmy-winning producer for 60 Minutes, Jensen-Stevenson has traveled throughout Southeast Asia as a writer and reporter, lectured widely to West Point cadets and veterans' organizations, and testified before the US Senate Select Committee on American POWs. The Vietnam Veterans Coalition awarded her the Vietnam Veterans National Medal. She is currently head of programming for ichannel, Canada's premier digital public affairs channel.

When in his 1961 farewell speech to the nation Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the looming dangers of the military-industrial complex, he left the Fourth Estate out of the equation and, consequently, out of the national discussion that ensued. Perhaps he had a premonition that to warn against a military-industrial-media complex would automatically preclude the kind of national discussion he wanted to engender. Even in 1961, an era now fondly regarded as halcyon, no national discussion of any subject, even one presented by the president, was possible without the participation of powerful media outlets like the New York Times. Eisenhower was probably aware that journalists -- like most of us -- have a great need to see themselves as heroic advocates of truth, the kind envisioned by Thomas Jefferson when he coined the name "Fourth Estate." Such high regard of one's own profession cannot easily absorb reality: that the profession is itself part of a potentially dangerous complex, and that it requires constant vigilance to maintain one's integrity.

Eisenhower warned, "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." Yet he failed to mention how that could be achieved without a completely free and independent press divorced from that military-industrial complex he warned against. After all, his presidency oversaw the Joseph McCarthy debacle when hundreds of lives were destroyed in part because the media failed in its role to check and lend balance to an ego-driven senator who chaired a committee that was running amok. As a producer for CBS's 60 Minutes during the eighties I was proud -- as was the entire news division -- that the only reporter with enough clout to "alert the citizenry" to McCarthy's demagoguery and with the integrity to take him on was CBS's own Edward R. Murrow, who had so brilliantly reported on WWII from England. None of us then paid much attention to the fact that Murrow had paid for taking on McCarthy against the wishes of CBS's administration. Afterward, Murrow's position was never again as secure or prominent as it had been before.

McCarthy's intimidation of the media was a harbinger of the future when the press would, with few exceptions, seamlessly mesh with the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against: The media leitmotiv, straight from the red queen in Alice in Wonderland, "Verdict First, Evidence Later." Less than five years after Eisenhower's speech, reporters would meekly mouth the Warren Commission's findings on JFK's assassination and defame anyone who dared to question those findings. When Oliver Stone, in the late eighties, dared to investigate what reporters should have investigated more than twenty years before, he was accused of being a conspiracy theorist and worse, before the first draft of his JFK screenplay was even completed. The attack on Stone was led by no less an institution than the august Washington Post. The press in all its modern manifestations, charged by Thomas Jefferson to keep the citizenry alert and knowledgeable had a new reason for being: itself. As guru Marshall McLuhan so aptly put it, "The medium has become the message."

For me, it was a hard lesson to learn that the medium to which I had dedicated myself often used its tremendous power to destroy ordinary citizens whose only currency was the constitutional guarantee of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and whose only protection of those rights was the truth made public. No one symbolizes this better than former Marine Private Robert R. Garwood -- fourteen years a prisoner of the communist Vietnamese, who was found guilty of collaborating with the enemy in the longest court-martial in US history.
I first heard of Garwood in 1979 when I worked for a Canadian news program. Wire reports referred to him as a defector whom the United States government -- specifically the Marine Corps -- was charging with being a traitor. Because I was an American who had recently moved to Canada, it was a story that interested me immensely, particularly when a few telephone calls to Marine Corps representatives in Washington made it clear that this was a defector who had gone far beyond simply going over to the other side ideologically. The Marine Corps directed me to high-ranking officers who said that Garwood was the first marine in history who had taken up arms against his own countrymen.

I was sorry to have to drop the story because it was not of enough interest to a Canadian audience, but I kept up with American news reports. Massive coverage was given to the court-martial. Out of hundreds of reports, only one report, in the Daily News on December 21, 1979, gave me pause. It hinted at "complexities behind the scenes," and went on to describe the case as "filled with moral ambiguities, and much of the testimony in the pre-court martial hearing at Camp Lejeune has been muddled. As a result the public perception seems to be one of confusion, combined with the uneasy feeling that a former POW [Prisoner of War] is being unfairly punished." But even this article like all others tipped the balance toward projecting Garwood as a known traitor when the reporter wrote, "... but unlike past cases of collaboration in Korea and Vietnam, which mainly involved propaganda activities, Bob Garwood is charged with having joined the enemy as a rifle-carrying guerilla who took direct and hostile action against fellow Americans. As unwanted as the case is, it really can't be dismissed as if the charges, if true, are no more than understandable conduct under the circumstance."

At the end of the court-martial, there seemed no question that Garwood was a monstrous traitor who had been treated fairly and leniently by the government, particularly since he was initially charged with desertion, a crime that carries the death penalty by firing squad. Everything I learned from the media convinced me that desertion charges had been dropped in the interest of healing national wounds left by Vietnam. When I think back on my naivete then -- my fervent belief not only that I worked for a free and independent press, but also that the stars of the medium truly were "the best and the brightest" our country brought forth -- I am appalled. My only excuse, to quote Paul McCartney, "But I was so much younger then ... "

In 1985, while working as a staff producer for CBS's 60 Minutes, I became interested in Garwood again. He was now speaking publicly about something that had never made the news during his court-martial. The Wall Street Journal reported he said that he knew firsthand of other American prisoners in Vietnam long after the war was over. I was surprised when I attended a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on March 22, 1985, where Garwood spoke briefly: He was supported by Vietnam combat veterans whose war records were, to a man, impeccable.

These veterans told a story vastly different from what was made public during the court-martial
and one that was intimately tied to another 60 Minutes story I was working on -- "Dead or Alive?" The title referred to Vietnam POW/MIAs. The resumes of my sources were extraordinary. They included outstanding experts like former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) General Eugene Tighe and returned prisoners of war like Captain Red McDaniel, who held the Navy's top award for bravery, had commanded the aircraft carrier Lexington, and was, for several years, director of liaison on Capitol Hill for the Navy and Marine Corps. McDaniel's heroism as a prisoner was legendary. With such advocates providing back up, it was hard not to consider the possibility that prisoners (some thirty-five hundred) had in fact been kept by the Vietnamese communists as hostages to make sure that the United States would pay the more than $3 billion in war reparations that Nixon had promised before his fall from grace. Particularly compelling was the fact that of the three hundred prisoners known to be held in Laos by the Pathet Lao, allies of the Vietnamese communists, not one was released for homecoming in 1973.

The big question was, why had the US government declared that all prisoners were returned in 1973, and then four years later officially determined that all but one --" symbolic" MIA Air Force colonel and pilot Charles Shelton -- were dead? It boggled the mind that no one in the media asked why all the men on the list, particularly those in Laos, were not returned. Instead of investigating, reporters accepted verbatim the government line that there was no evidence of prisoners being kept behind, certainly no evidence of anyone still alive after 1973.

What the media also missed -- or perhaps agreed to keep quiet for what they were told were national security reasons -- was the battle going on within intelligence agencies between those, usually old-timers with a military background, who believed in intelligence collected by human beings (HUMINT) whether they were hired spies or volunteers, and those who discounted this as unsavory and unnecessary. The opposition to HUMINT came from those who believed high-tech spying was all that was necessary. Although there was also state-of-the-art, high-tech satellite intelligence on live American POWs in Vietnam, the HUMINT coming in largely from South Vietnamese who had been our allies, was, according to General Tighe (who had made it a priority when he was head of the DIA), nothing short of miraculous. There were numerous sightings of Garwood in the prison camps of Vietnam. One South Vietnamese ally who reported that he had been a prisoner with Garwood for a long period of time was none other than General Lam Van Phat who had been military commander of the Saigon area until the 1975 collapse.

Garwood's return created a huge dilemma for the US government. He was, in fact, proof that the communists had kept prisoners. More important, he was a living symbol of thousands of prisoners who had been declared dead too soon by a government that turned a deaf ear to families, veterans, and, most important, to some intelligence officials who had steadfastly maintained that there was at least enough evidence of live prisoners to keep their status open and make a concerted effort to negotiate for their return. Congress, too, was involved in what some veterans openly called a cover-up. Since 1975, two congressional commissions had formally declared, on the basis of communist assurances, that "there are no more Americans in Vietnam." There were more complicated dimensions to America's deaf-ear policy on POWs left in Vietnam after 1973. Strong intelligence indicated that the Viet Cong had allowed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists to interrogate and torture American prisoners who were left behind. In fact, Garwood maintained that before he was allowed to leave Vietnam, he was interrogated by the PLO and warned of the consequences to himself and his family if he ever spoke about the PLO in Vietnam. This, along with all intelligence on POWs, was considered not credible. General Tighe, loathe to lay blame on anyone in the profession to which he had dedicated his life, attributed this total opposition to any evidence about POWs in Vietnam to "bureaucratic mind-set."

The press too had easily succumbed to "off the record" advisories from the government. Those still concerned about prisoners were described as losers and loonies who couldn't readjust to society, or as distraught widows and others who couldn't face the fact that their loved ones were dead. There was an added factor to why the press belittled anyone who questioned whether the Vietnamese had kept any prisoners.

Many illustrious names in journalism had made their careers reporting either on Watergate or the Vietnam War, and on "the best and the brightest" who ran it. The POW issue was not a scandal like My Lai with an easy target. It was instead, what General Alexander Haig referred to as "a can of worms." Whether filled with hubris or not, most journalists considered it unlikely that with their connections they would have missed a story of such magnitude. No one concerned or knowledgeable about the subject fit in the category of "best and brightest." Instead, they were the ones who had actually fought the war, those described by Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala as "not the best and the brightest." Most of them were, in fact, enlisted men who had made the military their career. With exceptions like Bernard Fall and Keyes Beach, most journalists who were famous for their war coverage had excelled at stories that exposed the viciousness and excesses of American fighting men. Bobby Garwood was on the top of their list as someone whose deprived background -- trailer park upbringing, broken home, mild juvenile delinquency -- made it a certainty that he fell into the category of "baby-killing and gook-hunting" soldiers journalists had delighted in exposing during the war. What exacerbated the situation was that even though the worst charges against Garwood had to be dropped for lack of evidence at the court-martial, government spokesmen continued to stir up animosity against him by openly calling him a deserter-traitor and thus someone who could not be believed. The fact that General Eugene Tighe, the intelligence expert, backed up what Garwood said, seemed to escape the notice of journalists. Even when Tighe spoke before congressional committees, he was ignored.

In 1985, in addition to the POW story, I began working on a story about Garwood. At that time, I presented one renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalist/author with the impeccable testimony on missing POWs that General Tighe had given before a congressional committee. He told me, "I have it on very good information that Tighe is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's." This answer flabbergasted me. I had spent hours talking to General Tighe, as had my researcher, Nellie Lide. We both agreed that he had one of the quickest minds we had ever come across. It would not be long before I began to understand how an influential journalist who had exposed some of the most illegal aspects of President Nixon's administration came to believe such slander.

I had heard of Col. Richard Childress, who was generally known as the government liaison between the National Security Council (NSC) and POW/MIA families as well as the president's advisor. Childress had joined the NSC as what was termed a Southeast Asian Political and Military Affairs Officer in 1961. Since he had no military background, it was generally assumed he worked for the only other government agency that awarded the rank of colonel to some of its employees -- the CIA. In what Red McDaniel's wife, Dorothy, considered an abusive telephone call, Childress had accused her husband -- one of my sources on the prisoner story -- of defying the official line by attacking the concealment of intelligence on prisoners; but not before acknowledging that there were indeed still live POWs in Vietnam.

Now it was my turn. In an effort to get an interview about existing evidence of live prisoners, I had made several fruitless calls to Colonel Childress. After I had locked in Garwood and Tighe for 60 Minutes, Childress called me at my Washington office. His voice definitely not polite, he demanded, "Are you doing a piece on POWs?" Without waiting for an answer, he proceeded to slander most of the people with whom I had done preliminary interviews. Included was the smear I had already heard from fellow journalists about General Tighe. Since it was none of his business and I was highly suspicious of how he had gotten such precise information about my conversations with potential interviewees, my back was up. He modified his tone slightly and tried another tack: "You could jeopardize the lives of prisoners still over there," he said. If I had any hesitation about doing the story before his call, the shock of this revelation verifying what Garwood had said about other prisoners made me determined to see it through. The conversation ended with the threat that I would do myself no good by continuing with this story.

Despite continuing pressure from intelligence agencies -- particularly the National Security Council and the Defense Intelligence Agency -- to drop the story, it aired as "Dead or Alive?" in December 1985 thanks in large part to General Tighe's participation. He too had come under tremendous pressure to drop out, just as the network had come under subtle pressure not to interview General Tighe. Correspondents were taken aside by the head of Pentagon covert operations who gave them the definitive spin on the matter of POWs. Even the president of CBS's news division was taken aside at a cocktail party by a prominent former national security advisor. The pressure was subtle and, it was explained, had to do with sensitive matters of national security. CBS administrators were too savvy to believe the smears against an American general who received nothing but the highest praise from his peers in NATO and other allied countries. General Tighe's worldwide reputation as one of the finest intelligence professionals this country has ever produced could not be marred.

Tighe's participation in "Dead or Alive?" insured the program was separately screened by Congress several times after it was aired, triggering the formation of a DIA commission on MIA/POWs chaired by General Tighe. Tighe Commission members included the most knowledgeable professionals in the field, including air ace Gen. Robinson Risner who had been imprisoned for six years in the former French colonial fortress dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by his fellow American POWs -- mostly pilots -- who were held there during the war. The Tighe Commission concluded not only that live prisoners had been left behind, but that there was strong evidence many were still alive. It was immediately classified without public explanation. Its commissioners had advised, among other recommendations, that the DIA hire Garwood to work on the prisoner issue. The suggestion was ignored.

Robert Garwood also appeared in "Dead or Alive?" albeit briefly. Despite my best efforts, I was never able to persuade my superiors to let me do Garwood's full story on television -- not even after I got hold of film footage of him in Vietnam that proved his prisoner status. Garwood's court-martial conviction along with continuing government propaganda against him made networks shy away. I would finally write his full story in a book entitled Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam, published in 1997. General Tighe, by then deceased, provided the road map for me to pursue Garwood's story at the beginning, when I interviewed both men for "Dead or Alive?"

Despite the Tighe Commission recommendation that Garwood be hired by the Pentagon, government policy continued to dictate that only distortions of Garwood's history be made public. Keeping alive the image of Garwood as devil incarnate of the Vietnam War insured no one would pay attention to what he had to report about the men who, like him, were abandoned in Vietnam. To keep this truth from surfacing, in the words of highly decorated Army Major and former Vietnam POW Mark Smith, "Robert Garwood had to become our token sacrificial lamb on the cross of honor and integrity."

When Bobby Garwood returned home in 1979 after fourteen years in communist detention, he was like Rip Van Winkle. His knowledge of American history ended with his capture in 1965, his belief in his country -- as the Marine Corps had drilled it into him -- unshaken. In 1973, the communists had played Henry Kissinger's statement that all American prisoners from the Vietnam War were now home, over camp loudspeakers. But Garwood fervently believed the communists had deceived the US government. If Washington only knew the truth, it would immediately act on it. It was inconceivable to him that by escaping he had given lie to the government dictum that all prisoners returned in 1973. Worse, for those who had staked their careers on this point and been showered with accolades for bringing about an honorable peace, Garwood knew firsthand that there were others still alive -- a lot of others.

As an ordinary grunt, Garwood was probably unique among American prisoners in that he had a formidable natural (untrained) talent for the Vietnamese language. He had used his language and survival skills -- learned from a fellow American POW, Special Forces Captain William F. (Ike) Eisenbraun -- to survive. Mindful of Ike's advice to stay alive and try to escape at all costs -- as long as he did nothing to harm other American POWs -- he used, after the war, his talent for fixing machinery of all kinds to repair the broken-down American vehicles scattered all over Vietnam. That had provided him with limited freedom to travel to wherever something needed to be fixed, although never without guards.

Always on the lookout for a way to escape, Garwood used basic American business savvy to persuade his guards to let him buy a few of the small quantity of Western products available only in hotels frequented by visitors (mostly aid workers) to Vietnam and off-limits to them. With a borrowed white shirt and pants, Garwood passed for a Western aid worker. His guards then traded the soap, cigarettes, or caviar for a tidy profit. Garwood pretended all he wanted in return was an extra ration of cigarettes or food. It was on one of his rare trips to Hanoi that Garwood managed to pass a note to Finnish diplomat Ossi Rahkonen, who passed it directly on to the BBC and Red Cross. Rahkonen did not make the mistake of turning the note over to US authorities, as had previous recipients of Garwood's furtive notes. Those notes were never made public. Rahkonen was also wise in going to the BBC instead of American media. The American media had consistently upheld the US government position that there was not one live American prisoner, or even defector, left in Vietnam.

The BBC report that an American prisoner named Garwood was alive in Vietnam created a huge problem for the politicians and bureaucrats sitting on the prisoner issue. If they were to keep the country convinced Vietnam had returned all live prisoners, Garwood would have to be discredited. He would have to be transformed from heroic survivor of one of the most notorious prison systems in the world into a criminal traitor. People would have to be persuaded that he was more evil than the draft dodgers who had all gotten amnesty; than the pro-North Vietnam US civilians who had openly urged the Vietnamese to shoot down American war planes; and even worse than the Marine Corps colonel who, as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton, had collaborated with the enemy in torturing his fellow prisoners. In short, Americans had to be convinced that Garwood voluntarily joined the enemy to fight against other Americans. To make this believable, there had to be every appearance of legality. It had to look like Garwood, the traitor, was given full constitutional rights to defend himself. This could not be done without the full cooperation, witting and unwitting, of the American media. In early 1979, even before Garwood left Vietnam, the government leaked information to key newspapers that a live American defector was sighted in Hanoi.

Government memos from early 1979 in the Jimmy Carter presidential library archives state that "Garwood [claims] that he knows of other Americans who are alive in Vietnam."
That information was not leaked to the press although it would have been a simple matter for the press to find out from the BBC that Garwood had contacted Finnish diplomat Rakhonen and then question Rakhonen on just what Garwood had said about himself and about other POWs. Instead, the media, for whatever reason, accepted what the government released on Garwood. "Garwood passed a note with his name and serial number to some western tourists in Hanoi," wrote Newsweek, April 2, 1979, "'I want to come home,' he told the tourist." Although Newsweek went on to state that Garwood also said he was in a forced labor camp with others, no one believed it. How could an inmate of a forced labor camp contact tourists in Hanoi? Never mind the fact that there were almost no Western tourists in Hanoi at the time. By referring to Garwood solely as a defector, the government had set the stage for Garwood's return. Unchallenged by the press, politicians and bureaucrats managed Garwood's story from that point forward, through the court-martial that would ruin him, and long beyond.

In the process, US officials had to ally themselves with their old enemy, the communist government of Vietnam. Each country needed to prevent the American people from finding out that some American prisoners had been kept by the Vietnamese after the official homecoming in 1973. That the United States had made no effort to get them back had to remain a classified secret. Otherwise, the morale of the armed forces would sink even lower than the all-time low it was at in 1979 -- to say nothing of the morale of the American people.

Initially held back by the communists to ensure that the United States would fulfill its secret promise to pay $4.5 billion in reparation monies, by 1979 American POWs had become worthless pawns. They were living ghosts. The United States had not paid the promised monies and had no intention of paying in the future. (president Nixon's letter of February 1, 1973, to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong promising the money was not released until four years later.) To the communists who had never felt obligated to treat prisoners according to Geneva Convention rules, those who survived were useful as slave labor and as a possible embarrassment to the United States. Neither side could have the truth come out without tremendous loss of face and all that it implied. The poverty-stricken Vietnamese, desperate for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance, could not afford to alienate the American people and Western allies. Abandonment of war prisoners was the kind of mistake that could destroy not only careers, but entire political administrations. No amount of effort or money was spared in preventing that from happening.

Garwood's court-martial ended up being the longest in US history. Millions were spent on an investigation that missed -- deliberately or otherwise -- the most fundamental and easily found truths. Most blatant: Garwood was charged with desertion during the war, a charge that carries the death penalty by firing squad. Yet if anyone had checked his military records, they would have found that he was just days away from the end of his Vietnam tour of duty when he disappeared. It was hardly a time when he would have deserted. Yet that simple fact never made the news until I researched it years later. During the trial, the prosecution put on the stand Lieutenant Colonel John A. Studds and Charles B. Buchta, who had been Garwood's company commander and battalion motor transport officer at the time of his capture. Both men had precise knowledge that Garwood disappeared while on an authorized chauffeuring job, yet they swore under oath that he had not had authorization to leave. Therefore, he must have deserted. When Billy Ray Conley, one of Garwood's fellow drivers at III MAF, Marine Corps tactical headquarters, voluntarily appeared to testify on Garwood's behalf, it never made the papers. He swore that Garwood had in fact been on an authorized mission. That fact was seared in Conley's mind. Hoping to get Garwood's position when Garwood went back to the States, he had been volunteering for some of Garwood's jobs. Garwood's superiors, annoyed that Garwood had his mind somewhere else (he was getting married to his high school sweetheart as soon as he got home), insisted that Garwood do the job. Conley had never forgotten he could have been the one in Garwood's shoes, and he had always made certain to tell Marine Corps investigators the truth.

When desertion charges had to be dropped, no newspaper asked why. No one interviewed Billy Ray Conley. No newspaper questioned whether Buchta and Studds -- when they swore under oath that no stone had been left unturned to find out why Garwood had left the base on the day of his capture --
had been pressured by the government in some way. Yet the media was consistently careful to note as did the New Republic on February 2, 1980, "[although] Garwood faced charges that could lead to his execution ... the Marine Corps has been scrupulous about due process."

For Garwood's attackers in the government "Live Americans" [were] a "political game" involving the prestige of many high-powered careers. "DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and State are playing this game," wrote Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council (NSC) to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezesinski on January 21, 1980. It would be "simply good politics" for Brezesinski to go along with the game, advised Oksenberg. It seems to also have been good politics for reporters.

The game was not one that a Marine Corps private, fourteen-year prisoner of the Vietnamese, without money or powerful friends, could hope to win -- or even play. What had sustained Garwood through fourteen years as a prisoner was an almost naive belief in the goodness of his country, the freedom of the press, and an unwavering belief in his rights as a citizen and soldier. He would have disbelieved it if told that soon after the BBC broadcast, the US State Department made sure that misinformation portions of its interdepartmental and interagency memos were leaked to the press. From the Oksenberg memo: it was "unlikely that PFC Garwood would be free to leave any camp without Vietnamese assistance and ... it could not be excluded that he had acted at the request or demand of the communist Vietnamese." It was more likely, the State Department argued, "that Vietnam, in its attempts to achieve normalization, was using Garwood as an agent to manipulate the U.S." Other government hacks put a different twist on this when they revealed in the Report to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command Control, Communication, and Intelligence, that senior NVS (North Vietnamese Army) officers had told them during bilateral meetings that Hanoi felt "forced to make Garwood leave the country." He had been no good to them. He had been "lazy" and a "troublemaker," not your ideal prisoner [italics mine]. No reporter noted this as a brilliant example of what Orwell called "doublespeak."

Garwood's reentry into the free world was carefully orchestrated. He arrived in Bangkok, his first stop after leaving Vietnam, on a French plane. This arrangement, worked out between the United States and Vietnam, gave reporters the impression that Garwood had been free to go or stay in Vietnam. Almost no reporter questioned this even though in 1973 all American prisoners -- even known collaborators like the Marine Corps colonel who helped torture his fellow prisoners -- had returned on American planes. On arrival, Garwood was kept away from clamoring reporters who nevertheless greeted him with cries of "How do you feel about the Marine Corps calling you a deserter?" Garwood, prevented from answering them by a cordon of military personnel, found the question absurd. So should the reporters asking it. Even elementary research on their part would have established that Garwood was ten days away from the end of his Vietnam tour when he was alleged to have deserted. This begs the question: Were reporters who only a few years before had hunted down every last detail of the Watergate scandal sloppy or simply disinterested in the fate of a low-level grunt whose life hung in the balance?

The media establishment knew that the crime of desertion carries the death penalty. On April 9, 1979, Time magazine reported "pending the outcome of the Navy's official investigation, the Marines have tentatively charged Garwood with desertion, soliciting US combat forces to lay down their arms, and unlawful dealing with the enemy. If he is court-martialed on these charges and convicted, he could be sentenced to death."

After desertion charges were dropped because of Billy Ray Conley's testimony, it became increasingly difficult to prove in the courtroom that Garwood had defected and led the enemy in action against his own former comrades. That did not stop the prosecution from putting out a barrage of innuendo to the press and even to Garwood's own attorneys. The prosecutor, Captain Werner Helmer, grabbed every opportunity to take Vaughn Taylor, one of Garwood's attorneys, aside and tell him of Garwood's horrendous record in "harming our troops" in Vietnam. He told Taylor that he had a marine who had been blinded in a Viet Cong attack led by Garwood ready to testify. Helmer claimed the marine could identify Garwood by his voice. Taylor says, "You almost had to believe Helmer knew something the rest of us didn't." Finally, Taylor blew up. The military has a completely open disclosure system. He demanded that Helmer put up or shut up. Helmer's reply: "I don't have anything in particular." Helmer went on to explain that he knew Garwood was guilty because he had studied traitors of history like Benedict Arnold. No one in the media seemed to note that the prosecution had nothing to offer in the way of evidence.

By that time, it had become clear to Garwood that he was involved in a process that, for whatever reason, was unwinnable. He had wanted to take the stand but was talked out of it by his lawyers, who were themselves unsure of what exactly Garwood was guilty of, but were convinced that he was a victim of extreme psychiatric manipulation on the part of Vietnamese communists, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Washington Post reported, "Garwood's attorneys do not deny the substance of the charges." Garwood withdrew into himself, exhausted and resigned to his fate. Only briefly in June 1980 did he think he might have a chance at acquittal because of the unexpected appearance of one potential witness.

Garwood saw newspaper accounts that a defector from Vietnam had given testimony before Congress. Although newspaper photos showed the defector disguised in a motorcycle helmet, Garwood immediately recognized him as Colonel Tran Van Loc, the communist secret-police chief who sat on a five-man tribunal that had determined each prisoner's fate. Of Chinese descent, Tran Van Loc fled Vietnam during the border war that broke out between China and Vietnam in the late seventies. The intelligence he brought with him was so important to the United States that DIA's best Vietnamese language expert and agent, Bob Hyp, was sent to Hong Kong to debrief Van Loc. Garwood never imagined that vindication would come from a former enemy, but the fact that Van Loc had defected to the United States persuaded him that he might be willing to tell the truth about Garwood's prisoner status. Garwood persuaded his lawyers to set up a meeting with Van Loc, despite extreme opposition from the prosecution. The complications of dealing with someone under the witness protection program made such a get-together difficult.

When Van Loc denied knowing Garwood as a prisoner, Vaughn Taylor, Garwood's attorney, lost confidence in defending Garwood on any basis except psychiatric. It would take more than a decade for him to find out that Garwood had not only told the truth, but that Van Loc had been pressured by the government to lie about Garwood. Ten years later, under oath in a deposition for the Senate Select Committee on POWs, Van Loc, questioned by counsel to the committee, described how he had been approached, through the government agency that provided both his protection and livelihood, to meet with a military officer who told him to lie about Bobby Garwood. But by then Garwood's reputation had been so utterly destroyed even Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), the vice chairman of the select committee, could not get the media interested in the truth about Garwood. Nevertheless, Smith ended his opening speech to the committee with these words: "I believe Bobby Garwood." Van Loc's testimony is in the Senate records, and attorney Vaughn Taylor introduced the evidence vindicating Garwood to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Despite suborning the perjury of defector Tran Van Loc and keeping him as well as other witnesses who supported Garwood from testifying, the government had an uphill climb in ridding the public of the uneasy feeling, as the New York Daily News -- in an exception to what was routinely printed -- put it, "that a former POW is being unfairly punished."
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Re: Verdict First, Evidence Later: The Case For Bobby Garwoo

Postby admin » Mon Nov 06, 2017 6:34 am

Part 2 of 2

Unable to produce any evidence that Garwood had deserted, produced propaganda for the enemy, or acted for the enemy in any way during the war, the prosecution did a complete turnaround, taking the position that Garwood had, in fact, been a prisoner. But their strategy was still character assassination. The charges now were that he had collaborated with the enemy while a prisoner in ways much more abhorrent than his peers. The background of witnesses subpoenaed to testify against Garwood spoke volumes. According to the Washington Post (December 29, 1979), "All five of the former POWs who testified against Garwood ... have acknowledged that they collaborated with their captors ... [they] did whatever their captors were determined to have them do." Former DIA chief General Eugene Tighe questioned whether that fact gave the prosecution undue leverage in getting them to testify against Garwood. Records of the witnesses' debriefings remain classified to this day, so it is difficult to ascertain just what Garwood's accusers were themselves guilty of. Dr. Edna Hunter, who was chief of the Pentagon's POW unit in 1973 and who at that time interviewed all former prisoners who testified against Garwood, thought the jury should know that every one of his accusers felt guilty about having behaved exactly as Garwood had, or in some cases worse than he had in the prison camp. She pointed out -- to reporters on the courthouse steps -- that none of Garwood's accusers had so much as mentioned bad behavior on his part during their 1973 debriefings, something they themselves acknowledged during questioning by Garwood's lawyers. Instead, they had talked about suffering they had all endured, Garwood included. Hunter judged none of them, "They were tortured, tricked, and manipulated by the communists."

Hunter wanted badly to testify, but after Garwood's seeming failure to connect with Colonel Tran Van Loc, even his lawyers did not exert themselves in opposing Werner Helmer, the prosecutor, to put her on the stand. Certain that Garwood's mind was so disturbed that he had fabricated his connection with Van Loc, their focus was now on convincing the jury that whatever Garwood had done, he had done under coercive persuasion, that he had been brainwashed and had suffered from bouts of insanity. General Tighe thought the fact that Hunter was not given a chance to testify on Garwood's behalf was a continuation of the kind of manipulation the communists had practiced on Garwood and his accusers; only now the manipulation came from the prosecution.

Unusual allowances were made for the former prisoners who were now Garwood's accusers. In at least one instance, the veteran officer who, arguably, gave the most damaging evidence against Garwood was allowed to substitute a written statement for his sworn testimony into official court-martial records. Missing from court-martial records is a particularly revealing bit of sworn testimony dealing with what many former highly respected prisoners and doctors say amounted to severe physical abuse of Garwood by the enemy. With the help of Marine Corps veterans who at one time had access to complete court-martial records, I was able to obtain the missing testimony for my files. No evidence was ever presented that Garwood was guilty of the kind of collaboration his accusers freely admitted.

On the basis of the evidence brought by his former fellow prisoners who, according to the Washington Post, had themselves collaborated, Garwood was found guilty of informing on his comrades, interrogating them on military and other matters, serving as a guard for the VC, and simple assault against a fellow American prisoner. This last damaged him most severely and hurt most deeply. He was condemned before the world of one thing he had never done, harming a fellow prisoner of war.

The accusation came from David Harker, a former fellow prisoner who spoke out strongly for Garwood when Garwood first came home. "Don't Crucify Garwood," one headline quoted him. "If he's guilty, we're all guilty," he told reporters then. But during the court-martial he reported that Garwood had, in prison camp, struck him a blow. "As I recall," he testified, "he struck me with the back of his hand. I don't know whether it was in a fist or whether it was an open hand that he hit me in the rib. I remember he had a disgusted look on his face .... He made the statement, something to the effect that 'you're gonna have to pay for what happened to Russ.'"

Russ Grisset had been Garwood's best friend in the camp, a fellow marine who was beaten to death because he had stolen the camp commander's cat, which was then eaten by Grisset and Garwood's fellow prisoners, including Harker. Garwood, returning from a work detail, came upon the scene after the fatal beating. He was angry with the other prisoners because they had let Russ take the fall instead of sticking together and taking the blame as a group. Going by past experience, Garwood was pretty sure the group would have been punished much less severely than the singled-out Russ. Garwood remembers what the prosecution referred to as a blow as more of a tough shove to get Harker out of the way as he moved toward Russ.

Harker described in detail the brutality of Grisset's beating, but seemed unable to connect Garwood's action with pain and rage felt over what had been done to Russ. Almost sheepishly though, he acknowledged that Garwood's blow neither hurt nor harmed him, but merely surprised him. Years later, working on the 60 Minutes program, "Dead or Alive?" I asked Harker what made him change his original opinions, "Don't Crucify Garwood," and "He should not be prosecuted because nobody else was." He would only say that he knew Garwood was guilty of other things that never came up in the court-martial, refusing to elaborate. Had the prosecution persuaded him off the record? He did not answer. Was it convenient to have Garwood as a scapegoat so that attention was deflected from what all of his fellow prisoners had done? No answer.

But how was it that the reporters who originally interviewed Harker never went back to search for the answers to these questions? Even Col. R. E. Switzer, the judge of the court-martial, remarked on the apparent injustice done the plaintiff. "We never got at the truth because we never heard Garwood's side of the story," he told me ten years later when I interviewed him for my book Kiss the Boys Goodbye.

According to the New York Daily News of January 23, 1981, Judge Switzer did hear part of Garwood's story that dealt with other POWs left behind: "a military psychiatrist said on Thursday that Marine PFC R. Garwood told him in October that about 200 ... POWs are still being held in Vietnam. Navy Captain Benjamin R. Ogburn ... conducting a court-ordered psychiatric examination on Garwood ... said Garwood was upset because he was not debriefed in the same manner as other returning POWs.... The military judge in the case ... refused to allow Ogburn's testimony ... about ... the alleged retention of Americans in Vietnam, ruling that 'the testimony is irrelevant.'"

"The jurors were not in the courtroom when Ogburn released Garwood's reports about other Americans in Vietnam."

In light of scant evidence against Garwood, the jury came back with a minor but nevertheless punishing verdict. During the time he was given to appeal, Garwood was not to be released by the Marine Corps, but was not to be paid by them either; he was to be reduced to the lowest rank, forfeiting pay and allowances, including $148,000 due to him for fourteen years in prison. There was no money to pay his court-martial lawyers, much less to pay for legal experts to question just how the Marine Corps was able to justify this punishment constitutionally. No one in the media asked the Marine Corps either, just as they had not questioned the constitutionality of Garwood being tried by a military tribunal in the first place when his tour of duty had ended over a decade before.

Like punishment meted out to dissidents in the former Soviet Union, Garwood was turned into a noncitizen in his own country. Suffering from a host of prison-induced illnesses and post-traumatic stress disorder, he received no medical benefits and had no rights as a private citizen of the United States. He did not question it when he was told, incorrectly, that he did not even have the right to vote. As a marine, he was not allowed to find civilian work. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills and began working as a handyman for one of his lawyers to pay him back. All of this made for good investigative journalism. Never was the Fourth Estate more needed to counter the steady stream of government "Newspeak" that glibly justified every constitutional violation in Garwood's case.

In only one instance did the media grant Garwood the kind of massive coverage he might have found useful in bringing to light the injustice committed against him. Early in the court-martial, headlines blazed from every supermarket tabloid: "Garwood Accused of Child Molestation." Garwood easily disproved this charge in court. Uncontested evidence put him hundreds of miles from the scene when the crime was alleged to have been committed. But the fact that he was completely cleared at this trial, which immediately followed the court-martial, was mentioned almost nowhere in the media, and the original tabloid slur festered on. Later, when he married, this deeply and adversely affected his relationship with his in-laws, especially after his first wife died. They told me that such a story simply could not have been concocted. To this day, they do not believe that he was completely vindicated.

After the court-martial, despite the severe restrictions placed on him, Garwood got on with his life. Finally released from the Marine Corps in 1986 when the Supreme Court opted not to hear his appeal, he used his talent to fix things mechanical to make a living. He found the love of his life in wife Cathy Ray, who died in 2000. "God took away fourteen years of my life," he says now, "but he gave them back through Cathy."

Garwood remains committed to other American POWs left in Vietnam. In his quest to bring that information before the public, he had strong support from General Tighe (deceased since 1993), who debriefed him unofficially, assisted by Chris Gugas, the polygraph expert who set up the CIA's polygraph system. That debriefing, full of valuable intelligence that, according to Tighe, could not possibly have been fabricated, shamed the DIA into conducting its own official debriefing. One of Garwood's debriefers was Bob Hyp, the same intelligence expert who had debriefed Colonel Tran Van Loc in Hong Kong. When I was working on my book Kiss the Boys Goodbye, Hyp called my editor to say that he would send me documentation that would categorically clear Garwood. I never got the material. Hyp died of a massive heart attack before he could send it. At the end of the debriefing, other DIA professionals let Garwood know in no uncertain terms that he could stay out of trouble with them as long as he kept his mouth shut. "Consider yourself lucky," they said, "you made it back. The others didn't."

The debriefings, which Bob Hyp and General Tighe considered a complete vindication of Garwood, had little impact on government propaganda. Marine Corps textbooks still slandered Garwood as a traitor. The media, disinterested in anything to do with POWs, ignored the debriefings even after they were declassified.

Reporters would briefly show renewed interest in Garwood in the spring of 1993 when, in his capacity as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POWs, Sen. Bob Smith planned a trip to Vietnam. He wanted Garwood to accompany him so that he could verify for himself the accuracy of Garwood's testimony during the debriefings conducted by the DIA. Garwood had described in great detail the location of some of the camps where he was held. That information had been corroborated by evidence brought before the committee. Smith believed other Americans had been held in the same camps. He wanted Garwood to travel with him in a "protected" status provided by the government. But other senators, like former prisoner John McCain, who had never been held in the kind of primitive camp Garwood was held in, were still convinced by false and continuing propaganda that Garwood was convicted of leading the enemy against fellow Americans. McCain did not want to send Garwood "on a vacation to Vietnam." Garwood had to decide whether he would travel with Smith unprotected. General Tighe strongly advised against his going, telling him it was extremely dangerous. He told him that Garwood's captors would have no compunction about having him killed, and the US government was not likely to intervene in the case of a convicted collaborator dying on foreign soil. Senator Smith promised to raise a ruckus if that happened, but was reluctant to press Garwood. He knew the media would not necessarily pick up such a cause.

Against such odds, in early July 1993 Garwood went to Vietnam with Senator Smith. He was determined to help Smith, but he had a private reason for going as well. He wanted to ask the Vietnamese for the remains of his friend and mentor, Ike Eisenbraun, the Special Forces captain who had taught him Vietnamese and how to survive in the horrible conditions that prevailed in the camps. Garwood had buried Ike and burned the gravesite in his memory. In the months before going, he had requested assistance from the United States Joint Casualty Resolution Center and other appropriate agencies. Both the United States and Vietnamese governments refused to assist him in bringing back Ike's remains. Garwood's efforts got no press coverage.

Even when Senator Smith called a press conference in Bangkok after their return from Vietnam to explain in great detail how Garwood had proven the existence of a prison camp where his former captors said no buildings had ever stood, the press was skeptical, almost hostile to both Garwood and the senator. Smith explained that Garwood had directed the reluctant Vietnamese to an island that, on the surface, seemed bare of signs that anyone had ever lived there. In his DIA debriefings, Garwood had described the precise location of prison buildings, the color of masonry, bricks, and other building materials. The Vietnamese were smug as they led the senator and Vaughn Taylor, Garwood's lawyer, around the empty site. Garwood was left briefly unattended by the usually vigilant Vietnamese security agents who accompanied them when he shouted for Smith to join him. Under some bushes he found a pile of building bricks and rubbish, matching his earlier descriptions precisely. The Vietnamese were in a fury. Smith thought Garwood might not make it out of Vietnam. But the senator's strong presence did keep Garwood protected. Perhaps too, the Vietnamese intuited that the American press would never print Garwood's side of this story.

In fact, most Western reporters uncritically repeated Vietnamese propaganda. Nothing was said about finding evidence of a prison camp. Ho Xuan Dich, director of Vietnam's MIA office, was quoted extensively as saying that Garwood had been a low-ranking Vietnamese officer and that "he had socialized with other Vietnamese officers," and had even been "Dich' s own good friend." Dich denied that someone named Eisenbraun had ever existed. Ike's existence was just one more fact American media could easily have found out for themselves by looking at prisoner rolls.

Garwood was approached by Colonel Thai (probably an alias: Thai means war in Vietnamese), the man in charge of American prisoners who had warned him before his release that the US government would never believe he had been a prisoner, and that the Vietnamese had agents all over the United States, including allied PLO informers, who would watch him to make sure he kept his mouth shut. Now Thai came forward and called him friend.

Vaughn Taylor caught Thai and Garwood on camera as Garwood, enraged, pointed his finger at Thai and said, "you tortured my friends." Thai was so furious at this that months later he contradicted Dich, who had said Garwood was a good friend who had regularly socialized with the Vietnamese. During a meeting with Patricia O'Grady-Parsels, the daughter of a missing American pilot, Thai emphasized that Garwood had been a war criminal from the start. He had never allowed himself to be reeducated. He had always had a "bad attitude." He had to be separated from other prisoners so as not to contaminate them. For these reasons, his sentence was not commuted in 1973.

This was the same line some Pentagon staffers had leaked to the press when Garwood first came home, contradicting their own colleagues who said Garwood was an agent of the Vietnamese. More than ten years after Garwood's return from Vietnam, neither his Vietnamese captors nor his own accusers in the Pentagon could keep their stories straight. No one in the media was interested in what O'Grady-Parsels had to say.

Does Garwood's sad experience with America's version of "Newspeak" mean that his message about what happened to the men who still languished in Vietnam's prisons when he left in 1979 has not reached the American people? Surprisingly not. Garwood's true story has somehow made its way across America. Abraham Lincoln said you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Today he might add that even with the media's help, the government can't fool all of the people all of the time.

After my book Spite House, telling Garwood's story, came out in 1997, Garwood and I were invited to speak to more than two hundred thousand veterans who were assembled near the Vietnam Memorial on Memorial Day 1998. The veterans and their families traveled -- as they did every year -- from all parts of the country in motorcycle caravans to commemorate and keep alive the concern for MIA/POWs who had not yet been properly accounted for. The Washington Post had featured the veterans as they paraded from the Pentagon parking lot down Independence Avenue and to the wall the previous day. Perhaps for that reason there were network news cameras in the crowd.

Many gathered there in the softly falling rain had at one time believed that Garwood fought with the enemy against them and hated him for it. Some had been disappointed that he did not face a firing squad. But they had educated themselves about the Vietnam War as probably no other American veterans had ever examined their own war. They had done this as brothers, learning from each other's experiences, whether they had been simple grunts, special forces, medics, or generals. They published newsletters in which they reprinted every article that dealt with Vietnam issues from newspapers across the country. They circulated copies of documents like Garwood's debriefing. Some, like Colonel Ted Guy, who as the highest-ranking officer to have been in charge of POWs at the notorious prison camp called "the Plantation," challenged the increasing number of government hacks who, handsomely funded by US intelligence agencies, made careers out of disseminating falsehoods about the war, particularly Garwood's role in it, on Internet Web sites.

When Garwood arrived to speak to the veterans amassed near the Vietnam Memorial, he was embraced by an honor guard of South Vietnamese veterans -- some with the rank of general -- who had been his prison campmates. As he stepped to the podium and saluted the crowd, it erupted into wild cheers of "Welcome home," and "We love you, Bobby." Garwood, overcome by emotion, continued to salute, unable to speak. The seconds dragged on, the cheering unabated when someone, seeing Garwood struggle to speak, spontaneously came out of the crowd. He was a large man, obviously a veteran because of the large metal hook he had for one arm. He moved next to Garwood, one arm around him, helping to hold him up. Garwood was still unable to speak when a second man came out of the crowd to lend Garwood his arm on the other side. Then a third man joined them. So embraced, Garwood finally began to speak. With his first words, a hush settled over the crowd so completely you could hear a pin drop. Garwood spoke only briefly of the country he loved, the darkness that he knew was not only in his heart but in the hearts of all the veterans, a darkness connected to the brothers they had left behind both dead and alive. Afterward, the three men embraced Garwood as brothers and soldiers embrace.

It was then I noticed the light blue ribbons around the necks of each of the three men who stood with Garwood. Each ribbon held a simple decoration, the American eagle sitting on top of a star, the highest military honor the United States can bestow on a soldier, the Medal of Honor. A clear voice from the crowd said, "Such men do not embrace traitors.

I had been aware of the news cameras rolling throughout this drama. As an old television producer, there was no doubt in my mind that I had witnessed everything one could want for a Memorial Day news story. To make sure the networks that had sent cameras knew the background of what their cameras had recorded, I collared reporters and called old friends in news departments. But nothing appeared on the news programs that night or later.

Even so, what happened on Memorial Day 1998 was a victory for Garwood. Like the dissidents living under the old Soviet regime, thousands of veterans who opened their hearts and minds to Bobby Garwood found the truth against strenuous odds. They continue to keep it alive. It helps Garwood to hold on.

In spite of everything that has happened to him, Garwood considers himself lucky. But what sticks in his craw and still makes his nights unbearable are all those other American prisoners he saw alive long after the war was over, who, for the same reasons of political expediency that destroyed so much of his life, were left behind. He knows that with such a precedent left unchecked, it can happen again and again.
In fact, he sees a similar disregard for the grunts who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and those who keep guard in places like North Korea. He knows that the press will not touch these issues because they are simply not sexy enough and they can be dangerous to important careers.

Stories about soldiers are covered when presidents want to create splendid public relations opportunities for themselves by making surprise landings on aircraft carriers or sneaking visits to the Middle East to share a bite of Thanksgiving turkey with soldiers fighting a guerrilla war. Also covered are stories about the past wartime heroism of attractive presidential candidates, like Sen. John Kerry. But when that same senator, chairing a Senate select committee on POWs, exposed some of the most explosive scandals surrounding that issue, there was no coverage at all. No coverage even though the committee established one undisputable fact: American prisoners were left behind in Vietnam and other countries where we fought secret wars. Only one lone New York Times editorial exhorted those who still cared about the ramifications of such a finding to let it be and live in peace. Tell that to the parents who finally have confirmation of what they have known all along: that their sons were alive at the end of the war and were left behind, despite President Nixon's assurance in 1973 that all our American POWs were on their way home. Evidence Senator Kerry's committee collected proved without a doubt that Nixon knew this was not true. Key appointees of the Nixon administration, including former defense secretary and CIA chief James Schlesinger, testified under oath that intelligence data persuaded them that live prisoners had not returned. Schlesinger was asked point blank if he thought that men had been left behind. "I think," he answered, "that I can come to no other conclusion." The mainstream press didn't consider this newsworthy. Only veterans' newsletters and the odd small-town newspaper reported it. What does that say about the media's value system? Reporters were falling all over themselves to get a Watergate scoop, but a scoop about young soldiers abandoned and left to rot in the most cruel prison systems in the world? It was insignificant, even in the light of the Kerry committee findings.

Constitutionally, Congress was meant to be the vehicle for bringing to light and rectifying injustice, particularly as it affects the functioning of bureaucracies that are meant to serve the people. What goes on in the armed forces, particularly during times of war, should be of paramount interest. The Fourth Estate was meant to throw light on the functioning of government and society as a whole. But in the handling of the Vietnam war and the issue of POWs, the government failed miserably, and the press acted as its propagandist and apologist.

Col. Millard S. Peck, the Pentagon's MIA-POW chief in the late eighties, resigned his position in disgust, referring to "official efforts to obfuscate ... and stall the issue until it dies a natural death." He clearly outlined the problem in testimony before the select committee as well as in a 1991 speech that was well attended by the press. He told the committee that in the late 1980s he had accepted his appointment at the Pentagon with high hopes of helping to resolve the POW issue. He felt there was enough very high-level intelligence showing that there were live prisoners in Vietnam to force the communist government in Hanoi to cooperate. The country was in bad economic shape and desperate to renew diplomatic relations and a trade agreement with the United States. Peck knew that Washington's unshakable position as articulated by Henry Kissinger had always been that "we would never give aid to ransom our prisoners." He resigned when he discovered what this really meant. He believed that Vietnam had not only repeatedly hinted, but had, in fact, put a proposal on the table involving the United States paying four billion dollars through a third country (Canada) and reopening diplomatic relations and establishing trade in exchange for Vietnam returning POWs. Peck eventually began to understand that official US policy with respect to POWs was the exact opposite. Washington was making it clear to the Vietnamese that if they wanted to exchange ambassadors and establish trade relations, they'd better make sure that they didn't return prisoners. Vietnam got the message. There were no more offers to return POWs, and soon diplomatic relations and the all-important trade negotiations resumed. Peck's anger and frustration were made clear when he tacked his letter of resignation to his office door with his wartime bowie knife. There was no press coverage. Not even Penthouse magazine did the normally obligatory interview with Colonel Peck, a legendary Green Beret and genuine hero. What did make a few gossip columns around Washington was the unsubstantiated rumor that Colonel Peck dyed his hair.

Perhaps sorriest in the long litany of examples where the press voluntarily -- or perhaps under pressure -- abrogated its responsibility to cover a story of essential interest to large numbers of Americans was the effort by International Security Affairs to prevent committee staffers from reviewing key POW files. When permission was finally granted to review the files, they had been weeded so thoroughly that not a single paper specifically requested was part of the files. Destroyed were all the documents that listed special codes assigned to airmen during the Vietnam War in case of capture. The codes were to be used by a prisoner to send his own special signal by, for example, writing it with stones or stamping it out on grass so that US satellites could pick it up. In fact, all through the early eighties, satellites recorded a series of such signals in countries like Laos, where it was known that prisoners were being held. Committed members of Congress investigated these, but International Security never released the list of special codes, so no cross-checking could be done. Family members of the missing, veterans, and some in the intelligence bureaucracy had fought a running battle to get at those files so that comparisons could be made with the satellite data. There was great excitement in the POW community when committee staffers were finally given access to these records, only to discover that all files relating to the airmen's codes had been destroyed two years after the war ended. Thus, surviving prisoners who tried to transmit them did so in vain until they died. The government, on the other hand, continued to say until recently that what clearly looked like specialized codes, picked up by satellites over Laos, were "photo anomalies" or "shadows and vegetation." The press showed no interest at all in an issue that was by now twenty years old. When a retired colonel with an intelligence background whose son (also a colonel) was missing in Vietnam received information through an informal network of retired intelligence professionals that his family's old telephone number with area code (from the time his son was a child) had been picked up by satellites, he tried to get the press interested, but to no avail. The phone number was a cry for help, laid out by a specific prisoner using ingenuity to identify himself. The press as a group had been made to believe that the families of the missing simply couldn't accept the tragedy of their loved ones' deaths. In fact, what they couldn't accept was the deliberate deceit and carelessness of a bureaucracy that could arbitrarily destroy lifelines like the specialized codes.

In 1992 a Harvard researcher discovered a top secret Soviet Intelligence document -- Quang 1205 -- recording that just four months before the peace accords were signed, Hanoi was holding twice as many prisoners as it admitted to having and twice as many as it would hand over to the United States.
This got some media coverage. But then the Pentagon issued its version of the document. It was authentic, they admitted, but was "replete with errors, omissions." The Clinton administration declared the document to be false. How could it do otherwise? Quang 1205 was the last thing standing in the way of the US trade embargo against Vietnam, which was lifted a few days after the document was declared to be false. No major news organization was interested in examining the issue further, even though the Pentagon presented no evidence that the document was in any way erroneous and high-ranking defectors from the former Soviet bloc confirmed the information in the document. In fact, if the document did contain "omissions" as claimed by the Pentagon, those omissions had to do with the fact that some US POWs had been shipped from Vietnam to Russia to be used as guinea pigs in experiments that involved amputations and mind-destroying drugs. One of the persons directly involved with shipping those American servicemen from Vietnam to Russia was Warsaw Pact general Jan Sejna, who the Defense Intelligence Agency hired after he defected in the mid-seventies. When Boris Yeltsin first came to power, he publicly acknowledged that the Soviet Union held American prisoners from as far back as the Korean War and even the Second World War, making it clear that he was willing to release all related records. Washington ignored this. So, except for a brief announcement, did the press. Naturally, Yeltsin mentioned it no more. Only the families of the missing and veterans who continued to care opened a dialogue with Russians, who understood their concerns because they were engaged in a similar search for their sons who had gone missing in Afghanistan. Both sides felt they had more in common with each other than with the bureaucrats in their respective countries who had obfuscated and denied the truth.

The Vietnam War was based on a lie that lives to this day: that Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Ultimately, fifty-eight thousand lost their lives because of a trumped-up incident that resulted in one death. At the time of this writing (February 16, 2004), we are once again engaged in a war (Iraq) based on a lie. The lessons have not been learned. Military professionals believe that the president was under the influence of a network of political appointees who, according to recently retired air force colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, operated outside normal structures and practices. A former Pentagon officer and Middle East specialist who once worked in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, Kwiatkowski said this network had hijacked key areas of government policy: "Their goal is to perpetuate war to promote abstract global morality through military imperialism, propped up by muscular national socialism at home."

For today's ordinary foot soldiers, modern versions of Bobby Garwood, this does not bode well. But there are other disturbing signs of the government's lack of regard for the average soldier. Take, for example, one of the two letters of decorum issued before the troops left for Iraq: there was to be no display of the American flag in Iraq. Period. Troops were told that they were fighting for the security of their country and that although the flag symbolized the country they were fighting for, the only time that it could be displayed in any way was if they were killed. In that case, the flag could be draped over their coffins. To put this in context, never before in American history were men sent to fight for their country without being able to display in some way the flag they were fighting for. To add insult to injury, since March 2003 a newly enforced military regulation has forbidden taking or distributing images of caskets or body tubes containing the remains of soldiers who died overseas, lest such images disturb the public and remind US citizens of the price they pay to wage war. When Russel Kirk, after almost a year of effort that included filing a Freedom of Information Act request, managed to get 361 such photographs released, government spokesmen cited reasons of privacy for all the secrecy. Privacy? For whom? Certainly not for the nameless and faceless men lying inside the flag-draped "transfer tubes." Trying to hide their sacrifice does make a statement, though.

Anyone who has gone to war knows that intangibles count a great deal, and none count more than the reverence and rituals surrounding the symbol of what soldiers are willing to die for. That is why just before a soldier is buried, attending comrades-in-arms lift the flag off of the coffin and carefully fold it in a proscribed way: blue field with white stars on both sides of a triangle shaped like the cornice worn by George Washington's soldiers. Once folded, the officer in charge holds the triangle with one hand on top and one underneath and carries it to the closest surviving kin. While handing the flag to the soldier's relative, the following words are always uttered: "From a grateful nation."

Families were also disturbed by the fact that troops were dying daily because they were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan with Vietnam-era flak jackets that offered no protection against enemy Kalashnikovs. Many reservists, who made up the bulk of troops in Iraq, went as long as four months without being paid. In any war, troop morale depends on a clearly scheduled return stateside. Yet troop shortages have meant that many soldiers have seen their return dates postponed again and again. Many came home from Iraq to head immediately for Afghanistan or South Korea. None were able to spend the usually compulsory time required to update their skills at the national training center at Fort Irwin, California. Nothing, so far, has been done to change this new policy.

The mainstream media, after ten months of war in Iraq, had yet to pick up on such issues even though Stars and Stripes, the US armed forces in-house journal, reported early on that soldiers were fed up. Not properly trained for the job they were expected to do, they saw no end in sight for the war and planned not to reenlist. And, reminiscent of Bobby Garwood, the US government recently blocked modest (one million dollars) reparations to thirty-seven former POWs from the earlier Gulf War, which a US court had ordered to be paid out of Iraqi funds. The fact that American prisoners had even been taken in that war seems to have escaped notice, as has the fact that at least one prisoner of war was being held at the time this essay was written (April 29, 2004). Certainly media coverage was scant. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld openly ignored international conventions involving the Red Cross.

Shades of Vietnam.
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