America’s journalists enjoyed their finest hour during Vietnam—indulging in reporting that overwhelmed all objective presentation of American military action. A recent book about Robert Garwood by two former reporters for the Washington Star suggests that our newspapermen are not done yet.
Marine Private First Class Robert Garwood, captured by the Vietcong in 1963 and released by his North Vietnamese masters in 1979, was the only American prisoner of war brought to trial by the Department of Defense for collaboration with the enemy. In 1981 a military court at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, found Garwood guilty of collaboration and physical maltreatment of an American prisoner, and dismissed him from the service.
During the trial, seven former Vietnam POW’s who had known Garwood in the camps took the stand. All testified for the prosecution, none for Garwood. Their judgment of the “white Cong” they had encountered in the jungle was unanimous: Garwood had “crossed over.” He lived separately from them in the compounds, ate with the camp cooks, and enjoyed a general freedom of movement around the camps. Garwood was friendly and familiar in dealings with his captors, and because of his acquired fluency in Vietnamese he served as the enemy’s spokesman during political reeducation classes.
Garwood’s recent biographers develop Garwood’s personal story in the sympathetic “interior mode” as if privy to tape recording of his private thoughts for the past 16 years. From the extensive picture they present of Garwood’s captivity in the jungle camp—interwoven with detail of his depressing pre-enlistment family life and postrelease adversities (including a child molestation charge dismissed for insufficient evidence)—the reader is to gather that Garwood was, above all things, a “survivor,” a supreme achievement. The treatment of Garwood’s motives—”nature or nurture”—is even more dubious. With sneers at the Marine Corps and Middle America, the authors depict their subject as the hapless product of a rootless America and of an absurd war the volunteer Marine never wanted to fight, the victim of a Military Code of Conduct that has become irrelevant.
What emerges from the elaborate rationalization of Garwood’s collaboration, however, is that it was Garwood himself who created his protracted ordeal. From the moment he decided that survival meant more than every other loyalty, he became his masters’ malleable tool. Garwood repaired his captors’ radios, tested their bullhorns, cleaned and carried their weapons, signed without protest their propaganda documents. Indeed, he emerges as considerably more collaborative in the testimony of his camp mates, which his biographers report, than he appears to be in the inner tape recording that Spencer and Groom have labored so hard to reproduce. The reporters do not resolve—or even acknowledge—this serious internal contradiction in their book.
The impact of tendentious biography may be considerable in the contemporary moral dimness. Vietnam, in its unexamined tangle of myth, fact, and fiction, is the uncontested central event in modern American history for an unmoored and suggestible generation—not least for that circle of dewy young didacts in the Congress who rise to lecture and scold the pariah nation like fledgling Puritan divines. Groom and Spencer’s book adds another small text to the pulpit of Dodd, Downey, Markey, and Co.
[Conversations With the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood, by Winston Groom and Duncan Spencer; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons]