March 30, 1997
By NICHOLAS PROFFITT
Did the United States put bounties on the heads of supposed deserters during the Vietnam War
The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam.
By Monika Jensen-Stevenson.
Illustrated. 371 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company. $25.
When Robert Garwood, a private in the Marines, finally came home from Vietnam in April 1979, the war had been over for six years, having ended with the 1973 peace accord that supposedly repatriated all prisoners of war. But for Private Garwood, who had just escaped Vietnam after spending 14 years as a P.O.W., one war may have concluded but another was just beginning, this one with his own people. And though he was unaware of it, he had been at war with his own kind for some time. For the better part of a decade, his Government had secretly tried its best to murder him.
For this returning P.O.W., there were no welcome-home banners or marching bands. Instead, he was hurriedly court-martialed and found guilty of collaborating with the enemy. The press and the public took the verdict at face value, and they relegated Private Garwood to that special American hall of shame reserved for the likes of Benedict Arnold.
Monika Jensen-Stevenson, a former producer for ”60 Minutes” who has lectured widely about Vietnam veterans, is convinced that the public and private pillorying of Bobby Garwood was a miscarriage of justice, and ”Spite House” is her attempt to put the record right. Working from copious interviews and what official documents she could extract from the classified bin, Ms. Jensen-Stevenson makes a strong argument not only that Private Garwood was not a traitor to Corps and country but that he is an unsung American hero. (At present, Bobby Garwood lives on the West Coast and supports himself by doing mechanical repairs.)
In addition, her book shines a light into a dark corner of the war, the secret world of special operations conducted by clandestine military units working with, and for, the Central Intelligence Agency. In this world, torture, assassination, even the killing of fellow Americans were given official, if unwritten, sanction. We are told that United States ”hunter-killer” teams, working from a list of suspected American deserters and defectors, had standing orders to kill them on sight. And, according to at least one former marine, that in 1973, after the signing of the peace accords, the C.I.A. assembled five-man sniper teams and paid them $12,000 to $25,000 a head for assassinating alleged renegade Americans. It is this aspect of the book that will undoubtedly shock American readers, who probably believe nothing about the Vietnam experience could surprise them at this point.
The impetus for ”Spite House” came at a veterans’ convention in 1991, when a stranger approached the author and declared: ”I am Col. Tom C. McKenney. You must know how to reach Bobby Garwood. I directed an official mission to assassinate him behind enemy lines, because I believed what they told me. Would you tell him that I will crawl on my hands and knees to beg his forgiveness?”
For the most part, the book’s narrative proceeds along twin, nearly parallel tracks, alternating the stories of these two once-proud marines, the private and the lieutenant colonel, their paths inching ever closer until they cross in a hotel room in 1993, when Colonel McKenney finally gets his chance to apologize.
While the two men had wildly dissimilar backgrounds — Bobby Garwood grew up poor in a trailer park in rural Indiana; Tom McKenney was raised in Old South gentility in Lexington, Ky. — they were alike in many ways. Both believed in old-fashioned values like hard work, honesty, duty and personal honor, and both totally believed in, and loved, the United States Marine Corps.
They had another thing in common: in Vietnam, both men were assigned to the intelligence (G-2) section of Marine headquarters at Da Nang, though Bobby Garwood was a lowly motor pool driver, whereas Tom McKenney, then a major, was a special operations expert. The two never met in Vietnam, however. Private Garwood had been a P.O.W. for three years by the time Major McKenney reported for duty in 1968.
In 1965, 10 days before his tour in Vietnam was to end, Private Garwood was given a seemingly mundane chore by a G-2 captain. He was to drive out to China Beach, pick up an officer, take him to the airstrip and return to G-2. Armed with nothing but a pistol, and with only a sketchy idea of where he was going, he was captured by a Vietcong patrol.
It was at this point in Private Garwood’s long odyssey, the author contends, that the official machinery began to turn against him. The captain who had given him his chore, Ms. Jensen-Stevenson says, realized he’d made a mistake in sending an underarmed, unprepared private into hostile territory, and so denied ever having done so. Because of that denial, Private Garwood was initially listed as being absent without leave, and a possible deserter. As a result, his case was put under the jurisdiction of the criminal division of Marine counterintelligence, where it would stay until 14 years later, when the Marine Corps would charge him with desertion.
Bobby Garwood’s life, meanwhile, consisted of one brutal P.O.W. camp after another. For a variety of reasons, Ms. Jensen-Stevenson writes, his captors became convinced that he was an intelligence operative. Consequently, they kept him largely isolated from other American prisoners (which led some to suggest that he received special treatment) and never considered releasing him, even after their war with America was over. This was Private Garwood’s life until 1979, when he managed to slip a note to a Finnish official, and the world learned of his circumstances.
His re-emergence clearly embarrassed Government officials both in Washington and in Hanoi, who were still maintaining the fiction that all American P.O.W.’s either were dead or had been returned. Washington’s quick explanation was that Private Garwood was a defector who had chosen to stay behind.
For his part, Colonel McKenney first heard Bobby Garwood’s name when he was put in charge of the Marine hunter-killer teams in Vietnam. Suspected American turncoats, more than a hundred of them, were included among their targets. When Colonel McKenney was briefed on Bobby Garwood, ”the only U.S. marine in history who had ever gone over to the enemy,” he was told that the private had been seen leading enemy soldiers and personally turning his weapon against his fellow marines. This put him at the top of the hit list as far as the colonel was concerned.
It was only after Private Garwood’s court-martial in 1980 that Colonel McKenney began having doubts. Retired from the Marine Corps and engaged in ministerial and counseling work, he started hearing from former special operations men who had briefly known Private Garwood in the P.O.W. camps. Bobby Garwood had been a stand-up guy, they told him. Then he was contacted by an old friend who had helped debrief Private Garwood on his return from Vietnam. The private was being railroaded, the friend told him. And there were the comments of Gen. Eugene Tighe, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a man Colonel McKenney respected. The general, who had debriefed Private Garwood at the agency, said that ”the court-martial was completely controlled by the fanatical elements of the Marine Corps.”
But for Colonel McKenney, the capper came when he obtained a copy of an unreleased, unedited videotape made of Private Garwood in Hanoi on the eve of his release. If the North Vietnamese had intended to make a propaganda film, it had backfired. Unlike the healthy-looking, well-scrubbed marine of the court-martial, the Private Garwood on the tape was a distressed living skeleton with sunken eyes and rotting teeth. He was also, in Colonel McKenney’s view, a defiant marine, one who refused to heed the audible, off-camera prompting of his handlers.
In a flash, Colonel McKenney said, ”I realized that my Government had done the unthinkable, not only in betraying Garwood but in using me and others like me as murder weapons. How many other innocent and brave men were made to look like traitors?” For Tom McKenney, the tape inspired an epiphany that would lead him to his climactic face-to-face meeting with Bobby Garwood to ask for absolution.
Nicholas Proffitt was the Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon in 1972 and 1973. He is the author of ”The Embassy House,” a novel about C.I.A. operations during the Vietnam War.
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