Monika Jensen-Stevenson’s defense of Marine POW Bobby Garwood is compelling, seductive, sensational…and wrong.
By Laura Ricard and Alan J. Fry
A thoughtful reader of Monika Jensen-Stevenson’s Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam (W.W. Norton, New York, 1997, $25) might believe that Bobby Garwood–the Marine private who, after 14 years as a supposed POW in Vietnam, returned home in 1979 to be court-martialed and found guilty of collaborating with the enemy–is innocent. He might, that is, unless he also reads Frank Anton’s Why Didn’t You Get Me Out: Betrayal in the Viet Cong Death Camps (reviewed in the February 1998 Vietnam). Although flawed by some extraordinary omissions, Spite House is a compelling book. It will instantly appeal to readers inclined to believe that the government and the military are eager to crucify innocent victims for political reasons and are disposed to conspiracy, coverup, bureaucratic stupidity and negligence. But seductive as her defense of Bobby Garwood may be, the author omitted critical evidence so damning that she has undermined her credibility and, as a consequence, that of Garwood.
The reader cannot help but wonder why the author did not include the testimony of any POWs (American or South Vietnamese) who lived with Garwood day in and day out in the camps and survived to testify to his guilt. POW Frank Anton, a downed gunship pilot who was in the same camp with Garwood and who was the prosecution’s chief witness, observed Garwood’s activities and demeanor for 18 “brutal months.” He suffered terrible consequences from Garwood’s spying, watched Garwood wander freely through the camp carrying a rifle and fraternizing with the guards and sat through Garwood’s propaganda classes (Garwood was “dressed in…fresh new silk pajamas”). Anton heard Garwood scream at an American Marine: “You have come to Vietnam…to commit crimes against these innocent people….I spit on you!”
In a book wherein a staggering array of complex evidence is examined so meticulously, could the omission of such damning evidence have been an oversight? Hardly. The reader is forced to conclude that either Jensen-Stevenson felt that every one of the men who lived with Garwood and testified under oath that Garwood had crossed over to the enemy could not be believed, or she knew that if she included their testimony, it could have rendered her case patently absurd. The former is ludicrous, so the latter must have been her rationale. Thus, to a significant degree, Spite House appears to be built on a lie by omission. In a telephone interview, Anton observed, “All of us who can tell about him [Garwood]–it’s as if we’re all wrong.”
Like first-rate trial lawyers, however, the most skillful authors know that if they want to make a guilty man look innocent, they’ve got to make their case with flair. Jensen-Stevenson appears to understand this, for her story is certainly sensational. Anton’s is emphatically not. In contrast to the inflammatory tone of Spite House, Anton tells his story in a manner that is down-to-earth, matter-of-fact and dispassionate.
Consider Anton’s account of the death of a fellow prisoner, Marine Denny Hammond: “His body had all but shut down from the diarrhea, and he was fading fast. He turned to me, looked straight into my eyes and asked me to do him two favors. The first was to tell his mom and dad what had happened to him. The other was: ‘Make sure you get Garwood.’…If [Garwood] had come home admitting his mistakes and professing sorrow for his actions, I probably never would have testified against him. I had promised Hammond in the jungle that I would do all I could to make sure that the world learned the truth about [Garwood], but I didn’t harbor any hate….To tell the truth, I really pitied him….I know what the difference was between him and the rest of us….Garwood failed the test of keeping the faith.”
But it is the ’90s, and Anton’s evenhanded, straightforward narrative is simply not going to compete with Jensen-Stevenson’s pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that her tale will be swallowed whole by a public eager to be told “the last secret of the Vietnam war,” for Columbia Pictures just bought the movie rights to Spite House for an undisclosed, seven-figure sum. The truth, which is often less glamorous and exciting than half-truths, will be buried under an avalanche of Hollywood theatrics. And as a result, as Anton perceptively observed, ultimately “only Garwood [will be able to] answer the question about what happened to him during all those years.”