by Thomas W. Lippman
Americans have short memories. In all the furor over the exchange of five senior Taliban leaders for an U.S. prisoner in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, I haven’t heard anyone other than a writer for National Review Online bring up the name of Bobby Garwood.
Garwood was a private first class in the Marine Corps who disappeared from his duty station near Danang in 1965, during the Vietnam War. Did he desert and go over to the enemy? Was he captured and held against his will? Nobody knew at the time, and even now, several books and movies later, the case will still get you an argument.
Bergdahl’s story most closely resembles that of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held prisoner for years by Hamas. The Israelis made the excruciating decision to buy his freedom by trading 1,027 prisoners of their own, hundreds of whom had been convicted in court of crimes against Israeli citizens — unlike the five Taliban leaders traded by the U.S., who had not been convicted of anything. Garwood’s story is different from Bergdahl’s, but the tale is useful in understanding the complexities and nuances of the prisoner issue: What really happened? What were his intentions at the time? Once he was among the enemy, did he collaborate or resist? What was his country’s obligation to him?
Under the terms of the Paris Agreement between the United States and North Vietnam, which ended U.S. military engagement in Vietnam in 1973, all of the hundreds of Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong — including a Navy pilot named John McCain — were to be released. They were duly turned over to the U.S. Air Force in three groups. I went to Hanoi to witness one of those exchanges, and it was easy to see that the Americans remained tense and apprehensive, not to say confused, until they were aboard the plane. After the last handover President Nixon told the nation that Hanoi had complied with the Paris Agreement — all Americans known to be held were on their way home. Garwood was not among them, and in fact was not listed by the Pentagon as a prisoner.
After an extensive investigation, the Pentagon was unable to determine exactly what had happened to him, or whether he had made propaganda broadcasts for the north, as some troops asserted; therefore he was listed at the time as “missing.” An exhaustive review of the case said that a Marine Corps “screening board” had enough information to reclassify him as a deserter but decided not to do so until he had an opportunity to defend himself if he was ever returned to the United States. “This recommendation by the USMC POW screening board clearly demonstrates that the USMC was more concerned with protecting Garwood than with prosecuting him, as they should have been, until his return and all facts disclosed,” the review concluded. Sound familiar today?
Some veterans’ groups, and wives of missing air crew members who could not accept the reality that their husbands had certainly died when their planes went down, refused to believe that all captive Americans had been released. Goaded by political opportunists, including H. Ross Perot, they claimed for years that North Vietnam had held some prisoners back as bargaining chips. There was never any truth, or logic, to this – as was established years later by a special U.S. Senate investigating committee co-chaired by McCain and another Vietnam veteran, John F. Kerry — but the story periodically got new life because somebody reported spotting a young Caucasian man in North Vietnam. Most of those sightings were of the same individual, Bobby Garwood.
There were a handful of American soldiers and Marines who chose to stay in Vietnam and did not want to come back. Many had finished their terms of duty and married Vietnamese women, or gotten caught in the Cholon culture of drugs and gambling. (Remember Christopher Walken’s Oscar-winning performance as Nick in “The Deer Hunter”?) Garwood was not one of those dropouts; he went or was taken to North Vietnam four years after he disappeared from his motor pool, and in the 1970s was living more or less openly in Hanoi, where visitors sometimes spotted him. In 1979 he passed a note to a Finnish diplomat in a Hanoi café, saying he wanted to come home. Vietnam swiftly turned him over.
Garwood was court martialed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in an 11-month proceeding that produced more than 3,000 pages of trial transcript. He was acquitted in February 1981 of desertion and refusal to fight, but convicted of communicating with the enemy and assaulting an American POW in a detention camp. He did not go to prison; he was dishonorably discharged and ordered to “forfeit all pay and allowances,” as they say in the military.
The whole truth may never be known, lost in time and the fog of war. As with Bergdahl, some of Garwood’s fellow Marines maintained that he had simply deserted and demanded that he be punished. Garwood always maintained that he did not desert, he got lost, perhaps on a laundry run or perhaps, as some suggested, on his way to a brothel. Those who want the whole story might read one of the books about him, Conversations With the Enemy, by two former Washington Star reporters. One of the authors was Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump.” At least there wasn’t much ambiguity about Forrest’s record in Vietnam.
Photo: A screen cap from a Taliban-released video capturing the moment Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released into U.S. custody.