Army officer Jim Thompson's horrific experience in a series of North Vietnamese prisons was nasty and brutish--but definitely not short. He was held as a prisoner of war for nearly nine years, longer than any other American POW. His treatment was torturous: "I was put into a horizontal cage maybe two feet wide, two feet high, and five feet long. There I was kept for four months, chained hand and feet." And sometimes he was just plain tortured: "I sat there with a pen in hand as they shouted at me to write," he recalls of a time his captors tried to make him issue a statement condemning the American war effort. "Periodically they hit me with bamboo. Not hard enough to knock me unconscious or to break the skin. Just enough to hurt. They kept at it for eight, ten, twelve hours a day." (He eventually gave in, and signed a statement.)
The irony is that Thompson's life improved little upon his return to the United States. His wife had taken up with another man, his family fell apart, he drank to excess, and his son was convicted of murder. Readers will be at once tempted and reluctant to call Thompson a hero--tempted because of how much he suffered for serving his country and for his numerous escape attempts, but reluctant because Thompson was himself responsible for much of the pain he brought on himself and his family following his return.
Military journalist Tom Philpott has produced an oddly fascinating book about Thompson's ordeal. Glory Denied is not a piece of narrative nonfiction, but an oral history. It tells Thompson's story through the words of Thompson and those who knew him. Readers who want a more uplifting POW story may want to try Faith of Our Fathers by Senator John McCain (who contributes a foreword to Glory Denied), yet Philpott's book may come closer to capturing the agony so many Americans continue to associate with Vietnam. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
Col. Floyd James "Jim" Thompson of the U.S. Army Special Forces was captured by the Vietcong in South Vietnam in March 1964 and held longer than any other prisoner of war in American history, suffering greatly physically and emotionally. He was released, along with other American POWs, in March 1973. Thompson's troubles, however, only multiplied after his release. During his captivity, Thompson's wife, Alyce, moved with their four young children into the home of an army sergeant and told the children their father was dead. The Thompsons reunited after his release, but their marriage soon dissolved, and Thompson later suffered a stroke that diminished his mental capabilities. For this biography, Philpott, who writes the syndicated column "Military Update," interviewed 160 people over 15 years. In an even more vrit manner than Mailer's The Executioner's Song or George Plimpton's Truman Capote, Philpott tells Thompson's story mainly through the verbatim testimony he gathered from Thompson's family, friends and colleagues, along with various newspaper articles and other ephemera that have collected around Thompson. The Thompson family's postwar lives read like a Jerry Springer show, replete with severe alcoholism, spousal abuse, adultery, teenage pregnancy, bitter divorce and the jailing of Thompson's son on a murder charge. Philpott arranges the entire story deftly, with the most riveting sections covering Thompson's incarceration. Much of Thompson's own contributions come from interviews he gave for another book before his stroke. Philpott himself emerges here mostly through his choices in montage, and his refusal to comment directly gives this work real dignity. (May 14) Forecast: A New Yorker abridgement (Apr. 2 issue), a short foreword from Vietnam POW Sen. John McCain and release in time for Memorial Day should launch this book with verve, and its uncanny mix of human and military interest should quickly propel it onto bestseller lists. Expect serious sales and reviews that dwell on Philpott's primary source-based narrative method.
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