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On Colonel Risner

In Chapter XIX of The Passing of the Night, Colonel Risner describes a meeting with me in the Hanoi camp called the Plantation. This was on April 1, 1968—the day the bombing stopped over most of North Vietnam. I have spoken of the meeting in my book Hanoi. Two captured pilots were brought into a living-room to talk to me, one after the other. Risner was the first. In my text I said “the second prisoner,” but that referred to the order in which I took them up: I started my account with quotations from the other pilot, much younger than Risner and eager to know how the Chicago Cubs were doing. He was a rather nice ordinary boy from an Irish Catholic background.

I did not identify either by name and was chary of telling too much, because of their prisoner status—they were not free to answer any adverse comments I might make on their attitudes and might even be harmed in some way. In the case of the younger pilot, because he was likable, I had fewer inhibitions. Hence I gave him fuller treatment than I gave the then Lieutenant Colonel Risner. All I said specifically of Risner was that he was “a gaunt, squirrel-faced older man” who “had not changed his cultural spots” but claimed to like Vietnamese candy.

Hanoi is now about to be republished in a collection of my Vietnam writings, and this spring, after the release of the POWs, while revising the manuscript, I appended a footnote. Here it is.

*This was Robinson (“Robbie”) Risner, today a widely admired hard-liner and Nixon zealot. From my notes: “tight lined face, wilted eyes, somewhat squirrely. Fawns on Vietnamese officer. Servile. Zealot. Has seen error of ways. Looks at bananas. Grateful. ‘Oh, gee, bananas too?’ Speaks of his ‘sweet tooth.’ Loves the Vietnamese candy. Effusive about it. Perhaps ostracized by his fellow-prisoners. Speaks English slowly, like a Vietnamese practicing the language. Stereotyped language.”

Now that I have seen Risner’s book, I have searched my memory for further particulars of that meeting, looked through my notebook again, and studied a photograph of him that was taken during the conversation. Since I was the only American, outside of his fellow-prisoners, he saw in Vietnam, it is in the general interest, I think, to check his memory of that interview, as he records it, against mine. It is the unique passage in the book where somebody not a North Vietnamese jailer nor a US military hard-liner was present during a scene he describes. My notes, I suppose, were written the same day, in the afternoon during the “rest period,” or in the evening.

What stands out in my recollections is the contrast between the two prisoners and the paradoxical impression that made on me. On the one hand, Risner claiming to feel deep repentance for his acts against the North Vietnamese people; on the other, the boy showing no remorse, seeming untouched, really, by his experience. As an opponent of the war in Vietnam, I ought to have sympathized with Risner and been repelled by the boy, but the opposite was the case. The boy, I felt, was being true to himself (telling about raising carp in a pond, about learning to play chess with his fellow-prisoners, about his fiancée, who taught in a parochial school, about how he wanted to get out of the army and teach math and coach athletics in a high school), while the older man, I felt, was specious in some way I could not easily define.

He seemed to be apolitical, which was odd under the circumstances. Neither left nor right nor in the middle. The light he had seen was sacred. I tried to assign his speciousness to the religious streak in him: he was a member, he said, of the Assembly of God—a Pentecostal sect. Maybe, I said to myself, he is a regular Sunday repenter, loving to abase himself and cringe before the Almighty, and now he adapts the habit of ingratiation to the almighty North Vietnamese. If I had seen him testifying, with contrite mien, at a revival meeting back in Oklahoma, that probably would have repelled me too. On this subject, more from my notebook.

General effect of visit rather eerie and unpleasant. We sit on chairs. Pilot sits on a round stool. Bows. This explained to me as Oriental custom. Pilots clearly nervous. I nervous. Vietnamese not nervous. At ease. Cannot escape idea of lion-tamer or trained-seal performance. Strange how one feels these men ought to be sorry for their acts and yet one is put off when fulsome sorrow is expressed. Lack of solidarity with one’s own actions.

Of course the difference in the two pilots’ behavior could mean simply that one had been tortured and the other had not. That explanation did not occur to me at the time. Not that I was unaware of the possibility of torture. Indeed, one of my motives in asking to see some prisoners was to try to judge for myself whether the allegations made about torture could be true, and I studied both men to the best of my ability with that in mind. I could find no signs (and looking at Risner’s photo I still cannot), but then I am not a medical authority. In any case, Risner in his book does not say that he had been tortured in the days preceding our interview; he is unspecific about how recently he had been…. It might have been months before. So my eyewitness testimony is worthless either to corroborate or challenge his statements on that score. The last date he gives is July 3, 1967, when he is forced to appear before an East German delegation. This is followed by ten days of torture; then he is led before a North Korean delegation. He leaves the impression that all these events followed swiftly on each other: “not too long after” the North Koreans, he sees me. But in prisons, time can telescope, and he may be offering his sense of the calendar in good faith.

It is clear from my notes that I got the unpleasant feeling that some sort of whip was being held over him. But since he looked to be in pretty fair physical condition (allowing for confinement), I must have dismissed the notion that the whip might have been literal. I guessed that he had been currying favor with his captors and obeyed because of fear that favors would be withdrawn. Horrible in any event. Yet assuming that his book is honest and that torture, recent or remembered, had reduced him to the abject moral state in which I found him, this leaves the younger pilot’s relatively debonair stance as somewhat of a mystery. If nobody had tortured him and hence no simulation of guilt and remorse could be expected of him, why was he produced? Perhaps merely as proof of lenient treatment. Yet he too was nervous. “Cagey and scared,” I wrote in my notebook. Could he have been scared of talking to me?

He was especially nervous when I asked him—we were talking about the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries—what his present political preferences were. (He had not minded telling me, with a smile, that if he had been registered he would have voted for Goldwater in 1964 “because the army was for Goldwater.”) If free now, he said cautiously, he would vote for the candidate who would “bring about peace by negotiation” and quickly added, “In the circumstances I wouldn’t want to be quoted.” This sounds as if he was more anxious about the reception his formula, if I were to cite it, might get from the US Army than about the North Vietnamese reaction.

More on Risner from my notes.

Strange business about not replying to my question as to what would happen if a wife sent $100. [I forget the exact bearing of my question but think I was trying to find out what would happen to packages and—hypothetically—money sent to the pilots. Would the gifts reach them and, if so, would they be distributed in equal or unequal lots by the North Vietnamese or would they be shared voluntarily among the prisoners?] Think he feared to answer, not having been coached on the question. Sounded sincere about wanting the Bible.

This brings me to Risner’s story of the conversation between us. He writes:

Then she wanted to know what I missed the most. I told her a Bible. She asked, “Don’t they give you Bibles?” I said no. She was a rather forceful woman. When she turned to the Cat and said, “Can I send him a Bible?” it caused a big flap. While they were talking, she said, “How about if I sent Bibles for everyone? Can’t they have them?” The Cat said that would cause problems and they put her off.

It is true that I suggested sending Bibles and that this caused, as he puts it, “a big flap.”

Whole business about Bible rather peculiar. Ask Dellinger [David]. When I wonder that nobody in the peace movement has sent Bibles, Vietnamese officer answers, “That is their business.”

But other things in Risner’s story do not jibe with my recollections, and for what bearing this may have on his general accuracy (or mine), I shall indicate the differences.

She said, “I’ll send you a cake.” Then she turned and asked the Cat, “Can I send him a cake?” The Cat replied, “He does not need that. We give him plenty of wholesome foods.” Then he looked at me. “Isn’t that right?” I answered yes. He explained further, “We provide these things for all the prisoners. And besides, cake would spoil.”

I have no memory of this, and there is no reflection of it in my notes. Although I am a devoted cake-baker, I bake them only for people I like and I did not like Lieutenant Colonel Risner and in fact was rather disgusted by his talk of his “sweet tooth.” As for a store cake, I would have known as well as the Vietnamese officer that it would spoil in transit.

I would not go into a court and swear that I had not made some light reference to American cakes (I was trying to inspire him to be more natural) but I would swear that the “plenty of wholesome foods” dialogue with the Vietnamese officer never took place. Risner’s praise of Vietnamese candy was volunteered, and at no point did the man intervene to extort from him an endorsement of the food or general treatment. That was the kind of thing I was on the alert for and it would not have passed me by. It is understandable that Risner today does not wish to recall his effusive flattery of his captors, which went far beyond what was called for in the circumstances, but the picture he gives of himself as reluctant, curt, unforthcoming is more than forgetful. It is false.

She asked me about myself, and told me she had requested the interview to be with me.” No. I had never heard of Risner until that day. When he was led into the room, his name meant nothing to me. It surprised me to read just now in his book that five months before being shot down he had been on the cover of Time. A naïve sense of his own importance transpires from the book and this primitive vanity perhaps also explains the cake memory: “a cake just for him!” I had no opportunity (or inclination) to specify which prisoners I wished to see and until the day or eve of the visit did not know I was going to be permitted to see any. Contrary to the impression given by Risner the North Vietnamese, at least in my time, were not eager to organize these meetings. “Captured pilots” was on the list of requests I had drawn up on arrival and after two nonresponsive weeks I was expecting it to be refused, since I saw they considered the desire morbid. “I know I suffered because of her request to see me.” I am sorry to hear he suffered, but it was not through my singling him out.

She was a rather large woman.” In the proofs, “large” was “tall.” I am neither large nor particularly tall and I wonder who or what prompted him to make the change. Finally: “…to my knowledge she did absolutely nothing to help our cause.” Well, that is true. I was not in sympathy with their cause, though I did receive some wives of POWs and told them that, in my opinion, the best thing they could do to obtain their husbands’ release was to work with peace groups for an end to the war. I cannot remember whether I sent some books, including Bibles, to the US prisoners or whether I forgot to. Both are equally likely.

I did write to Risner’s wife and to the younger pilot’s mother and fiancée, to say I had seen the captive men and that they had seemed to be in good health and spirits, though they missed them and had talked about them a lot. The second letter was easier to write because I could put in the carp and so on—cheerful details. The younger pilot’s mother and fiancée immediately answered, to thank me and ask for further scraps of information if I could recall any. A normal response, I should have thought, from a loving family, even if the news bearer was, pretty certainly, on the pro-Hanoi side.

Mrs. Risner never answered. Peculiar. At the time I thought that political fanaticism directed toward me must have been more powerful than her interest in hearing about her husband, or else that she did not want to hear about him, having got word through the POW grapevine that in captivity he had become a North Vietnamese toady. This is how I still happen to have his photo in my desk drawer. Had she answered, I would have sent it on to her. I had not enclosed it in the first place because I thought the sight of him, with shaved head, in prison clothes, coming out of the blue, might be too much of a shock. Peculiar, I repeat. It is as though the divergence between the two pilots’ behavior in controlled prison conditions carried straight through to their families. But maybe, somehow, Mrs. Risner (though she still lives, apparently, at the address written down in my notebook) never got my letter.

Looking back, I can see that Risner’s behavior that day was consonant with his having been tortured. Had I thought so then, I hope I would have tried to do something about it. Published my impression or gone to the North Vietnamese to warn them that this had to stop, in the name of humanity and their own best interests. But this was tricky territory. If the North Vietnamese had denied that they were torturing the pilots, would one have felt justified in accusing them on the basis of a mere impression? I don’t know. And they might well have denied it in good faith. It is hard for me to believe that the North Vietnamese leaders (those I have seen anyway) would not find the abuse and degradation of captive men morally repugnant. Nor can I imagine Phan Van Dong, a highly perceptive and intelligent man, failing to be disgusted with the gross stupidity of the enterprise, which yielded no returns even in terms of the most naïve propaganda and was bound to end, someday, with the appearance of books like Colonel Risner’s. Yet if the leadership did not know the real facts, it certainly should have; the treatment of the prisoners was not just an administrative detail. Perhaps the leaders found out and that is why the torture was halted in the fall of 1969, though there seem to have been occasional beatings afterward.

In my opinion, the full truth of what went on in the camps is not yet known and simple denial by the North Vietnamese will only obscure it further. Colonel Risner’s book does not convince me that he is giving the full truth of his experiences; instead, it persuades me that he is offering something less and something more. It would be interesting to hear not only the North Vietnamese “side” but also the “side” of the prisoners who were not physically mistreated and did not belong to Risner’s tightly organized resistance network. To say that there must be a North Vietnamese side to the story is not to excuse barbarity but rather to decline to take barbarity for granted as somehow self-explanatory.

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