A Soldier's Life, and Faith Lost, in an Unpopular War


"Glory Denied" is a sad, moving book about the havoc the Vietnam War wrought with one American soldier and his family. That soldier is Jim Thompson, a Green Beret who was captured by the Viet Cong in 1964 and held until 1973, longer than any prisoner of war in American history.

Told with skill and sensitivity by Tom Philpott, a military affairs columnist, Thompson's story is written as an oral history, drawing on interviews with Thompson, his family and fellow soldiers. It is a strikingly successful technique that adds to the poignancy of the story, allowing people to speak directly to the reader, and Philpott enters the narrative only occasionally for clarity's sake.

A year out of high school, Thompson married and entered the Army in 1956, becoming devoted to the military and rising from the ranks to become an officer. But, as one finds in this book, he put career ahead of family; he was away when his wife, Alyce, gave birth to all four of their children. And when he was home, he drank a lot.

Thompson's career was taking shape during the American expansion of forces in Vietnam; President Kennedy enlarged the Army's Special Forces as a key to fighting Communist guerrillas and gave them their distinctive green berets. They were supposed to be an all-volunteer force, but in the early 1960s there were not enough volunteers, so Capt. Thompson was pushed into the outfit.

Not terribly competent as an officer--he was green and impulsive--Thompson was given inadequate training on Okinawa before being plunked down, in charge of 11 men, in one of the most remote and forbidding parts of South Vietnam, Khe Sanh. He was sent there to help the South Vietnamese fend off North Vietnamese infiltrators from neighboring Laos. In March 1964, scouting the jungle for the unseen enemy, Thompson set out in a single-engine spotter plane and was shot down.

The pilot was killed; badly wounded, Thompson survived. Viet Cong captured him. For the next five years they held him in solitary confinement in the jungles of South Vietnam, torturing him and denying him food. He was viciously beaten into making a radio broadcast in which he said he was well treated. Near death, he was taken in 1967 to North Vietnam, where, two years later, for the first time he was held with other American prisoners. With many others, he was released to the Americans after the 1973 peace agreement.

After he was captured, his wife, hearing nothing beyond news of the plane crash, came to believe he was dead. She moved to Massachusetts with another man and took her children with her. They were all evidently happy and stable--until Thompson returned nine years later. Alyce, thinking that it was appropriate to go back to him, took her children and moved to be with him. At that the family fell apart, breaking off piece by piece. Until Thompson went to Vietnam he was the boss of the family; his wife, the cook and mother who deferred to his every whim. But after Alyce's nine years of freedom from that kind of life, the old ways didn't work any more.

Thompson traveled the country on Army business speaking about God, country and family as the pillars of faith that kept him going in captivity. At home he just got drunk and beat the children. Alyce left, and they divorced. The children went wild; Thompson tried to kill himself; their son, born when Thompson was in Vietnam, was convicted of second-degree murder. By this time Thompson had had a serious stroke that left him shouting incoherently in the courtroom during his son's trial.

Thompson chucked his faith and his churchgoing after his family dissolved. What he did not get rid of was his unbending sense of his righteousness, the certainty that his will was to prevail at the expense of everything else. "Glory Denied" reveals Thompson as a touchingly obtuse stiff-necked obdurate man over whom neither the Viet Cong nor the U.S. Army nor his family could prevail. The book reveals the Army to have been, in its dealings with Thompson and his family, downright inhumane in its bureaucratic indifference.

Those who appear worst in the book are the politicians, who used this limited suffering soldier for their purposes. President Nixon grandly invited him to the White House. President Reagan gave him a medal and said to him and other former POWS, with self-serving violence to the truth, "On the battlefield you knew only victory, only to have your victory lost by a failure of political will." For a long time, for various reasons, the Pentagon described another man, Navy pilot Everett Alvarez, as the longest-held prisoner. Thompson resented that, hence the title "Glory Denied.".

The story that Philpott has skillfully constructed shows how Thompson staunchly resisted his captors. He tried five times to escape. His stalwartness under barely imaginable conditions of pain and terror one can only look on with awe. Philpott makes that case plainly in "Glory Denied," and plainly, too, the terrible cost for this soldier and his family of the Vietnam War.

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