Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Life Taken Prisoner: Black Prisoner of War--A Conscientious Objector's Vietnam Memoir

Book Cover Image
James A Daly's griping memoir, Black Prisoner of War rests in the unenviable position of  #2,519,472 in the Amazon ranking of books.  Its an unenviable and undeserved position.  What I read struck me as a straightforward, well written account of Daly's experience in the army. What made his experience different from most others, of course, was his being captured and held as a prisoner of war for five years in a series of camps in Vietnam.  Add into the mix his claim to have been a conscientious objector all along, and the fact that, as one of the few blacks held by the Vietnamese, he was the object of continuous and sophisticated indoctrination by his captors, and you have a unique story worth telling.  Originally published in 1975 by a now defunct company, Black Prisoner of War, was republished by the University Press of Kansas after Daly's death in 1998.  It didn't do well either time despite the efforts of co-author Bergman, a publicist.  When the book hit the stores the first time, the war was over, South Vietnam had passed into history, and America was obsessed with other issues.  Even an interview with Walter Cronkite and an appearance on the Today Show didn't get the necessary attention to make the memoir pay out.

What killed the book then, and still haunts it, was hostility against a man who was perceived as a collaborator with the enemy.  A couple of high ranking POW returnees, who strangely enough never met him during their prison camp time, preferred charges against him.  The Army quickly dismissed the charges, but the damage was done.  Certainly, the controversy around him itself justified his putting forward his story.  Daly's memoir is an important contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War. I'm a Vietnam Vet who doesn't believe that my experience was universal, so I won't judge Daly, question his motives, or his honesty. The reader should understand that Daly is giving his very personal experience, and his inner reaction to it, and not trying to write a history.

I was only the fourth reader to review the book on Amazon.  The other three reviewers all made judgments about James Daly's character, honesty, and motives.  They were negative judgments and that was reflected in the low number of stars they gave the story.  It's the nature of history to deal in objective fact, and of memoir to relay subjective and personal truth.  The two rarely coincide.  Both are valid.  I hope my favorable review and ranking do a little to redress the balance between history and memoir in Daly's case.

No review would be complete without mentioning the contribution of co-author Lee Bergman to this volume.  I found that Black Prisoner of War was, despite one reviewers claim, written in a quite readable, simple style. Few people know how difficult it is to produce this type of writing.  It takes a trained writer.  Lee Bergman spent his professional life as a publicist and I have to assume that it was he, rather than Daly, that actually wrote this story.  Jim Daly was an intelligent, but relatively uneducated and unsophisticated man.  His career aspiration after he left the army was to be a professional cook.  Not chef, cook.  He ended up being a mail carrier and a failed laundromat owner.  He may have been a nice enough guy, but he wasn't a writer.  Bergman was. That he is able to present the unusual life this simple man lived in language that reflects the complexity of the issues faced, and the earnestness of Daly's response, is a tribute to his skill as a writer.  I don't know if Bergman is still alive.  I can't find him with a Google search.  If he is out there, I'd welcome his comments on this blog post.

I came across Black Prisoner of War while researching the battle in which Daly was captured for another project.  His account of that battle was helpful to me.  Anyone with more than an idle interest in the Vietnam War will find this book worthwhile and valuable.  It presents the experience of one man in a strikingly different way than most such works.  Daly's saga is one of race, politics, religion, philosophy and individual choice.  Like him or not, agree with his choices or not, his sincerity and essential truthfulness are evident. You get the sense of what it was like to be Jim Daly in those years.  Few memoirs can leave you with the feeling you've glimpsed the core of someone else.  This one does.

Those Veterans who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange will be interested to read Daly's account of being sprayed by US aircraft as they defoliated the rice fields around his POW camp in South Vietnam. He could smell, and actually taste the stuff. It will come as no surprise to them that he died in his 50's from complications of his resultant severe diabetes. Daly, of course, didn't know the toxic effects of Agent Orange when he wrote the book.  Nor did he know he would develop a disease the government now accepts as caused by the defoliant. That we unwittingly kill our own should give us all reason to question the wisdom of war. Any war.

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