Goodreads Review: When Hell Was in Session by Jeremiah A. Denton

Three Star review, originally posted here on May 26, 2015.

I think the very best thing I can say about this book is that it forced me to challenge myself, which I guess is somewhat rare when you get to self-select what you read. I saw this listed during a Kindle sale, it looked significantly less-shitty than the other discount titles, it appeared well-reviewed, and it was about a topic about which I know very little and thus would like to learn more. Beyond that I had no idea what I was getting into, but was determined to enter with an open mind.

It was not long, maybe even just a page or two, before I started to wonder how fairly I would be able to evaluate the book. Denton, the author/narrator, just rubbed me the wrong way. He came off as very arrogant. I wondered, “Should my like or dislike of this book be influenced by my like or dislike of the author?” Beyond that, should my knowledge of what happens to him (several years of excruciating, terrifying torture)influence how I feel about him? I cautiously decided that I shouldn’t let the personality of the main character color my interpretation of the book and the events it contains.

In this vein, I was able to read the majority of the memoir with great interest. Denton is not a gifted writer, but his straightforward style was adequate enough, and I learned a lot about POW treatment in Vietnam. Nothing really surprised me (it is a war memoir, and war is shitty and messed up), but it was still definitely a worthwhile read.

The aspect that struck me as the most interesting, and for which I am thankful to Denton, is the humane depiction of most of his captors. As in any society, different people are different. Some guards were just plain sadistic. Some clearly did not want to be there but tried to just go along causing as little stir as possible. But the spectrum across the middle was fascinating. Many of the captors seemed extremely conflicted on their situations. Many seemed to oscillate in their attitudes based on various external factors. Perhaps the most obvious of these instances was when a large gorilla of a man was brought in to mercilessly beat and kick Denton, and when Denton spat in the man’s face, he stopped and began crying. Moments like these are what made this book reiterate just how many shades of gray can exist even in such a seemingly black-and-white issue such as torture.

It is ironic, then, that Denton is the one to present the reader with these nuanced issues, while also himself being such a blind patriot, and such an arbiter of how, exactly, everyone should be behaving in any given situation. He sits in judgment of other servicemen who do not follow the Code of Conduct as religiously as he does. In his famous TV interview (which I found and watched after completing the book) he states that he has no clue what his country is doing at the moment but he fully supports it because it is America and America is always right.

In his matter-of-fact presentation, Denton leaves many questions unanswered for those of us who don’t understand his motivations at the time. Beyond the fact that the military had instilled in him a preset sense of order, it was difficult for me to understand why go through so much pain, and demand that other people go through the same amount of pain, just to avoid giving useless information like biographies. He also glosses over more personal details that would have been more informative to a reader (like listing off his torture routine like a grocery list instead of telling us what this torture was doing to him psychologically or emotionally), and delegates some of the most fascinating nuances of POW camp life, like intricate communications systems and surprise Christmas presents from the guards, to a tier of storytelling below boring stuff like “Who is the highest ranking officer at any time?”

Towards the end of the book, things go horribly wrong. There may have been something wrong with my Kindle version, but in the last chapter things suddenly stop making sense completely. The prisoners know they’re going to be let go… and then suddenly they’re on an airplane, and Denton’s big concern is how he, the big important officer, is going to make a God Bless America speech when he lands. The part where they actually get out of prison was missing, at least from my copy, which is a shame because it’s what we as readers have been waiting to hear about through the entire book, right? Isn’t that the climax of any great POW story? Denton also makes angry references to two traitors who are on his airplane, and makes a big deal of which door they will use to leave (or something like that), but I seemed to have missed whichever part in the book explains why he hates these two guys so much.

Denton returns to the US in the early 70’s and finds a very different world than the one he left behind. He is flabbergasted and disgusted by all the dirty hippies at Woodstock. As a modern, generally Liberal reader who was not born for years to come, reading this homecoming reaction from Denton’s perspective was enlightening. It highlighted the stark contrast between the various schools of thoughts at the time that have so directly shaped the American dichotomy today. I wouldn’t necessarily agree (at all) with the specific things that Denton found so repugnant upon his return, but I can understand and appreciate what he was coming into. The bulk of this book was written in 1975, only a couple years after his return, and it makes sense to have a couple pages summarizing Denton’s thoughts about his return.

But then things go off the deep end, and the book is unsalvageable. If you are considering this book, realize that it realistically is two books: the memoir written in 1975, and the second epilogue, written somewhere in the past few years. The second epilogue is absolute garbage, and it made it extremely difficult for me as a reader to still have any respect for the man and author from the rest of the book. It’s basically pages and pages and pages (he seriously goes on forever) of Marine Todd, Fox New internet commenter conservative bullshit. The only redeeming quality was that, after I had the thought “Geez, this is straight out of a Marine Todd meme story,” I could at least laugh a little because I heard everything else in the Marine Todd voice. Except this is not a redeeming quality at all, because I do not WANT to laugh at the POW war hero. I do not WANT to cheapen the rest of the book and this man’s experiences by brushing him off as a loony. This man morse-code-blinked intel across the globe and devised elaborate secret communication systems, and I want to have respect for that. But he makes it oh-so-difficult to respect him when he goes off on a diatribe about how abortions are a threat to national security, and how he single-handedly halted cartoonishly evil communism in all Central America with a patriotic Marine Todd speech.

Like I said, this one was challenging. But worth it, I think.

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