Monday, 24 June 2013

The Passing of the Night - Gen Robbie Risner

Title: The Passing of the Night
Author: Gen Robbie Risner
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0-345-33677-1
Pages: 248
Photographs: 0     

                Robbie Risner has written a book outlining his experiences as a prisoner during the Vietnam war from 1965 until 1972. He commences with an outline of his experiences leading up to his air operations in Vietnam. He commenced operational flying in WW2 and became an ace during the Korean conflict. In the process, he marries and has a family of five children.  While his writing is rather cursory over this period, it does set the tone of his personality and approach prior to his incarceration.

                The vast majority of this book is focused upon his time as a prisoner of the Vietnamese and it is in this area that the book serves as an excellent educational tool for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the lines. Aircrew have the dubious distinction of projecting force far behind enemy lines and are therefore at a higher risk of capture. It is therefore, critical that they be exposed to the potential challenges that they may face at the hands of a determined enemy intelligence service.

                Risner’s writing is very direct and matter of fact. He presents his captors and their actions in a rather formal manner that is surprisingly effective in conveying the horror that they inflicted upon their prisoners. The methods that the Vietnamese used, including sleep deprivation, physical torture, psychological trauma, isolation, denial of rations and control of access to mail, are classic methods used to break prisoners and make them amenable to exploitation for propaganda and intelligence purposes. Risner’s book provides an outstanding guide to those going into harm’s way of why they need to be prepared through realistic training on what might lie ahead.

                He also goes into great detail on how he and the other prisoners handled the stresses of captivity. Maintenance of the command structure within the prison, communication via morse code and other means, mutual support and creation of a means to advised new prisoners on what to expect were critical to morale. Additionally, he speaks to the issue of knowing when and how to ‘give in’ to the captors demands. For a military prisoner, it is anathema to provide assistance and information to the enemy and psychologically traumatizing to ‘break’. Risner, acknowledges this and the fact that everyone has their limits; he writes how he came to grips with this himself and how he, and the other prisoners, helped those who faced this challenge to understand that it was not wrong. He also provided direction on when it was acceptable to cooperate and in what capacity. All of this is both critical and relevant to soldiers everywhere.
                I liked this book; it is honest and engaging. The writing is clear and direct. The books purpose is really focused on his internment and how he dealt with it. He doesn’t speak extensively on his return and efforts at reintegration into US society and the impact that this had on his family in any real detail. As previously stated, the strength of the book is shedding light on the strength of the human spirit and how one can overcome adversity under conditions that defy comprehension.

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