A man approaches you and claims he has a box with a dragon in it. He offers to sell you the box with the dragon. There is one caveat. You cannot open the box to see if there’s an actual dragon in it. You can hold the box. Shake the box. Smell the box. Weigh the box. Listen to the box. He’ll give you testimony of people who have looked in the box and sworn there is a dragon in the box. But, any time you ask for the one simple test that will resolve all questions about the content of the box, you’re given various hand-waving explanations why the box simply can’t be opened.
Would you buy the dragon in the box? What if others have approached you with similar dragon-in-the-box claims? In your earlier, more innocent days, you paid cash for the box. Upon opening it, you discovered the box was just filled with old socks and a bunch of Mexican jumping beans.
Further, what if the Ministry of Dragon Affairs has stated they’ve met the man with the box several times and have actually opened the box and the box did, indeed, contain some old socks and a bunch of Mexican jumping beans?
Would you buy the box? Would you pay to see a movie about people looking at the box but never opening the box? How would you feel if people started writing newspaper headlines claiming dragons are real based merely on a movie about an unopened box?
In April, Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival premiered a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Michael Jorgensen that made a claim as amazing as a saying you have a dragon in a box. Jorgensen’s film Unclaimed follows a missionary named Tom Faunce who thinks he has stumbled upon an MIA Vietnam vet named John Hartley Robertson. The real Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson (member of the elite Green Beret MACV-SOG unit) was declared MIA after his helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1968. Back then, the US was not supposed to be in Laos. Robertson (heretofore known as JHR) was eventually declared KIA (or more accurately “Presumptive Finding of Death”).
The Green Beret’s supposed survival story gets a little murkier (we’ll deal with the “plot holes” later). It is claimed JHR was captured by either the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. These are two “slightly” different groups, the North Vietnamese were a regular army based in the country of North Vietnam. The Viet Cong was a guerilla force in the nation of South Vietnam. He was tortured and either escaped or was released. He met a Vietnamese village nurse, married her, and she gave him the identity of her deceased husband (of French-Vietnamese origin).
The Vietnam war was televised with very little censorship. The daily horrors were such that there was a public backlash against all things military. Jane Fonda called returning POWs “hypocrites and liars”. Through much of the 1970s, war was not cool. Americans wanted to forget the war and, sadly, forget their veterans. Americans, however, began to realize wanting to forget was doing a disservice to the men who served, died, and went missing in Vietnam.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there began to emerge a moral panic in the States. This manifested itself in the notion that Vietnam vets had been left behind, alive, in Vietnam. Eventually Hollywood capitalized and profited on the moral panic and turned out movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (a movie even vets who believe there are still MIAs in Vietnam utterly cringe at). By the 1990s 70 percent of the US public believed there were still POWs alive in Vietnam.
It was not just Hollywood rushing to cash in on the moral panic. Unscrupulous individuals (both in North America and in SE Asia) proffered “evidence” there were living MIAs. Part of America’s healing process was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The wall featured the names of not only those known killed in action but those listed as MIA. The wall, unfortunately, gave scammers a mailing list of families that could be contacted and told their son or husband, presumed dead, was still alive. Just a little bit of money is needed to help with the paper work/bribes/rescue mission to get your husband out of ‘nam. It was a confidence scam. Many will recognize it, today, as the Nigerian Bank Scam. “I have x and you can have it for a bit of money.”
As James Randi likes to point out all woo is ultimately an unsinkable rubber ducky. The ghouls who preyed upon MIA families persist today. Sometimes it involves “bone sellers“, people who claim they have found the remains of service men and demand cash before giving up the bones. The US Military is quite clear that it does not pay for remains.
But there are still people trying to peddle live MIAs. Scammers have, for decades, been claiming they can provide access to the actual living JHR. The scam goes back to at least 1991/1992.
Tom Faunce thinks he’s found JHR
A missionary by the name of Tom Faunce, working in Cambodia, was told by some Cambodian Christians there was an MIA veteran living in Vietnam. Faunce himself is a veteran of the war and, according to people reporting on the film, quite shaken by his experiences. He pledged his life to trying to make the lives of SE Asians better. As far as I can tell, he has truly dedicated his life to that. For example, he helps dig wells in Cambodia. One has no problem understanding why Faunce would do anything to confirm a report about a living MIA.
According to the missionary’s own blog, he had to navigate around several obvious scam attempts before he finally met up with the man in the film, the man claiming to be JHR. Faunce claims he took the man to the US embassy and was quickly turned away, demanding ID. Faunce, on his blog, muses in some obvious frustration a man 40+ years MIA might not still have his driver’s license on him.
The military tells a slightly different version of that story, but we’ll get to it later.
Faunce wrote to his member of congress and eventually made contact with Canadian filmmaker Jorgensen. Jorgensen claims he was initially skeptical but, we’re told, decided to simply make a movie about Faunce’s quest to find the man and have him meet members of his surviving “family” back in North America. The surviving family consists of JHR’s wife and children (at least one daughter), one sister, and the sister’s nieces. JRH has a deceased brother and two deceased sisters.
And, well, Jorgensen made a film.
The Toronto Star Breaks the Story
On April 25, 2013Toronto Star movie critic Linda Barnard broke the story about Unclaimed. I stumbled on the story scanning the Star web site. I’m a child of the Vietnam era (born 1966). I saw live news coverage of Vietnam POWs coming home. I was a huge fan of Bob Barker’s Truth or Consequences and it frequently featured female contestants being re-united with their husbands or sons returning from military duty in Vietnam. I also followed the MIA claims in the ’80s and ’90s. So when I ran across this news item, it struck me as a most incredible claim, like someone claiming they had a dragon in a box. Hadn’t they investigated the living MIA claim six ways to Sunday? We saw with “Blackhawk Down” the huge sacrifice American military personnel will make to bring home one of their own. This is certainly not a modern military ethic taught in basic since the 1990s. Do military men and women in charge of MIA issues suddenly lose that ethic when given investigative jobs? Would a tough cuss Green Beret like JHR not do everything to make his way back to America, using every bit of his training? He’d rather just marry his Vietnamese nurse and have kids with her? Did Scott O’Grady strip off his uniform and marry the first Bosnian woman he saw?
A tale of two Johns
The moral panic over MIA claims eventually culminated in the US government convening the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The committee (which included John Kerry and John McCain) concluded unanimously there is “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia”. Although the committee did admit they had some evidence suggesting POWs may have survived. But, as noted, no compelling evidence was found.
You can clearly see why, to me at least, this is a dragon-in-the-box claim. (I do not find it difficult to believe the Soviet Union had their own version of Project Paperclip running and might have absconded with a few airmen it thought might be able to reveal air defense secrets. But the notion of Rambo-style camps with MIAs sitting around in them for a decade or more is an incredible claim.) The implications of finding an MIA are tremendous. Political careers (notably that of Kerry and McCain) would be on the line. Surely, there must be news of this magnitude online. Beyond a Toronto Star movie review?
Google Says “Maybe not”
After reading the article, a quick Google immediately turned up a number of web pages that had been warning about the JHR scam for several years. Nothing looked official. They were mostly poorly done web pages put up by Vietnam veterans and various MIA groups. Many had not been touched since 2009, the last time major JHR scuttle butt emerged within vet and MIA circles. Some of the pages spoke of failed DNA and fingerprint tests as well as un-sourced emails from vets saying they had met the man claiming to be JHR and had determined quite quickly he was a hoaxster.
One thing that struck me as odd. Many of these skeptics were actually groups that professed POWs were still alive in Vietnam. If they were skeptical, it seemed reasonable reporters like Barnard should be as well. Further, journalist Geoffrey Cain (who has written about MIA and Vietnam war-legacy issues for Time and The Economist) immediately informed Barnard via Twitter that it was known DNA and fingerprints had been taken and there was no match.
A picture was quickly emerging that reporters with knowledge and experience in the region, MIA organizations who represent the interest of families, and vets with on-the-ground knowledge of JHR were uniformly skeptical. They were, unfortunately, all but ignored by Toronto media, despite being a quick Google away. In email I pointed Barnard to these sources. She noted she had found them herself and asked the filmmaker about them. She seemed content to take the filmmaker (the guy trying to sell a film) at his word that he followed those up and found these Green Beret and MIA NGOs were just repeating rumors. Hmmm.
As it would later develop the rumors of fingerprints and DNA tests were not rumors but easily verified as fact if Barnard had simply made a phone call.
Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson also largely took Jorgensen’s word for it and offered no balance from these freely available skeptical sources. Much of what Jorgensen was saying was low-level conspiracy mongering. Somewhat disturbing such claims were turning up unchallenged in the Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine. Much of the conspiracy mongering (like so much classic conspiracy mongering) rests upon apparent contradictions: contradictions between what the military was saying how they operate regarding MIA issues and how the military was really operating as regards the JHR case.
I directed Barnard via email to both the spokesperson for the US Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) and the National League of POW/MIA Families which quickly issued a skeptical Facebook post regarding Unclaimed and the JHR reports. What is particular relevant about the National League of POW/MIA Families is this group created the famous POW/MIA flag. Congress itself gave the official nod to the group’s flag. Surely, someone at a real news org like the Toronto Star or Maclean’s magazine would want to contact them.
The Star ups the credulity
Barnard followed up her original story with a second article that still largely ignored skeptical sources. The MIA groups, vets, and in-country journalists issuing specifics that contradicted Jorgensen’s claims, Barnard compressed into the single quip that Unclaimed was “spurring passionate debate among PoW/MIA groups and veterans.” It was the equivalent of Arthur Dent finding out the second edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had revised Earth from “harmless” to “mostly harmless”.
About a day after Barnard’s much shared April 25 Star article came out, someone on Reddit had found the DPMO’s 2009 report about the case. It was sitting, publically available, on the Library of Congress’s web site. The report was quite damning to the claim expressed in the movie. The DPMO report noted the man in the film had been fingerprinted by the FBI and no match was found when compared to the prints in JRH’s official records.
Maclean’s Magazine Doubles Down on the Conspiracy Angle
Two days after Maclean’s film critic Brian Johnson published his own conspiracy mongering story, the UK’s Daily Mail and The Independent both ran stories headlining the man in the movie was a fraud, citing the DPMO. Johnson, seeming stung, tweeted “knee jerk” media orgs like the Mail were buying the “fraud” angle. Johnson seems to have missed the Mail and Independent were merely telling both sides of the story, giving proper weight to the 2009 DPMO report. The Daily Mail is usually a suspect source among skeptics, frequently called the Daily Fail. If the Mail told me the sun comes up every day, I would not take the Mail’s word for it and I would spend every single day for the rest of my life verifying the veracity of that claim. However, The Independent, which is certainly no friend to the US Military-Industrial complex and given to knee-jerk apologetics, was also calling it fraud. Johnson seemed so miffed he showed up in the comment section of The Independent to scold them for daring to give proper weight to objective evidence, versus building a story around eminently fallible human perception. Johnson, whose magazine is part of the massive Rogers media empire, seems to hint The Independent is a less-than-independent news source:
“The Independent (sic) might listen to Robertson’s family members…”
Johnson wrote a follow up article taking the Mail to task for such “knee jerk” reporting. Johnson, hilariously, accused the Mail of running a document “leaked” to them by the US military. In the comment section of Johnson’s article, I took pains to point out to him this so-called leaked document had been freely available since May 2009, was found several days before the Mail article by Reddit users, and (most astounding) I myself had alerted him to the document’s existence on the Library of Congress site several days before the Mail article. He simply had no evidence the freely available document was leaked to the Mail. It was an invention of his own making. It was as likely a reader of the Mail simply sent them the Reddit link.
Johnson has subsequently edited the online article and removed the charges of a military leak. His words have been preserved in my comments to him. Curiously, his updated article makes no note about changes and corrections. What was at first “leaked” to the Mail, we are now told “surfaced in a British tabloid”. Again, it “surfaced” days before in the comment section of Johnson’s first article.
Not every journalist “rolled over”. The National Post properly balanced the filmmaker’s claims with the 2009 DPMO document that indicated the man in the film was Dang Tan Ngoc, a Frenchman and long-time Vietnamese citizen with a long history of making false claims, and his fingerprints simply didn’t match those in Robertson’s records. The National Post‘s more skeptical treatment (“Man claiming to be missing Vietnam vet in new documentary is actually a well-known con man, U.S. says”) highlighted several damning facts (beyond the failed prints). Post journalists Tristin Hopper and Jon Swaine noted the man in the film “gave a non-existent high school and bogus U.S. home address for Master Sgt. Robertson, whose name was even rendered incorrectly.” In contrast, Barnard’s less skeptical follow-up article (“Unclaimed: Controversy erupts over man claiming to be missing Vietnam veteran: But documentary filmmaker Michael Jorgensen stands by his film, as does the American family of John Hartley Robertson.”) devoted very little text to the DPMO report’s pages and pages of utterly damning analysis. She gave a one sentence treatment to the DPMO 2009 report and the DPMO May 1 press release regarding a DNA test that failed. Barnard then introduced a seeming inconsistency: the family claims they never gave a DNA test. This is, as we’ll see, a claim the filmmaker keeps trying to reinforce.
Business Insider‘s Military and Defense editor Robert Johnson (a former U.S. Army non-commissioned officer) offered the most detailed investigation on May 1. Robert Johnson had the good sense, which apparently escaped the Star‘s Barnard and Maclean’s Johnson, to contact real sources in the military and get their word before running with a story. Johnson contacted DPMO public affairs officer Jessica Pierno and Lieutenant Colonel Todd Emoto (Ret.), who commanded (2008-2010) the Joint Prisoner of War Accounting Command in Hanoi. Emoto’s words are quite telling:
“I mean this guy was a frequent flier at our office,” the colonel said, his voice rising. “It totally blows my mind that he’s gotten this far. He forgot how to speak English and his kid’s names? Who falls for that?”
(Oh, and if Maclean’s Brian Johnson is still scratching his head wondering how the Mail got a hold of the DPMO document, Business Insider’s Robert Johnson cleared that up for me in an email. Right after Barnard’s April 25 Star piece came out, Robert Johnson made some calls and got the DPMO document. He passed it on to his associate Jonn Lilyea. Robert Johnson wanted to not go public until after the movie premier at Hot Docs. Lilyea didn’t get the memo and shared Robert Johnson’s findings and the Mail scooped him!)