Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle
By Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes with Gary Brozek
Morrow, $26.99, 457 pp.
Although candidate Hillary Clinton warned during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries that it was “naïve” to think the U.S. commander in chief should meet with dictators and provide them with propaganda opportunities, Clinton, now secretary of state, recently testified she “didn’t see the harm” in President Obama’s chummy close-ups with Venezuelan thug Hugo Chavez.
Critics wondered what effect the video snippets had on the morale of the people being persecuted by Chavez, especially in light of Obama's noted lack of public support for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, America’s closest ally in the region
Out of Captivity -- a gripping new first-person account by Americans held hostage by FARC, the Chavez-supported communist narco-terrorist group in Colombia -- gives an excellent perspective on both questions. American counter-narcotics contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes directly address how public legitimacy given to dictators affects those who suffer under them.
Primarily, however, this book -- subtitled Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle -- is a ripping good survival yarn of valiant American heroes who endure brutal conditions by sticking together, and keep their sanity through faith in themselves, their country and their God. The book is told in each man's voice in turn as they chronicle their 5-plus year captivity.
The three captives -- Gonsalves, a former Air Force image analyst; Stansell, a retired Marine; and Howes, a pilot who had worked in South America for decades -- were employees of Northrup Grumman, which had a contract for airborne surveillance of Colombian drug runners for U.S. Southern Command.
The men were flying a routine reconnaissance mission over the jungle in February 2003 when their small plane experienced engine failure, and they crash-landed in the middle of a group of the narco-terrorists they were supposed to be watching.
Their pilot and a Colombian Army officer were summarily executed, while the three American survivors, despite severe injuries, were herded into a brutal forced march as the guerillas put as much space as possible between themselves and the crash site.
For years, the three men were constantly kept on the move as the FARC stayed a step ahead of the Colombian military. The terrorists constantly held out the hope they would get ransom for their captives, but the Americans finally decided the tactic was a psychological device to keep them from attempting escape.
Whenever the Americans heard helicopters, it aroused both anticipation and dread. As much as they longed for rescue, even their friendliest captor made it clear he would not hesitate to murder them at the beginning of any assault.
The FARC members were very media-minded; they kept up with the news about themselves and any reports of negotiations for hostage release or a truce. Sometimes they hared the news with their hostages.
The three Americans never developed Stockholm Syndrome, partially because of the strength of their convictions and partly because of the FARC's casual brutality. Interestingly, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the three hostages cheered the news of new American combat, happy that America at least was kicking terrorist butt somewhere in the world, no matter what an increase in international tensions might mean to them personally.
"Learning that our country was at war with another group of terrorists was the best thing we'd heard," Tom Howes says, "I didn't want any Americans to die, but knowing that we were fighting against a regime that had done so much damage to the very people it was supposed to protect and had harbored terrorists, it was a necessary sacrifice. Given that we were being held by guerrillas had only hardened my stance..."
FARC once had negotiated a demilitarized zone with the government of Colombia, but it had brutally ignored its terms until even the most liberal Colombian politicians had to admit it was a failure.
When the American hostages finally were transferred to what they called “the Political Camp,” conditions were significantly better than most of the places they had stayed. The queen bee among the prisoners was Ingrid Betancourt, a celebrated leftist politician whom FARC had taken captive after she ignored the Colombian military’s warnings not to campaign in the DMZ.
While the accommodations were more spacious and the food more plentiful, it did not immediately mean much of an upgrade for the Americans. Betancourt’s attitude was that some hostages were more equal than others. She and her entourage treated the space they occupied and the food they were getting as though their private property were being infringed upon by migrants — not that actual private property rights were a big part of her political platform before captivity.
While the Americans were kept together, the rest of the hostages were frequently separated and taken to different camps. They endured conditions ranging from barrack-like structures to holes in the ground with heavy chains around their necks.
In the Political Camp, Betancourt and her male partner tried to rule with an iron fist and hoard resources. However, in their second stay together, she became friends with Gonsalves and the two shared religious experiences and began what might be called an emotional affair of sorts. Gonsalves was convinced she had changed. By the third time the Americans shared their captivity with Betancourt, she was into a new man and up to her old ways. Apparently, like Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bettancourt is a feminist icon whose persona and approach to life changes depending on whatever man is currently her most important relationship.
Throughout their captivity, the hostages had several interactions with media or film crews “reporting” on the hostages’ condition or filming a “proof of life” video for negotiating purposes. When the Americans tried to represent their true conditions or refused to mouth the words written for them by their captors, they were treated harshly.
These encounters, however, ultimately were the basis for their rescue by Colombian special forces. Pretending to be a sympathetic film crew — dressed, like many FARC guerillas, in Che Guevara T-shirts — Colombian commandos staged a dramatic rescue operation taking down some important terrorists while grabbing the Americans, Betancourt and a few others.
Although real life, for once, imitated an action movie, media interest in the American hostages faded quickly after an initial flurry of publicity upon their return. Likewise, their release of Out of Captivity did not have the big major talk shows clamoring for them as guests.
Why? It’s not because they don’t give good TV -- the three are excellent interviewees with a great rapport, and they are witty and engaging. And it’s obviously not because they lack a great story to tell. Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes, however, just may cut against too many media templates. Private military contractors, after all, are the new liberal boogeymen. The fact that the guys -- whom the Daily Kos would say deserve whatever punishment they get because they are “mercenaries” -- were more giving to other captives than a celebrated Nobel Peace Prize-winner is a great story; but it possibly was not a welcome one for many in the mainstream media.
Furthermore, their release inconveniently came in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, and their story tended to validate John McCain's approach to terrorism rather than Obama's accommodation of international thugs.
The narrative of Out of Captivity hardly lends credence to the foreign policy aims of The One. The Colombian military and President Uribe are heroes in this book, whose cause would appeal to most Americans if they knew the story.
On the other hand, it must be noted that conservative media have not given this book -- or these special men -- the attention they deserve.
Meanwhile, Obama is mugging for the cameras with Hugo Chavez, and holding up a free trade pact with Colombia over bogus union intimidation claims.
Out of Captivity gives a fascinating and intimate look at a war on terrorists that America has been very much engaged in for the last two decades, but which is largely ignored stateside.
Unfortunately, it appears that war is about to be neglected by the American national security apparatus as well, just as real progress is being made. If so, shame on us.