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Book Review: Buried Alive: The True Story of Kidnapping, Captivity, and a Dramatic Rescue by Roy Hallums

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Roy Hallums was a retired newly divorced U S Navy Commander when he was kidnapped from his contracting job in Iraq. His book, Buried Alive: The True Story of Kidnapping, Captivity, and a Dramatic Rescue , is a story of that 311-day ordeal.

Survivor stories have always had a special appeal for me. I like learning how people survive disasters, criminal attacks, hostage situations, imprisonments, and other horrors. Usually these stories combine a social history and spiritual growth. By the time one has finished reading it, one is not only spiritually edified but one has also gotten some background history on some parts of the world hitherto unknown. Buried Alive succeeds remarkably well in one of these areas.

Throughout its chapters, one learns much – how the FBI operates during hostage crises, how terrorist networks work, how journalists and the military work together or don’t work together. . . and of course one learns about the day to day trials of a specific hostage. In this respect, the book is rich with details and information. For the most part, this information is told straightforwardly in a conversational tone although there are moments when the writer seems to be writing from massive notes.

The book is mostly memoir, but much of it is also a collection of interviews. The author has chosen to tell a global story which means that not only is there an account of the hostage’s ordeal but there are also interview notes with the family, newspaper accounts, commentary from operatives involved in the case. That’s the kind of thing that would work for those who like military stories but it didn’t really work for me. For me, the editorial choice to veer away from an indepth spiritual examination of Roy Hallums' plight was a wrong one. Or rather, it was wrong for me. It made the book feel distant and merely informative…and vaguely heartless.

Now, survivor books don’t have to be about the heart. That’s just my issue, I expect – but one I expected because the book is published by Nelson, a Christian publisher. And I suppose I could have accepted a primarily informative book –as opposed to a spiritual journey– if I didn’t feel veer the vaguest sniff of American can-do machismo.

I feel a bit odd picking on a book about a survivor’s ordeal but I have to mention that Mr Hallums’ depiction of his co-hostage, Robert Tarongoy, a Catholic Filipino bothered me. He describes Mr Tarongoy as weeping for the first few days, and silent . . almost catatonic. At first, it seems that Hallums is merely acknowledging the horror of the situation and acknowledging that the safest thing to do was to remain quiet. But as one reads the book, one can’t help but sniff a heavy whiff of judgmental smug machismo from the stalwart Mr Hallums.

An example: When another hostage complains about Mr A’s silence, Roy Hallums replies “That’s just how he copes; leave him alone.” I suppose the ghostwriter puts this in to show Mr. Hallums ability to defend the weak but honestly, it turned my stomach because it sounded so darn self-serving. Even when Hallums tries to honor Robert, he damns him with a faint praise that is mixed with macho belittling.

Another example: Hallums continually talks about Robert’s body being thrown upon his whenever they get shifted from hiding place to hiding place. Now, he never speaks about the time he is thrown on Robert’s body. If he did I missed it. Certainly, the terrorists didn’t make it a point to always throw Robert into the vans, jeeps, cars onto Mr. Hallums.

I suppose this is the editor’s or the ghostwriter’s fault. I understand that they are trying to show a true American hero with a “can-do” spirit but there’s a narcissitic solipsism in the book that makes it hard for any reader to identify with Hallums. I suppose I wanted Hallums to either acknowledge his weakness a bit more or to shut up with his sly denigration of Robert Tarongoy.

I’m not a supporter of either terrorists or the war against the Iraqis, but an American macho ethic so permeates this book that if one isn’t careful one would start grading hostages – with the all-American Mr Hallums at the top. I think I would’ve liked it better if Hallums or his ghostwriter had done a little more to see some glory or honor in Mr Tarongoy’s silence.

Again, that’s just a nit. And the readers to whom it is aimed probably won’t mind seeing American machismo in action. Buried Alive is a good book for those who wish to study modern Iraq, militarism, and Islamic terrorism.

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