One of the Independent’s most cherished contributors is gone.
Tom Glenn had so many sides, lived so many lives, acquired so many talents, and shared them so generously that a fictional character based on him would strain credulity: polymath, linguist, musician, intelligence analyst, cryptologist, novelist, power lifter, leadership consultant, educator, and, for a dozen years, a counselor for the dying, a role that began with the AIDS epidemic. His death from lung cancer on June 4th, at age 86, is personal because he was a friend and gifted man of letters who wrote more than a hundred reviews for the Independent.
Tom was quiet yet conspicuous. He spoke softly and never idly, but his physical presence was powerful. He was always considerate, except if he thought your writing should have been better. Then he said so, clearly and decisively but never angrily or snidely. His book reviews for the Independent had those qualities.
Tom’s credentials and experiences — rarely mentioned by him — were gaudy. His undergraduate degree was in music, and he performed as a musician. His master’s degree was in government and his doctorate in public administration. He spoke seven languages. He devoted 13 years to cryptological and signals-intelligence work for the U.S. Government, including seven clandestine years in Vietnam.
His work in Southeast Asia proved the fulcrum of much of his adult life. He had a front-row seat on the American military’s blunders at the height of the Vietnam War, many of them committed in the face of contrary advice offered by Tom and his colleagues, who were monitoring enemy communications. More than 40 years after the ghastly ending of that ghastly war, Tom related key mistakes in a column in the New York Times.
Tom’s most honored novel, Last of the Annamese, expressed his horror over the bungled American withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1975. (Tom himself escaped Saigon under enemy fire.) I read an early draft in a writers group. We all knew that this was something special, though we had well-intentioned suggestions to improve it (sic semper writers groups).
The novel reflected the depth of his knowledge of that war-torn country and its culture; he was fluent in its three major languages: French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The book pulses with a quiet passion fueled by Tom’s bitterness over the friends and allies left behind, which he deemed a crime. Usually even-tempered, Tom never lost his fury over the stupidity of the last U.S. ambassador to Vietnam during the war.
In a 2020 interview with the Independent, Tom acknowledged that his novels were “fiction in name only,” since they grew from his own remarkable experiences. A more recent novel, Secretocracy, derived from his refusal to approve funding for an illegal intelligence program. Advocates of the program mounted a pressure campaign to drive Tom to quit quietly so they wouldn’t have to risk firing him without cause. He was assigned to a job with neither responsibilities nor daily duties in an anonymous warehouse while bureaucrats sniped at him. But they underestimated Tom. He stayed in that no-work position until a new administration cleared his name.
Tom acknowledged incurring Post Traumatic Stress Injury from his time in Vietnam. Working to recover, he found that helping others was the best medicine. “So I volunteered to work with AIDS patients,” he recalled, “at the height of the epidemic.” That experience was so moving that he wrote about it in another novel, No-Accounts.
Those active in the DMV’s literary community will remember Tom from the many festivals and gatherings where he spoke from the dais about war and peace and love, and how he enjoyed connecting with readers. He frequently related his Vietnam experiences to community groups and on his daily blog, which he updated just a few weeks ago. He modeled a steadfast commitment to the writing life, which was his last career after so many others. His bear-like physique and glittering eyes radiated strength, but his manner was welcoming.
Tom’s contributions to the Independent cannot be calculated. His reviews routinely qualified for our list of the previous month’s “most read” pieces, and we won’t be the same without him.
We miss Tom. As Prince Hamlet said of his father, we shall not look upon his like again.
David O. Stewart is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and served as its first president.