When the Lion Roars by Gil Bogen

The reader is informed on the title page of Gil Bogen’s 
When the Lion Roars (Dragon Tree Books, 394 pp., $24.99) that this is “the true story of Dr. James Allen, the world’s leading authority on dioxin, a chemical used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.” Bogen, a free-lance writer, served in the U. S. Army Air Force and later as Chief of Staff at the VA North Chicago Hospital. He also and founded and served as president of nonprofit veterans’ health organization. 

I started reading the book with high hopes, even though the tiny print was a struggle for me. But by Chapter four the author’s historical novelistic approach to the subject bothered me. Bogen’s background is in writing sports biography. When I was ten, reading a Babe Ruth biography, it did not bother me to read the Babe’s reconstructed innermost thoughts. But it bothered me when I encountered sentences like these in the book:

“‘Quite a crowd I’ve got today,’ the pathologist thought to himself. He checked the small microphone fixed to his gown, eyed the corpse on the autopsy table and began.”

Bogen tells us he did a lot of interviews. But I still have trouble getting my mind around the author being inside the pathologist’s head at that moment.

This book is marketed as a serious adult biography of Dr. James Allen, albeit a fictional one. I expected a higher order of writing, but a compelling narrative does gradually unfold. The book begins to read like a mystery novel with unexplained deaths of people associated with Dr. Allen by injection of poison and by car bombs.

The plot thickens when Dr. Allen himself is framed on a sexual harassment charge by a mystery woman planted in his University of Wisconsin laboratory. Bogen hints that he has been set up by the FBI, Dow Chemical, and the university itself.  Accountants go through Dr. Allen’s records and find one illegal call he made and less than $1,000 in misused federal grant funds. Soon he’s back on his parents’ farm shoveling manure. His career as one of the world’s greatest scientists dealing with dioxins is over.

The officials at the university go along with Dow because of long-standing financial connections at risk due to Dr. Allen’s research. His studies showed that no matter how low the concentration of dioxins in Dow products, they were cancer causing, both in lab animals and, presumably, in people. This was not news that the university or Dow wanted broadcast.

Gil Bogen

I read this finely printed book in pain from my own multiple myeloma, which was caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Which is to say that I am not a dispassionate reader of this book.

I found every page painful to read. The suffering of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their offspring—not to mention hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—was caused by Dow and by our own government, which conspired to use dioxin-laced Agent Orange in Vietnam as a defoliant. As a direct result, it condemned thousands of us to early deaths from cancer.

Bogen’s book was engrossing, but I never got used to reading this dialogue-driven work of historical fiction. I kept thinking, “Where does this dialogue come from?” The author was not present during these conversations between Dr. Allen and his Vietnam veteran friends who tried to support him throughout the tribulations he suffered due to the persecution by the FBI, Dow Chemical, and the university.

On the other hand, the intimacy of the dialogue made me feel the pain of the people who were crushed by the weight of lawyers with billions of dollars behind them. This is a large book, but there no photos. I expected the book would contain at least one photo of Dr. Allen, perhaps the famous one of him holding up a vial of pure dioxin. There is also no index and no bibliography.Those absences disappoint this ex-reference librarian. There are acknowledgments to Dr. James Allen and to Frank McCarthy for “time and knowledge.” 

The dedication is to “Paul Reutershan, Frank McCarthy and other Vietnam veterans who died to keep America safe and free.” That dedication is well meant, as is the book.

I would like to read a scholarly book that explains how Dow Chemical got away with  ruining Dr. Allen’s career. The most he was guilty of was being an absent-minded professor innocent in the evil ways of the world he was working against, and a man who never got any redress or exoneration for what was done to him.

I kept hoping the book would have a happy ending. I hoped in vain.The evil world triumphed. I’m still waiting for a million dollar check from Dow and a letter of apology, too.

—David Willson