What makes America different from its enemies?


When my German father-in-law asked me that question for the first time right after the news broke about abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, I didn’t have a good answer for him. His own experience, however, provides perhaps one of the best illustrations of why a clear policy and practice forbidding torture or mistreatment of POWs is in the best interest of the United States.

My father-in-law was a squad leader in the German army’s Infanterie Lehr Regiment during World War II. He was severely wounded and then captured at Anzio. He believes to this day that had he not been captured, he would have died there in Italy, as his own army did not have the medical resources necessary to save his life. But he was captured—in a manner of speaking—by two American GIs who were also badly hit, but less severely wounded than he was. They kept him alive until a collecting party recovered all three of them, and then he and the two Americans were evacuated to a field aid station, side by side in the same ambulance. That experience gave him a pretty strong clue that all the Nazi propaganda about the “savage and barbaric” Americans might not be quite accurate.

After recovering at a hospital prison in North Africa, my father-in-law was shipped to the United States, where he spent the rest of the war picking cotton in Mississippi. By the time he finally got back to Germany in 1947, he, along with literally hundreds of thousands of other German and Italian POWs, had learned a valuable and lasting lesson about America, its people and their values—a lesson that did much to shape the rest of the world’s view of America for many years after World War II.

That’s what made it so hard to answer his question. American GIs don’t treat prisoners that way. The American leadership would never condone such behavior. However, in the years since the first revelations about Abu Ghraib, there have been additional exposures of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo and other locations.

My father-in-law’s question is still hanging there, and I still don’t have an answer for him.

This isn’t to say that the United States has never tortured or mistreated prisoners before. Unfortunately, it has. So in many ways this debate is nothing new to anyone who knows a little history. The torture technique known as waterboarding isn’t new either. It was not invented in response to 9/11. American troops were using a form of waterboarding on captive Filipino insurgents as early as 1900. In one incident, a military judge advocate named Captain Edwin Glenn was actually court-martialed for his direct role in super vising the water torture of a Filipino prisoner. The court-martial board acquitted Glenn, but the Judge Advocate General of the Army, Maj. Gen. George B. Davis, registered a fierce dissenting legal opinion of the verdict. In a memo to the secretary of war, Davis wrote, “No modern state, which is a party to international law, can sanction, either expressly or by a silence which imports consent, a resort to torture with a view to obtain confessions, as an incident to its military operations.”

That brings us to the current U.S. presidential elections, where the treatment of prisoners in the so-called Global War on Terror is one of the issues, and that debate has been profoundly shaped by the experiences in Vietnam of the Republican Party candidate. Senator John McCain knows from firsthand experience what it is like to be a POW, and to endure prolonged brutal torture in violation of every norm of international law and every basic standard of decent human behavior. McCain has generally opposed coercive and abusive interrogation techniques. In 2005 he proposed an amendment to a defense authorization bill requiring that interrogations of all detainees conducted by the U.S. military conform to the standards of the U.S. Army’s field manual FM 34-52 Intelligence Interrogation—which in September 2006 was revised and reissued as FM 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Collector Operations. McCain’s amendment passed, and has since been called the Detainee Treatment Act. But in February 2008, McCain inexplicably failed to back another bill that would have restricted the Central Intelligence Agency to using only those techniques specified in the Army field manual.

Despite McCain’s inconsistency in applying the same standards to the CIA, many still support his general position that using torture to interrogate captured militants is unacceptable. Many others do not. Those who disagree are often all too ready to dismiss those who do as the “usual suspects”: bleeding-heart liberals who have never served their country in harm’s way and don’t have the faintest idea what war is really all about. But it isn’t quite that simple.

In September 2005, 25 retired generals and admirals from one- to four-star rank, along with three former Vietnam POWs, signed a letter to McCain strongly supporting his proposed amendment. In December 2005, 33 retired professional intelligence experts and interrogators also signed a similar letter to McCain. The majority of those on both lists are Vietnam veterans, and several of them have written for or been interviewed by Vietnam Magazine over the years. And as with McCain, their understanding of armed human conflict is deeply rooted in their personal experiences in the war in Southeast Asia.

Many arguments are advanced to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture that only a government bureaucrat in a safe and comfortable office could dream up. One such argument asserts that our enemies are a bunch of barbarians who launched a devastating surprise attack against us, do not adhere to even the basic rules of civilized human behavior and, therefore, do not deserve civilized treatment. If there is any justification to that argument, we certainly could have applied it to the soldiers who served the Nazi and Japanese regimes. But for the most part, we didn’t, and we and the rest of the world were far better for it once World War II was over.

Furthermore, as McCain so correctly points out, this debate isn’t about them—it’s about us—about who we are and what makes us different from the enemy we are fighting. It’s about our values and our standards. Once we compromise those values, we find ourselves on the slippery slope to being just the same as we think they are. Where is the line? At what point do the compromises to our most cherished ideals as a nation start to corrupt our institutions and corrode them from within? For a stark example of how the cancer of incremental compromise can rot and slowly eat away at a great institution, one has only to take a good look at what happened to the German army during the Third Reich.

Another argument goes that Al Qaida and the Taliban are transnational terrorist organizations, gangs of thugs, not armies of established states, and that since their fighters are “illegal combatants” rather than real soldiers, they are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. This, too, is a discussion we have had before. At the start of the Vietnam War, the Saigon government insisted that the Viet Cong (VC) were little more than common criminals rather than enemy soldiers. Accordingly, they were imprisoned, tried and executed under what passed for due process of law in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. But as American involvement in the war grew, U.S. advisers started getting captured. The staff judge advocates at MACV headquarters quickly realized that if American GIs were going to have any chance whatsoever of surviving their captivity, the Saigon government had to be convinced to change its policy and start giving POW status to captured VC and treating them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. In the end, we did not get anywhere near the reciprocity from the VC and North Vietnamese that we had hoped for; but as badly as American POWs were treated, it could have been much worse.

A similar mechanism is in operation today. There can be little doubt that reports of prisoner abuse at the hands of Americans only gives the radical Islamic militants a blank check in their own minds to subject American captives to the most barbaric treatment possible—and so far they have been doing just that.

This brings us to the issue of military necessity, the argument that “rough” interrogation of detainees is justifiable if it produces intelligence that will save American lives. But that begs a more fundamental question: Does it work? Many “experts” swear that it does. Unfortunately, all too many of those people have no real-world intelligence experience or have never spent a single day of their lives in uniform. Nor do most of them have sons or daughters serving on the front lines of the present fight. While the current director of the CIA endorses the effectiveness—and lawfulness—of the more aggressive interrogation techniques, a great many other senior intelligence officials, including at least one former CIA director, are equally adamant that they do not work.

Admittedly, harsh interrogation techniques do produce answers—fast answers. But just how good is the information? A person being tortured will simply say anything he thinks his tormenters want to hear in order to stop the pain. Whether that information is accurate or relevant is something almost impossible to determine at the time, and in the long run it almost always turns out to be bogus. Experience shows that slow, methodical, long-term “rapport-building” interrogation tactics always produce better results.

In March 2008, retired Lt. Gen. Harry “Ed” Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was severely wounded in Vietnam as an artillery officer, flatly stated that people who support the harsh methods do not understand the craft of intelligence and do not know what they are talking about. “If they think these methods work, they’re woefully misinformed. Torture is counterproductive on all fronts. It produces bad intelligence. It ruins the subject, makes them useless for further interrogation. And it damages our credibility around the world.” I have served with General Soyster. He is among the finest American soldiers I have ever known.

Nonetheless, some self-appointed experts still insist that torture produces valid, actionable intelligence. Last year, a prominent hysteria-monger on talk radio insisted that torture works, as proved conclusively by John McCain’s own admission that under relentless and brutal interrogation he finally broke and divulged more than his name, rank, service number and date of birth, as specified by the U.S. Armed Forces Code of Conduct. But what kind of information did McCain provide? He eventually signed a confession written by his captives in the stilted comic-opera language of Communist rhetoric, admitting to “black crimes” and other vague generalities. And as McCain stated in his book: “Eventually, I gave them my ship’s name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant. Pressed for more useful information, I gave the names of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, and said they were members of my squadron. When asked to identify future targets, I simply recited the names of a number of Vietnamese cities that had already been bombed.”

Pushed further, McCain gave up more phony facts: “Once I was instructed to draw a diagram of an aircraft carrier. I decided to comply with the order, but took considerable artistic license in the process. I drew a picture of a ship’s deck with a large swimming pool on the fantail, the captain’s quarters in a chain locker, and various other imagined embellishments.”

The key point is that every human being has a breaking point, whether he is the chief operational planner for Al Qaida, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, a future candidate for president of the United States or just some poor foot soldier who was unlucky enough to get captured. But if you subject any of them to enough torture, you will get the most amazing pieces of information, all of them exactly what you want to hear.


Major General David T. Zabecki, Army of the United States (retired), is editor of Vietnam Magazine and senior historian at Weider History Group. He holds a doctorate in military history from Great Britain’s Royal Military College of Science, Cranfield University.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.