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The Prisoner Dilemma

Major General Fred Haynes is a Marine’s Marine. During the battle for Iwo Jima, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal as a captain in the 28th Marines, the regiment that planted Old Glory on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. He also served in Korea and in Vietnam, where he commanded the 5th Marines. As both a combat veteran and a flag officer who during the mid- 1970s was deputy chief of staff for Marine Corps Research and Development, he believes the United States should follow the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. That conviction led him to join an ad hoc group of 29 retired military leaders—including Army General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Hoar, the chief of staff at Central Command during the Gulf War, and Admiral Stansfield Turner, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency—who took the rare step last fall of publicly challenging their commander in chief. Haynes and his colleagues urged Congress to reject stipulations in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 designed to legitimize what President George W. Bush described as a tough “alternative set of procedures” to extract “vital information” from terror suspects. In an open letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the retired military leaders argued that such flexible standards were not only wrong in principle, but also counterproductive. “If degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible, ” they wrote, “we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices be inflicted upon American prisoners.”

The Military Commissions Act passed after Senators John McCain, John Warner and Lindsay Graham hammered out a compromise with the administration that ostensibly bans the use of abusive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. But critics argue that the new law circumvents the spirit of both the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution because it strips detainees of habeas corpus rights, sanctions indefinite detention without trial, permits the use of coerced testimony in military tribunals and allows interrogators to engage in psychological torture because of a narrow definition of “severe mental pain.” None of this sits well with Haynes. “My position is that no form of torture should be imposed on a prisoner,” he says. “First of all, it is inhumane and second, it doesn’t work.”

One lesson of World War II is that abusing prisoners is a less reliable means of extracting information than subtle persuasion. The willingness of the Japanese to embrace suicide as a battle tactic, which we chronicle in our cover story “The Last Kamikaze” (P. 28), led to a widespread assumption early in the war that only severe methods would get prisoners to reveal secrets. But in a 1943 report that became a bible for U.S. interrogators, Marine Major Sherwood Moran argued that harsh techniques backfire by reinforcing a POW’s determination not to give up vital information. Instead he counseled his fellow interrogators to go out of their way to make a prisoner feel safe. “Begin by asking him things about himself,” he wrote. “Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems.”

On Iwo Jima, some men in Haynes’ regiment may have been ill-disposed to show mercy to Japanese prisoners after the discovery in caves of the desecrated bodies of two of their own men. Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski was found with all his fingers and both forearms broken, his head bashed in and his penis stuffed in his mouth. And Leonard Sokol’s naked torso had been used as an ashtray by his captors. “News of that kind of thing goes through a fighting unit like water through a sieve,” Haynes says. “Most of the Japanese we captured begged to be killed, and it would have been natural for anybody who thought about Iggy or Sokol to say, ‘I’m going to shoot this son of a bitch.’ Instead they showed remarkable self-control as individuals and as a unit.”

That discipline paid off toward the end of the battle for Iwo Jima with the capture of Taizo Sakai, a code clerk privy to a host of Japanese secrets. His saga is recounted in “A Very Important Prisoner” (P. 44) and serves as a lesson for our times.


Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here