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Hanoi torture tour

The Army Cinema sits towards the northern end of Ly Nam De street, a narrow leafy avenue that marks the eastern edge of Hanoi's formerly walled Citadel, headquarters of the People's Army of Vietnam. The cinema is an oblong purplish building with a marquee that generally displays second-run Hollywood movies — "Quantum of Solace," "Mamma Mia" — and a disheveled outdoor coffee bar splaying out of its right side. Adjacent to the coffee bar, a parking lot gives onto several older, yellow-ochre buildings that occupy the interior of the city block. This area is off-limits to visitors; try to enter the parking lot and a guard will dash out of a metal and glass booth, waving her arms. From 1966 until about 1971, this complex was a prisoner of war camp known to the American servicemen held there as "the Plantation." It was in a building somewhere in this complex that, in August 1968, John McCain was beaten over a four-day period so severely that he ultimately gave in and recorded a propaganda message, later broadcast on North Vietnamese radio, in which he said he had committed "crimes against the Vietnamese country and people."

After recording the message, McCain wrote many years later in his memoir "Faith of My Fathers," he fell into a bitter two-week depression. "I was ashamed. I felt faithless, and couldn't control my despair. I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever. I kept imagining that they would release my confession to embarrass my father. All my pride was lost, and I doubted I would ever stand up to any man again." But McCain's fellow POWs counseled him to forgive himself. Everyone, they said, had his breaking point, and McCain had resisted as long as he could. Years later, the camp's senior American officer at the time, Air Force Col. Ted Guy, would describe the informal camp policy on resisting torture as follows:

"I told them [new POWs who had just arrived] through commo that I had made a tape. I said, 'Yes, they got me to that point in 1970 where I was very low and under a lot of mental pressure. I thought I could get word out to my family if I made a tape [denouncing the U.S.]. The promise was broken so I quit. I expect everybody in this camp has a different breaking point, depending on how long you’ve been captured and your mental attitude on any given day. Some days you will be called in for interrogation and won’t be able to resist at all. Okay, make the damn tape. But don’t do it every day. Next time make them take you to that point or further. As far as writing, if you can write your family, go ahead, but don’t sell your soul to do it.'" — “Survivors: Vietnam POWs Tell Their Stories,” Zalin Grant, 1976.

On April 21, an ex-speechwriter for former President George W. Bush named Marc Thiessen wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that torture was an effective means of obtaining information from Al Qaeda captives because, by exhausting their physical ability to resist, it brought them to the point where they could morally justify, to god and their fellows, giving up information. Thiessen wrote:

"Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, 'as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, ‘brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.'' In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that 'Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable.' The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely."

It should not escape the reader's notice that the policy regarding acquiescence under torture which Thiessen ascribes to Abu Zubaydeh, to Islam, or to Al Qaeda is the same as the policy maintained by American POWs in communist prison camps during the Vietnam War. After his return to the U.S., John McCain spent some time at the National War College, and in a paper he wrote in April 1974 on the U.S. Armed Forces POW Code of Conduct and the Vietnam experience, he reiterated the policy the POWs had embraced. Here is McCain's explication of the Code's Article V, which reads “I am bound to give only my name, rank, serial number, date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the best of my ability."

"It is patently obvious that if enough mental and physical pressure is applied in the proper manner, it is unlikely that any man can not be forced to submit to some degree … The article states further, “I will evade answering further questions to the best of my ability.” This should mean that a deviation from name, rank, serial number and date of birth does not necessarily mean that a prisoner of war has committed a violation of the code of conduct if he is temporarily forced to “fall back” from that position and has resisted to the best of his ability; that is the most our country should ask of him." — Commander John S. McCain, “The Code of Conduct and the Vietnam Prisoners of War,” National War College, April 8, 1974.

Later in his paper, McCain emphasizes the importance of "forgiveness" of those who crack under torture, as a means of maintaining morale among the prisoners and rallying them for continued attempts at resistance.

It is not surprising that moral approaches towards those who crack under torture should be the same among members of Al Qaeda and of the U.S. Armed Forces. What other attitude, after all, is possible? Of course everyone has his breaking point. Of course one should only ask that they resist to the best of their abilities.

But one suspects that the American servicemen who were held as POWs in Vietnam would consider it strange if it were suggested that the North Vietnamese interrogators who tortured them were only "doing their job," "helping the American servicemen do their duty to god and country" so that they would then "feel liberated to speak freely" — i.e. to reveal information about U.S. forces and issue propaganda statements denouncing the U.S. war effort. Many of those American POWs, like other American Vietnam veterans, have forgiven the North Vietnamese soldiers they fought against, and accept that those soldiers were "doing their jobs." But they have not forgiven the North Vietnamese interrogators who tortured them. They do not think these interrogators were "helping them do their duty," or that they were only "doing their jobs." They think the interrogators who tortured them were war criminals.