They Wouldn’t Let Us Die: The Prisoners of War Tell Their Story
The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese
These books have one central purpose: to present the case that American prisoners in North Vietnam were subjected to physical torture, humiliation, and psychological torment. They inevitably raise large questions about motive and guilt, ends and means. But first one has to answer a factual question: Is the case made out? Were the prisoners really tortured? My answer is Yes.
Major Konrad W. Trautman was one of many returned prisoners interviewed by Stephen Rowan, a CBS television correspondent, for his book. Major Trautman said:
Let me try to tell you what it really feels like when they tightly bind your wrists and elbows behind your back with nylon straps—then take the strap and pull the arms up, up your back, to the back of your head. If you can remember when you were a little boy, the fooling around you did, and someone grabs your hand and just twists your arm up to your back, and says: “Say Uncle.” He does it with just one hand. And this, as you remember, is a very severe pain. Well, imagine this with both arms tied tight together—elbow to elbow, wrist to wrist—and then, using the leverage of his feet planted between your shoulder blades, with both hands, he pulls with all his might, till your arms are up and back over your head, forcing your head down between your feet, where your legs are between iron bars.
The pain is literally beyond description, but it was so excruciating to me that I let out a loud scream. And then, when I did, I learned that you are not allowed to scream when you are being tortured. You are not allowed to scream! As soon as I screamed, the guard grabbed one of the shackles lying on the floor and he just rammed it into my mouth, and if I had not opened my mouth to absorb the impact, I would have lost all of my teeth…. People are going through physical pain that’s beyond description, yet you can’t hear a sound. You can hear the irons drop, you can hear limbs being compressed and stretched….
A number of former prisoners mentioned that same form of torture—trussing the body with straps or ropes. Colonel Risner says in his book that he felt a shoulder start to slip out of its socket under the pressure. Commander Robert H. Shumaker, maintaining a tone of remarkable calm in a talk with Rowan, described the rope treatment and then said: “To keep me from screaming, they had a rag on a long metal rod that they shoved down my throat. You know, these guys are just not skilled at this thing. They did some damage to the extent that I have a little trouble swallowing now. They did some nerve damage. It was a bad summer. I can recall praying for death….”
That is not the only kind of mistreatment described. Men were beaten and limbs broken. Their legs were clamped into metal stocks at the foot of their beds. They were immobilized there for days, lying in their own excrement. They were held in solitary confinement for months; any attempt to communicate through cell walls, if discovered, was severely punished.
The details are grisly. The reason to give them, or a few of them, is that there is a natural resistance to accepting the fact that American prisoners were mistreated. A report by the Indochina Peace Campaign called the torture stories “a distortion”; in the same report Jane Fonda asked, “Should we not question stories which have come to us via a series of Pentagon-staged spectaculars?” Less starkly, some who opposed the American war in Vietnam may feel that believing the torture stories somehow compromises their position. But it does not.
Truth is not divisible. And it is really impossible to believe that all those stories were invented. I have my own reason for knowing they were not, apart from the published evidence. I have talked with a few of the returned prisoners. Mostly we disagree about Vietnam; but I am convinced they did not make up those stories, and no one who heard them could think so either. One of these men is Navy Captain James A. Mulligan, a flier who was shot down on March 20, 1966. He does not volunteer to talk about these things; he is a private man who wants a quiet life. But when he does talk, the sincerity is painful: “I was down to about 100 pounds in 1969. I had twenty-six months in solo, leg irons for sixteen. If things hadn’t changed in 1969, I wouldn’t have made it. I couldn’t have gone on more than three or four months more.” How many of us could survive twenty-six months in solitary confinement? The psychological effects are so dangerous that the 1949 Geneva Convention’s Prisoner of War Treatment set thirty days of solitary as maximum punishment.
Some prisoners were mistreated, and brutally. Why? Neither these books nor the other accounts I have seen give a complete, convincing explanation, but some reasons are suggested. In the early days of the American bombing, the North Vietnamese wanted military information such as the location of bases and targets; torture was applied when prisoners insisted on the rules of the Geneva Convention and of their own official Code of Conduct adopted by US forces after the “confessions” by American prisoners in the Korean War, and would give only their name, rank, service number, and date of birth. Propaganda was another frequent purpose; the prisoners were forced to make statements criticizing American policy, admitting war crimes and the like. Air Force Colonel Thomas H. Kirk, Jr., gave Rowan another explanation:
Apparently their hatred of the American air pirates—what they called the American air pirates—is such that everybody, from kids to old people, men, women and children, were beating on you [in villages immediately after capture]. They hated us—there’s no question of that…. I think this is a key to a great deal of the bad treatment, mental anguish as well as physical mistreatment. We were the only thing they had to take out their frustrations and hatred against.
What happened is hard to understand or to explain completely at this distance. It lacks the ordinary terrible logic of political torture. In Stalin’s terror, for example, Koestler showed us the purpose of intimidating a party, and Solzhenitsyn of intimidating a people. But breaking particular American prisoners, making them recognize the physical limits of the will, could hardly intimidate the American polity. Nor, realistically, could forcing confessions of war crimes from them add persuasive weight to the peace movement. Some of the former prisoners see it that way themselves. Army Master Sergeant John Anderson, interviewed by Rowan, said:
The sad thing about it was that what they wanted out of us was so ridiculous. They went through all the business of working a guy over physically and psychologically, in one case that I know of for almost three solid months, and then the end result was that they had the guy sit down and write a letter to one of the peace groups telling them that he protested the war.
Air Force Major Glenn Wilson said that men he knew were distressed at having agreed, after torture, to write pro-peace letters to President Nixon and Senators McGovern and Mansfield. “They were really broken up, saying things like, ‘My career is ruined….’ But I haven’t heard anywhere that any of those letters ever made it back. Or if they did, those people just completely disregarded them.”
Other prisoners would not agree with that view. Colonel Risner says: “The longer we stayed, the more we realized the importance of not providing the Vietnamese with any propaganda resources, for we were their prime war weapon. They did not have the power of military retaliation against the American forces, but they could use us as a propaganda tool in an area in which they were really very good—influencing world opinion. This was where they hoped to win the war, not on the battlefield.” That seems to me a grossly distorted view of political reality, though the distortion is understandable enough in one who was tortured and resisted. The considerations that led Americans—eventually a majority—to oppose their country’s war in Southeast Asia existed quite independently of anything the prisoners might have said. Certainly no serious critic of the war would have relied for argument on an exhortation or “confession” by a man held captive. So far as I am aware, the propagandistic statements published over the names of American prisoners had no measurable impact on attitudes toward the war.
As for military information, there was neither much of it for the captives to give nor much indication that the interrogators were after useful material. Commander William R. Stark had his arms—one was broken—strapped behind and over his head. He was hung upside down from a ceiling hook by the shackles on his ankle. He was beaten. And all this because he would not say what ship he was from. When he finally gave the answer, the Enterprise, the interrogator asked who the commanding officer was. Stark replied, Commander Lefty Schwartz. “And then he said, ‘You must tell us something about your ship or the people….’ I said, ‘Lefty Schwartz is a damn fine airplane driver.’ And he quit. He left it at that.” Stark, puzzling over why the interrogation just stopped there, said, “A good part of the explanation lies in the fact that the purpose of the quiz was not to get information from me, but to demonstrate that they were able to get information from me.”
If what was extracted by torture had so little significance, why hold out? Why not answer the questions or make the desired statement in the first place? The immediate answer is the Code of Conduct, which enjoins every American military person captured to “evade answering further questions” and resist making “disloyal” statements “to the utmost of my ability.” But the code merely formalizes a tradition that some military men feel very deeply. Commander Shumaker put it:
I discovered something up there when I stopped to analyze who I was trying to satisfy. Was I trying to satisfy the demands of the President of the United States? The Secretary of the Navy? Was I trying to satisfy the demands of my wife? In the final analysis it was myself I had to satisfy, myself I have to live with the rest of my days. I’ve got a little home town in western Pennsylvania, and I just wanted to go back to that home town and walk down the main street and be able to look at people in the eyes, and not be ashamed of what I did.
Others mentioned their concern for each other. Colonel Kirk said,