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,
By God, I wanted to come out of there and look Bob Craner in the eye. [Colonel Robert R. Craner was another prisoner.] There’s an element of fear in it, an element of fear of your fellow man, your fellow American. It’s keeping faith with him, and the fact that you’ve got to face this guy. And tremendous strength derives therefrom.
Captain Mulligan put it to me as a matter of self-respect.
The Vietnamese had some peculiar respect for us in knowing that they weren’t going to get something for nothing. They wanted to own our minds. It’s a moral question—you stand up for your rights as a human being.
A former prisoner, Lieutenant Commander Robert J. Naughton, has written a report on “Motivational Factors of American Prisoners of War” for a course at the Naval College, Newport. It is a scholarly study, maintaining a detached tone toward the prisoners’ experience and drawing on the literature of personality. On the question of why the men resisted to the point of suffering torture, Commander Naughton mentions such factors as a feeling of obligation to one’s “squadron mates…still actively involved in the war” and the need for acceptance by other POWs. But he termed most important “pride,” “the desire to prove yourself to yourself and those whose opinion you respect. This strong desire for self-respect is the main reason many endured torture to the point of crippling pain…despite the knowledge that the prisoner will probably be forced to conform in the long run.”
After 1969, when conditions improved, Commander Naughton says, a few men “could not resign themselves to accept” the improvements, for fear that this would compromise resistance. He writes disapprovingly that these prisoners felt it was their “duty to suffer.” Of the earlier period, when brutality was common, he makes this fascinating statement:
The POW has a peak experience1 when he makes a truly maximum effort to physically resist torture. It may be the first time in his life that he musters every ounce of physical strength, mental courage and determination. The wholeness of being he feels is truly unique; and even when this maximum effort, with nothing held back, proves to be not enough, one at least feels pure and satisfied for having done his absolute best.
We would need a writer like Koestler fully to explore the minds of jailer and prisoner, and he did not write the books under review. In them there is life but not art; the horrors go by without insight. Neither book gives any clear sense of chronology or of the over-all picture of the various prison camps; names and places are given without striking the reader’s understanding. Neither has an index. Rowan’s book is more professional and more interesting; but its form, a series of conversations with returned prisoners, is necessarily episodic.
Colonel Risner is not a writer; there is no special reason why he should be, but there it is. He is also such an example of the conservative career officer, or so presents himself, that some will find him hard to take. He is a man who found solitary confinement desperately difficult—his description of his terror while alone is by far the most impressive part of his book. Yet when he is given a roommate, a young air force lieutenant, he writes: “I told him right off there would be no rank differences in the cell. I insisted that we call each other by first names, and that we do everything equally. We took turns doing sweeping and emptying the bucket. There was the normal amount of banter, joking, and sometimes even a heated discussion.” His political views are clichés: “We were…fighting the enemy of freedom and of our way of life—international communism.” At home “we had permitted the nuts and the kooks to make honest-to-goodness patriotism a dirty word.”
The prisoners as a group were not quite so uniform in their views as might be supposed from these books, especially Risner’s. Rowan does include an interview with one career officer, Navy Captain Eugene Wilber, who turned against the war in captivity and courageously held to that position after release despite the disapproval of his service. Other men took sincere antiwar positions. There have been reports that still others, a limited number, resented what they considered an effort by senior officers in the last years of captivity to hold everyone to a rigid position of noncooperation. Those last years were different in any event. Systematic mistreatment by the North Vietnamese ceased in the autumn of 1969; then there were no fresh prisoners until the end of 1971, because of the bombing halt, and the men captured later had little or no personal experience of torture.
In 1971 one prison, known to the Americans as the Zoo, was fixed up with a garden, recreation rooms, and other niceties. That was the place that a few outsiders, among them Miss Fonda, were allowed to visit later—the cause of great bitterness among many prisoners, who resented the impression given to the world that conditions in the Zoo in 1972 were characteristic of their years in North Vietnam.
The subject of visitors arouses strong feelings. Risner and others say they were tortured before meeting foreign delegations, to make them promise to say the right things. One of the worst stories in Risner’s book concerns his forced appearance before an East German film crew on July 3, 1967. At the end of the filming a member of the crew asked to borrow two family pictures that Risner had in his cell. Before the guards could come for them, Risner tore the pictures up rather than have them used for propaganda, and buried them in his waste bucket. There follow pages of gruesome description of torture to make him say what he had done with the photographs.
The former prisoners are often critical also of American journalists and others who visited Hanoi during the war, saying they were too naïve in accepting what they were told about the prisoners and other things. I think the men underestimate the difficulties, and the efforts made to get a sense of the truth, but there is something to their feelings. For example, James Mulligan and six others were told on September 25, 1972, that a visiting American had suggested it would be a good idea for the prisoners to see the museum of American war crimes. Expecting to be used in a propaganda scene, they refused to go. Then, Captain Mulligan says: “We were forcibly taken. I mean we were beaten up, manhandled by a group of up to fifty, had our hands handcuffed behind our backs, were dragged on to trucks and pushed through the museum. That was because an American had been there and said every POW should see it. Well you know, they beat the hell out of me, and I was forty-six years old. Does it hurt? Sure it hurt.”
It is a year now since the 566 American prisoners came home. The heroes’ welcome given them, and then the stories of torture that some told, aroused suspicion in certain antiwar quarters. Miss Fonda stated her views briefly and strongly in the Peace Campaign Report. “While some of the men are sincere,” she says, their views may be colored by “racism.” Nor are these “average GIs,” she adds.
They are the military elite, career officers…. How many cases of brutality were the result of resisting regulations at any cost? How much solitary confinement was caused by POWs carrying out US military orders to conspire against, or even escape, their captors?
Miss Fonda says that she cannot and does not deny each individual claim of brutal treatment, but “the POWs are lying if they assert it was North Vietnamese policy to torture American prisoners. They are hypocrites because they are trying to pose as heroic victims when they were responsible for killing countless Vietnamese.”
Well, I wonder whether Miss Fonda would take such a stern view of Americans “resisting regulations” if they had been prisoners, say, in Stalag 17. I wonder also what the basis is for her suggestion that any mistreatment was an isolated exception. According to Commander Naughton, the prisoners conducted a survey among themselves and found that more than 90 percent of the approximately 350 captured before the end of 1969 had been tortured. But the real point is that accepting Miss Fonda’s general political view of the war, as in good part I do, does not lead to the conclusion that we should treat these reports of brutality with skepticism or contempt. Some questions do not have two sides. The torture of even one person is inadmissable, and so is any attempt to dismiss it as insignificant.
It is true that the prisoners were not typical American soldiers. Most were career officers and doubtless had a more old-fashioned view of duty and patriotism. Furthermore, the long-time prisoners were likely to have their view of the war hardened by the very length of their captivity.2 Those prisoners captured later, after American public sentiment had begun to turn against the war, were likely to have a more critical—I would say more perceptive—view of US policy. The Geneva rules were the rules, but let us assume that men like Robinson Risner seemed provocative in demanding their strict application. It is true also that many of the prisoners had killed large numbers of the Vietnamese, who might understandably feel some resentment. Colonel Risner’s first chapter ends with these lines: “The man who had said he would never be captured was down in enemy territory. And I had just dropped a load of napalm on them.” Many of the victims of the napalm and bombs would have been civilians.
One can assume good faith on the part of these pilots, and of those planning the raids, in selecting military targets. Yet it was the inevitable, the predictable, and therefore the inexcusable consequence of saturation bombing of a land as densely populated as parts of North Vietnam that there would be vast civilian destruction. The definitive word on that subject has recently been said by the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy. Its own study mission went to North Vietnam and returned with pictures of destruction that the Defense Department had insistently denied—for example, the ruin of the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. Faced with that embarrassingly first-hand evidence, the Pentagon conceded that Bach Mai had been virtually completely destroyed and that there had also been extensive damage to hospitals and a medical school and a cultural center in Nam Dinh and Thai Binh. The committee found evidence of “an indiscriminate pattern of bombing” in Nam Dinh and concluded generally: “The bombing and shelling of hospitals, schools, churches, housing and other civilian areas cannot be dismissed by our government as propaganda or accidents or minor collateral damage. There is too much damage, and too many people have seen it.”
Let us go further and say that the United States intervened in Indochina without moral or legal or political warrant, turning a civil war into a large-scale conflict with terrible costs for the inhabitants. We have waged that war for a generation, remotely, then directly, now remotely again. We have turned much of the population of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into refugees. We have poisoned vegetation and cratered the land, making a desert and calling it peace. And we have imposed on South Vietnam—and are solely responsible for maintaining there—a government of exceptional corruption and cruelty, which for every American mistreated in North Vietnam has maimed or tortured or murdered hundreds of political prisoners. All of that I believe.
But none of it can justify ignoring the torture of Americans in North Vietnam or denying that it happened. When the Soviet Union puts dissidents in psychiatric wards or punishes a dancer for seeking an exit visa, it is no excuse that blacks are mistreated in the United States. Wrongs do not cancel each other out. And torture can never be excused. It is an absolute evil. If we once wink at torture because of our political inclinations—some of us accept it in Chile, say, and others in North Vietnam—there is no stopping. When Justice Brandeis spoke in the wire-tapping case of “the right to be let alone,” he had in mind the civilized concept of privacy. How much more forceful are his words warning against “the pernicious doctrine” that the end justifies the means, if applied to that ultimate violation of the human spirit, torture of the body.
Forgiveness and understanding are always possible, but they must follow acknowledgment of unpleasant reality. One example I shall remember is that of Commander Naughton. His arm was broken when he was beaten for talking to another prisoner. When I met him, I asked how he felt now about the North Vietnamese. He said they were an amazing people, and he would like to go back under happier circumstances. He added, “I don’t suppose any country has its best people as prison guards.”
March 7, 1974
Naughton takes the phrase “peak experience” from Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, pp. 71 ff. It should be said that, in context, Naughton clearly intends no criticism of prisoners whose will or physical powers of resistance were less or who did not share the outlook he indicates. ↩
Commander Naughton says in his paper: “POWs in general feel that they had invested a long time serving as POWs in the war. Most of these men did not want to abandon a position they had held so long by virtue of the United States Government admitting defeat or its inability to win.” ↩