Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Enlightened Hard-boiled-ness

I have on occasion posted about what I consider to be a malady of the human condition - which seems to effect Americans in healthy doses: the belief that violence equals strength. This fallacy pervades many aspects of our society. For example, in our family life, the strong parent is the one that strictly disciplines his or her children - often through the use of corporal punishment. On schoolyards across the nation, it is the bully that sets the rules and garners the respect - often left to rule the roost by teachers who assume this is the natural order of things. In our pop culture, at least beginning in the 1980s, we began celebrating the morally ambiguous (at least morally aloof), muscle-bound, one-man killing machines most ably personified on celluloid by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

This trend marked something of a departure from the reluctant heroes and, only occasionally violent by comparison, icons of the 1950s and 1960s like Gary Cooper and even the macho but body count challenged John Wayne. According to this cinematic trope, these new-breed, shoot-first-ask-questions-later heroes are depicted marching into town, leaving a trail of corpses strewn across the screen, and departing into the sunset with all of the erstwhile dilemmas solved through the redemptive quality of mass carnage. These ultra-violent big screen avatars have only been reborn and recycled in countless video game, music and other pop incarnations for subsequent generations to consume. In the American mindset, strength is equated with violence, and violence solves all the world's problems - from an unruly child to a crime infested neighborhood to a rogue regime. Might makes right.

In the arena of foreign policy, this violent predilection manifests itself in the belief that certain leaders are "strong" on issues of national security while others are soft. In this context, strength basically translates into a hawkish willingness to use military options instead of what are perceived as "weaker" diplomatic routes. Regardless of the ramifications and long term results, or wisdom of the engagement in the first place, if a leader opts to bomb, strike, or assault, they undoubtedly earn the label "strong." Further, in times of heightened fear and anxiety, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, people will actually opt for "strong and wrong, rather than weak and right." In this sense, Iraq was explained away by many Americans with the vague reference to the fact that "At least Bush was doing something," as if any old military action would suffice as payback for 9/11. Someone had to pay, and Kerry wasn't strong enough to make sure of that.

I think this represents a psychologically underdeveloped conception of strength - a kind of emotionalism that only recognizes the impulse, the instant result, and the immediately tangible and fails to account for the big picture, the repercussions, the nuance, and the ultimate efficacy of a given course of action. It also flies in the face of historical evidence. Take the American leader of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, for example. Despite the carefully crafted image of staid strength, possibly bolstered by his impressive military victory against the daunting powerhouse of Grenada - itself a remedy for the ignominious retreat from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks there, the "strongest" thing that Reagan ever did was agree to engage Mikhail Gorbachev in a ground breaking era of diplomatic thaw between the United States and the USSR that culminated in the end of the Cold War. Rather than bombs and air strikes, Reagan carefully nudged the Soviet Union closer to collapse through summits, diplomatic relations, and treaties.

Just imagine if Reagan had taken a "hardline" stance, or even a "strong" one, meaning rebuffing Gorbachev's advances or, heaven forbid, initiating some overt military antagonism following up on the Afghan proxy campaign. Would that have yielded anything more advantageous than his "weak" approach? The answer is obvious in retrospect, yet there were some "strong" voices in the hardliner camp, like John Bolton and Norman Podhoretz, that warned of the folly of going soft on the USSR and pleaded for a more confrontational approach. Or better yet, some, including our President, argue that FDR should not have made peace at Yalta, instead engaging the USSR in open war - probably nuclear in nature - in order to solve the communist conundrum right then and there. They called this appeasement.

In the truth that lies beyond instinct and reflex, the strength is in the results. I am by no means a pacifist, though I aspire to the day that all humans could be. Unfortunately, sometimes violence is needed and in certain contexts war is the only route, but not nearly as much as our gut might dictate or as frequently as to justify our collective prejudices. More often than not, violence should be seen as the last resort, a product of the breakdown of the preferred process, and itself recognized as the instigator of a cycle of self-perpetuating and escalating conflict - not a desirable course of action, and rarely a perfect solution ala Rambo. Peace through strength must not allow the latter concept to overshadow the former - which must always be the driving force and overarching goal.

This is the lesson to be taken away from Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, whose work in the field of interrogations is profiled this month's issue of
The Atlantic. Moran literally wrote the report on interrogations, especially when dealing with "a fanatical and implacable enemy, intense pressure to achieve quick results, [and] a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seem to apply."

Despite the human impulse to drift toward using violence, abuse, and torture as a preferred means of soliciting information from prisoners - what would be considered the "gloves off" or "strong" approach that many just instinctively assume is the most effective but taboo because of "quaint" moral concerns - Moran found that:
...despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them. [emphasis added]
Moran's report was written in 1943, and it was a summation of his, even by that time, well renowned techniques for interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. But the lessons are more than pertinent to the present conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond - especially in light of the abuses that have taken place as a result of orders given to poorly trained and amateurish personnel to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation. Further, Moran's wisdom is more in demand given the backdrop of extraordinary renditions, legal maneuvering seeking to carve out certain violent acts from definitions of torture and, sometimes in the alternative, providing legal cover and exemption from what would be deemed torture regardless.

As a result of the revulsion of many career soldiers and experts in the field of interrogations to what has taken place in the facilities under American stewardship, and in foreign lands designated as prisoner interrogation depots, Moran's work has experienced something of a revival. Though according to the Atlantic, his report has always remained a cherished insider's guide for military interrogators.

The Marine Corps Interrogator Translator Teams Association (MCITTA), a group of active-duty and retired Marine intelligence personnel, calls Moran's report one of the "timeless documents" in the field and says it has long been "a standard read" for insiders.
The gist of Moran's approach, which was summed up by James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, is "Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being." But as the Atlantic article points out, part of what made Sherwood Moran such an intriguing figure was that he bucked the prevailing "hard-boiled" military attitude that violence was the solution, and strength was expressed in terms of physical domination.

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others' experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation - in other words, emphasizing that "we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors" - invariably backfired. It made the prisoner "so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence" that it "played right into [the] hands" of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.
Moran's approach, best expressed in his own words, begins by establishing a zone of safety away from the war, in which the prisoner/interrogator dichotomy can be abandoned, and with it the in-built hostility and obstructionism. Moran realized that it's only a tug of war if both sides are pulling, and much can be achieved through releasing the rope:

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy...Notice that...I used the word "safe." That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows...that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.
His method for encouraging dialogue is nothing short of brilliant, and shows a deep understanding of human nature in general and the psychology of prisoners in particular:

Begin by asking him things about himself. Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems. If he is not wounded or tired out, you can ask him if he has been getting enough to eat; if he likes Western-style food...You can ask if he has had cigarettes, if he is being treated all right, etc. If he is wounded you have a rare chance. Begin to talk about his wounds. Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. (They will like to do this!)...

On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, "Won't you please come and talk to me every day." (And yet people are continually asking us, "Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?") [italics in original, bold face added]
It's somewhat baffling that Moran's other lessons, dealing with cultural and linguistic knowledge and expertise, would catch the US military and intelligence community so flat-footed roughly half a century later - especially given their importance to the mission of interrogations, but also in many other areas of combat communications and peacekeeping activities.

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. "This line has infinite possibilities," he explained. "If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable." Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve "the first and most important victory" - getting "into the mind and into the heart" of the prisoner and achieving an "intellectual and spiritual" rapport with him.
Here is the response to Moran's recommendations made by the FDR administration back in the 1940s. Moran's knowledge and guidance became a priority, and the impetus provided by his findings yielded near immediate results:

Moran's report had an immediate impact. The Navy and the Marines recruited second-generation Japanese-Americans to teach an intensive one-year language course for interrogators that included a strong emphasis on Japanese culture. James Corum notes that the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945: Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were able to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian.
Contrast that with the Bush administration's, Rumsfeld's in particular, remarkable lack of action in regard to improving foreign language skills and cultural expertise among American military personnel. Fred Kaplan has the details here, of what he calls one of the saddest government efforts in years (hat tip Nadezhda). After a long and meandering process, the truth is, we are almost exactly where we began years ago - only nearing the point of issuing guidelines to govern the procedures to train and enlist these soldiers while little actual training has been conducted. While weapons systems and technological innovations get fast-tracked, the softer side of combat is often neglected to our military's detriment.

Now, three and a half years after Islamic fundamentalists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense is three months away from publishing an official "instruction" providing "guidance for language program management."

It's pathetic.
This lack of preparedness raises even more questions concerning the timing of the Iraq invasion which, according to a recently leaked memo from Tony Blair's government, appears to have shown an unsettling preoccupation with American election cycles as opposed to the exigency, or lack thereof, of any threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. Equipping our fighting force with trained interrogators and translators takes time, but given Saddam's threat level, we had plenty of that. The Atlantic article details how this lack of readiness has impacted our interrogations and rendered the sage advice of Major Moran useless.

In contrast, in late 2002 the military's Southern Command had so few interrogators and interpreters that it was forced to employ inexperienced and untrained civilian contractors to perform these jobs at Guantánamo. The officer in charge of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib had no interrogation experience himself and no skilled interrogators or interpreters working underneath him. He, too, turned to civilian contractors. Government auditors criticized these deficiencies in early 2004 and noted that several of the firms that supplied civilian contractors had no experience in such work. Yet the shortage of military interrogators continues, and the Department of Defense continues to employ people outside the military for some of this work. "They let a bunch of out-of-control contractors, CIA freelancers, untrained military-intelligence people, et cetera get turned loose under the promise and pressure of getting quick results," Corum told me....

"The torture of suspects [at Abu Ghraib] did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted," says...Corum.... "The abusers couldn't even use the old 'ends justify the means' argument, because in the end there was nothing to show but a tremendous propaganda defeat for the United States." [emphasis added]
Perhaps the lack of meaningful results from these interrogations is what led some in the military to actually put on staged interrogations for VIPs and lawmakers visiting the Guantanamo Bay facilities. They literally set up bogus Potemkin interrogations to give the illusion of efficacy to important observers from Washington out of fear of being held accountable for the lack of results. Perhaps also, the pressure and demand for breakthroughs fueled the decision to get tough, to begin employing more abusive techniques that, according to Moran, only have a paradoxical effect. For humans, it is often easier to make the leap to violence than it is to resort to more cerebral approaches in times of stress and fear. In fact, fear itself might be behind some of the violence we have seen in the interrogation process.

One of the most striking points Moran made was that those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear - "fear that the prisoner will take advantage of you and your friendship." This, he noted, was "the same idea that a foreman must swear at his construction gang in order to get work out of them."

Of course there always is the danger that some types will take advantage of your friendliness. This is true of any phase of life, whether you are a teacher, a judge, an athletic trainer, a parent. But there is some risk in any method. But this is where the interpreter's character comes in...You can't fool with a man of real character...
Moran was saying that an interrogator who is genuinely tough has the confidence to know that he will always keep the upper hand, even while being nice. "Enlightened hard-boiled-ness," he called this attitude. And he concluded that "strange as it may seem to say so," the most important characteristic of a successful interrogator is not his experience or even his linguistic knowledge; it is "his own temperament" and "his own character." [emphasis added]
"Enlightened hard-boiled-ness" is a credo that we Americans should be studying with a trained eye. The implications are far reaching, and the underlying lesson invaluable - whether it be in determining the most effective interrogation style, or the most successful conflict resolution blueprint. Without the enlightened guidance, violence backfires more often than it succeeds. What appears to be bravery, potency and dominance, is more often the product of desperation masking the lack of all of those things. We must insert a reflective pause in between an event and our reflexive response, and be wary of our own tendencies to view violence as the easy, neat and tidey solution to complex problems. The strength of a given policy is almost always in the results.

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