The Best Defense

Comment of the day: CIA torturers are the moral equivalent of the North Vietnamese jailkeepers who tortured American pilots

I was intrigued by this comment, by "USAF Pilot-RET," which ran the other day in response to my post saying that if CIA officials want to practice civil disobedience, they should man up and take the consequences of civil disobedience:

During the end of the Vietnam war, I was the operational head of the USAF Resistance to Captivity program at Fairchild AFB. There we taught combat crew-members measures to resist interrogation and exploitation in captivity. Prior to my combat tour, I had previously undergone such training at Fairchild [our class swore to a man that they would never return to that base and several claimed they would not eject over North Vietnam but would rather "ride it in" -- as some pilots did, according to reports].

We exposed our students to brief, but clearly non-Geneva Conventions treatment [including sensory deprivation and approaching physical torture] that incorporated lessons learned from previous wars [especially Soviet prisons & Korea POWs], early Vietnam returnees, and the best intelligence available to us from the DOD and CIA.

All training was supervised by an O-3 or O-4 who was NOT involved in the training scenarios but rather acted as an observer to insure that: 1) the training didn't get out of hand, 2) that the training was effective, and 3) to provide records used in debriefing the students after they recovered from the rigors imposed by our training.

Three things became abundantly clear to me during that time based on: 1) my experience supervising [and formally studying the effects of our training on our students], 2) from the unclassified and classified literature that I avidly followed, and 3) from my many conversations with former USAF and Navy POWs, several of whom became my personal friends.

1. This business of guards whose job is to abuse captives takes a terrible moral toll on the guards as well as the captives. There is a rich and abundant contemporary theoretical and empirical literature to support this claim. Conditions or war exacerbate and intensify these perverse processes just as they insure that the inevitable negative consequences tarnish our nation. See Abu Ghraib and related consequences and reflect on how our programmatic torture "helped" our ongoing efforts in the Middle East. 

2. The vast body of evidence clearly indicates that non-torture interrogation and internment strategies produce vastly more and better intelligence and yield positive rather than negative propaganda. View the movie "Taxi to the Dark Side" and compare the FBI interrogator with the army dolts who took the fall for their superiors. Then read a representative sample of empirical literature on successful long-term interrogation strategies. But of course that would require intellectual curiosity to replace ideology.

3. That the "V" tortured US prisoners of war, provided us with about the only lasting positive propaganda from that failed national effort. It gave us the fig-leaf to "Return with Honor" at the end of a war in which much of the non-nuclear forces of the US were soundly defeated by a third-world country. 

My private view -- one I shared with savvy peers, informed superiors, and my POW friends [but not widely, nor publically with the POW community] was that the North Vietnamese did us a huge favor by torturing our guys -- my peers -- rather than treat them properly (but unexpectedly) according to the Geneva Conventions. They would have gotten far more US POW cooperation, intelligence, and great propaganda.

So I agree with Ricks completely; and I equate the present CIA torture apologists (and their political masters) with the thugs in North Vietnam


The Best Defense

General Mundy in his obituary deserved more than the back of the Post's hand

By Col. Butch Bracknell, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

The Washington Post's obituary following the passing of General Carl E. Mundy, Jr., the 30th commandant of the Marine Corps, could have benefited from some balance, perspective, and a dose of journalistic ethics. The Post can even make an obituary sensational. Writer Matt Schudel replows old dirt by resurfacing controversies surrounding certain of General Mundy's public statements. General Mundy, as a public figure, was of course not immune from criticism, and this writer would even wager that, if asked, General Mundy would want a do-over for certain public stances he took as commandant. Even so, Schudel's research appears to have been Wikipedia deep, as a mere cursory examination of the historical record might have led him also to note monumental successes on General Mundy's watch.

Rather than dance on the grave of an American icon, Schudel might have considered writing a more balanced account of this gentleman-patriot's life. Over the history of the Corps, some commandants have been divisive figures, but General Mundy is held in virtually universal high regard. A warrior who fought in Vietnam at Khe Sanh and Con Thien, with a gentleman's manner, General Mundy was revered by enlisted Marines, officers, and his general officers. This author remembers seeing him at Camp Lejeune in June 2012 at 0530 in the morning as he visited the base to attend the high school graduation of one of his granddaughters (everyone knows when a commandant is aboard your base) -- as trim as when on active duty, impeccably dressed in pressed khakis, a collared golf shirt, clean-shaven with his hair perfectly combed, returning from a vigorous morning walk. This was quintessential Mundy -- the epitome of the image that Marine officers work to project through appearance, carriage, and demeanor.

Schudel's portrait of this deeply respected Marine leader was inappropriately one-sided. It painted him with tones of bigotry, reciting his out-of-context comments regarding African-American Marines's military skills without noting the enormous progress in the Corps recruiting and retaining minority officers during his watch. He recited in detail the controversy surrounding his comments on proposing to limit Marines's right to marry until reaching the rank of sergeant and women in combat, hinting at an anachronism, out of touch with modern times. Schudel failed to touch General Mundy's deft guiding of the Corps through force reductions that saw the Corps emerge from Desert Storm relatively healthier than the other forces.

Foreseeing the transition of conflict from state-on-state battles to irregular warfare against shape-changing, unknown, and unpredictable state and non-state actors, often in the global littorals, General Mundy steered the Corps in a direction that would pay dividends for years to come. His tenure as a three- and four-star general included manning, training, and equipping Marines to fight as a member of the joint team that demolished the Iraqi Army in Desert Storm, provided desperately-needed humanitarian relief in Somalia, accomplished the perfectly-executed rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady in Bosnia, and saved thousands of Kurdish lives in Operation Provide Comfort. As America sought to reap an elusive "peace dividend" with shrinking defense budgets and uncertain force structure, he guided the Corps through a period of reorganization with a premium on adequate force levels and readiness that would yield dividends in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

General Mundy was the perfect commandant to follow General Al Gray. General Gray successfully refocused the Marine Corps on its warrior ethos, and General Mundy carried the baton forward to even greater levels of maturity, dignity, and professionalism. Finally, General Mundy's dedication to the men and women of the armed forces transcended his tenure as commandant, as he presided over the USO and the Marine Corps University Foundation in retirement. Schudel could have learned all these facts about General Mundy's successes as a general officer and as the 30th commandant by picking up a phone and calling Headquarters, Marine Corps, or any Marine over the age of 35. Instead, in America's paper of record, he elected to rely on a handful of tired old saws about this fine American, with nary a nod toward his true excellence in the art of generalship.

Articles like this deepen the rift between America's warrior class and the self-styled Washington elite. Marines are a tribe, one that endures valid, even-handed criticism with a cheerful heart, so long as it is fair and objective. Attacking an icon like General Mundy by surfacing the controversies of his tenure without placing them in the context of his enormous strategic successes, on the other hand, raises our hackles and reinforces the perhaps unwise and unhealthy perception of a "we/they" split . "We" are the band of brothers, a fraternity forged in the fire of combat, sacrifice, and service. "They" are Washington's comfortable privileged class -- on Capitol Hill, in the administration, in the ivory tower of the academy, and in the media. Most students of wholesome civil-military relations know well that the split should not, and cannot, be so stark, and that healthy civil-military relations require outreach and genuine understandings from both sides. Yet offensive articles such as Schudel's confirm some Marines's worst suspicions: Rather than take the time to author a fair retrospective of General Mundy, including his monumental successes and highly-visible gaffes, the Washington media would rather simply focus on the latter, at the expense of a fair representation of his achievements.

The Corps does not expect the media the handle its legacy with kid gloves. We expect to be held accountable to the American people through several mechanisms -- civilian control by the president and secretary of defense, congressional oversight, and the occasionally harsh light of public scrutiny. We only demand that it be fair, and that any institutional and individual failures be placed in proper context. Matt Schudel felt no such need to be fair to General Mundy's legacy. This author cannot speak for all Marines, but this Marine will never forget it.

Butch Bracknell is a retired career Marine officer and member of the Truman National Security Project's Defense Council.