Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Torturing Prisoners: Not Just a Crime, But a Blunder

Fascinating and important article by Stephen Budiansky in the May Atlantic (subscription only, unfortunately) about a classic 1943 study by Sherwood F. Moran, a major in the Marine Corps and an interrogation expert. He found that by far the most effective way of getting useful information out of hostile prisoners is to be nice to them. As summarized in the article by James Corum, a professor at the US Army Command and General Staff College, Moran's advice to interrogators was, "Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being."

According to Budiansky, the Marines implented most of Moran's recommendations in the Pacific theatre during World War II. As a result, "Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were apply to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian." By contrast, most insiders say that interrogators at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have gathered little or no useful information during the past two years.

When I mentioned this story to Mary-Jo, she said, "Well, of course--in my work, it's obvious that you don't learn anything from people by making them defensive or angry." Mary-Jo works with psychologically disturbed teenagers and their families, which at first blush might not seem to have a lot in common with being an interrogator in Iraq. But as Mary-Jo explained, the challenges are actually very analogous. These kids--hostile, depressed, sometimes psychotic--are often harboring terrible secrets related to abuse, violence, or other crimes, and one of Mary-Jo's jobs is to create an atmosphere where they are willing to open up to someone they may well perceive as an oppressive authority figure. (And if you think that teenagers don't come from a foreign culture and speak a language of their own, you obviously haven't been paying attention.)

Screaming and threats do not help to create such an atmosphere, which is why Mary-Jo sometimes has to start the therapy process by asking the kid's angry, out-of-control parents to leave the room. And somehow I don't imagine that Mary-Jo would find it beneficial to put her patients on dog leashes or force them to form nude pyramids, either . . .
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