Question about the WW2 interrogators

There’s been a lot of buzz around this story: Fort Hunt’s Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII

The men at Fort Hunt interrogated Nazi prisoners during the Second World War. This is the bit that everyone seems so excited about:

Back then, they and their commanders wrestled with the morality of bugging prisoners’ cells with listening devices. They felt bad about censoring letters. They took prisoners out for steak dinners to soften them up. They played games with them.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

I’m not condoning “torture” or denying that anything wrong has been done by today’s interrogators, and I’m not even interested in debating the amount of information possessed by German generals compared to typical terrorist prisoners. But I do have one question that I haven’t seen answered, or even asked, in the (admittedly few) pieces I’ve read about this controversy:

How do the Fort Hunt interrogators know what information today’s interrogators are able to get?

Seriously, today’s retired veterans have no idea whatsoever how much information they “get”, what sort of information they “get”, and how valuable some of that information ends up being. They do not know. Not knowing, claiming to have gotten more back in the good old days is groundless.

But it sure makes a good story.


  1. I’ve known people who have used torture effectively in war. When it is a question of letting your buddies die or torturing a prisoner, there’s no real ‘moral debate’ about what to do, nor is there any real question about the effectiveness of torture. Hell, if someone had abducted one of my family members and I had the opportunity to question them about their location there’s no question in my mind that they would either tell me what I want to know immediately or I would find a way to pursuade them that fell outside the strict interpretation of the Geneva convention guidlines. But today we’re all hyphenated Americans, so those soldiers in Iraq aren’t our sons, they’re someone elses’. They’re not like us, so we don’t care what happens to them. If a few of our guys die that’s ok, because what we’re really worried about is collateral damage.

  2. MO, That’s an excellent example, but not the only one. On many occasions in the last few years people I work with have asked me questions about martial life, war, etc. But I have to preface anything I say with, ‘Well, I’m not a combat vet, and my first-hand knowledge is 10 years old, so…’ Actually, 11 now. But the point is that I recognize the tremendous change in the Army, anyway, just in the last decade. My time in would have more in common with the 20 years prior than the 10 years after; in 50 years, it will be even more remote and have even less bearing on what will be contemporary Army life. Now, how a member of the Greatest Generation cannot appreciate that, but a mere mortal like yours truly can, is beyond me.

  3. Dfens- Cite an example. When? Where? Tortured how? Torture is the tool of desparate amateurs. Read up on some of the master interrogators of WWII, such as the renowned Hans Scharrf, or on our side Marine Major Sherwood Moran, whose men gained invaluable information from supposedly unbreakable Japanese in the Pacific theatre, the Al Quaeda of their day in terms of their alleged ‘intransigence’ in the face of interrogation.

  4. * There is a huge difference between a German general in 1943 and a Jihadi in 2007 – mentally and culturally. I have no doubt playing chess with a cultured western professional officer in 1943 would get all kinds of good results. Would playing ping-pong with an Al Quaeda cell leader have the same results? Maybe, maybe not. My unbiased uninformed opinion says ‘not’ but I doubt anyone who can comment on this board knows for sure. Or if they do they can’t say so. * What Jerry wrote about Sherwood Moran. He got tons of good scoop from captured Japanese soldiers simply by being nice. One of his problems was making sure he GOT captured Japanese soldiers. Most of the grunts at the front were understandably not in the mood to take prisoners. See Percy Sledge’s ‘With the Old Breed’ for details.

  5. But today we’re all hyphenated Americans, so those soldiers in Iraq aren’t our sons, they’re someone elses’ Actually one of those soldiers IS my son. Granted he’s back in the States now, but still.

  6. Equally to the point, how do these WWII interrogators know what they failed to find out using their more (*cough*) civilized methods? And what the cost in lives might have been as a result?

  7. Equally to the point, how do these WWII interrogators know what they failed to find out using their more (*cough*) civilized methods? And what the cost in lives might have been as a result?’ The problem with that argument is that it works both ways: How do these [War on Terrorism] interrogators know what they failed to find out using their [less](*cough*) civilized methods? And what the cost in lives might have been as a result? Professional interrogators from countries around the world repeatedly insist that coersion provides better information than torture. In spite of this, why is it that so many Americans find themselves rationalizing torture?

  8. What the heck. A lot of today’s Left-wing thinking armchair quarterbacks are claiming that the saturation firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Tokyo, Japan and the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Japan were acts unnecessary torture on a National level. According to these people Roosevelt, MacArthur, et al should have been tried as war criminals. Of course, most sensible folks realize those bombings were seen then and are still regarded as having been absolutely necessary even if they saved only one American or allied soldier’s life. I’m voting with Dfens on this one and I think the football gridiron scene in the movie Dirty Harry says it all. A bad guys fingers, arms, legs, kneecaps or balls aren’t worth shit when it comes to gaining the information required to saving a comrade’s life or defending your country. To quote Inspector Callahan: ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and a country’s gotta do what a country’s gotta do.

  9. Brian beat me to it – big difference between a German Afrikorps trooper and a Jihadi. They used to let German prisoners walk down to the local movie theater unsupervised.

  10. I’ve conducted many investigatory interviews and interrogations with felons over the years (all with my former agency); I’ve witnessed quite a few more (by people with less and far more skill than myself). I can unequivocally state, you get more and better quality information with the carrot approach as opposed to the other kind. A few caveats: The carrot will take longer. If you use the other approach the information is definitely more suspect (they’ll tell you what you want to hear to get it to stop). If time is really critical (remember the first caveat?) your hand can be forced (pun intended!). ‘Those German WWII Generals and Japanese and modern Jihadists are different so it was easier to get information out of the NAZIs/Japs and less easier from the Jihadis’. The implication being torture would be more necessary, or useful in getting info out of the Jihadis. WRONG! Different cultures, mindsets, religions; SAME interview & interrogation concepts. You simply have to structure your approach and technique mix differently to get results. The same thing is true between individuals from the same group. Any group of more sophisticated (in their knowledge of their captors information gathering techniques) and dedicated individuals will take longer to get info out of, regardless of info gathering technique mix. Similarities between the questioner and questioned can certainly make establishing a rapport (always key in the carrot approach) easier. THERE IS NEVER A CASE FOR TORTURE. Well if that’s not famous last words, I’m not sure what is. If you’re really up against the ‘time critical’ wall (to save lives and all that) there’s no way I wouldn’t ‘do what I had to do’. I would remain VERY skeptical of the information though until it proved out, or not. You could easily have done some very regrettable things only to have the worst case you were trying to prevent result anyway because the subjects told you what you wanted to hear to get you to stop. Pretty much the worst of all worlds. Oh, one thing about the captured Japanese, they are an excellent example of cultural peculiarity making information gathering easier. I’ve read a number of credible accounts stating that in Japanese military culture of the day, once you surrendered you were dead to your group. You’d lost all status, obligation, and moral responsibility to your former group. When they did the unthinkable (surrendering or being captured), they pyschologically attached to their new group (good ‘ol US of A), and there was no reason to not be the good ‘team player’ they’d been when they were with the Imperial Armed Forces. Reportedly, some of this phenomenon might have been countered by the Japanese, if only they’d provided any training on what to do after capture, which they hadn’t because you were after all, supposed to die fighting. Gotta go————..I’ve got some stuff to do with my cordless drill and the battery needs charging! 🙂

  11. Flanker, But keep going- what happens when the cultural, religious, or tribal differences between Them and Us, those very things that might be effective pressure points in a long term interrogation, are suddenly made out of bounds? Because judging by the press we get (I know, I know, but it’s all we mortals have to work with), the greatest evil is offending prisoners. And that’s, frankly, sad.

  12. From what I understand, the amount of pressure the captive is under during or immediately prior to torture results in it being very evident when they are lying. Hmm, a cordless drill, that gives me some ideas… I’m not advocating torture as a routine practice, because I’m sure Flanker is right about the carrot being more effective in the long run, but if your buddies asses are on the line and you’ve got someone who can tell you if the branch they’re on is about to be sawed off, what kind of dickless bastard would take that ability to get information away from our side, especially in a war against terrorists? These are our sons. Not to make light of the contribution those like Brian whose actual flesh and blood son is in harm’s way, but we should treat each and every American soldier as if they are our son. Nothing less is acceptable in my book.

  13. The old ticking time bomb analogy again, eh? You all should start an intel school with the knowledge and keen insight of ‘jihadis’ being displayed here. Who knows? Maybe one of you even know a jihadi.. or even a Muslim for that matter? Clearly the professionals have no idea what they are doing and we should let Blogsylvania run the war until we are all free. Ok, that was too much snark.. you get the point. Vince

  14. I’m not going to respond to each comment individually, I’d be typing all day. I’ll reiterate what I stated earlier, and that is torture is a tool used by people in desperation, and rarely if ever yields decent results. The whole argument of the ‘ticking time bomb’ and ‘saving fellow soldiers’ as justification is not only a tired cliche, it’s counterproductive. A couple of things to remember about interrogation and intelligence resulting from it: *Interrogation by itself is not a panacea for failures in other intelligence gathering methods. The information obtained from a source will rarely be some earthshaking eureka! type revelation, more likely it will be just another thread, maybe even seemingly inconsequential at the time, that when combined with other intelligence and what is already known will lead to a greater understanding of the enemy’s methods and intentions. *Most prisoners that you encounter will have absolutely nothing of value to offer you. Think about it. Out of 100 prisoners that come through your door, 95 will know nothing of any value. Out of the other 5, maybe 3 will have information that either is out of date or is already known, and the other 2 might have some information that, by itself, is worthless, but when combined with other pieces of the puzzle you’re trying to put together, proves valuable. In many cases, the prisoner won’t even realize the information he’s giving you has value, and there’s a good chance the interrogator might not realize it either. Only after some analysis and comparison to other intel does the full value become known, and it usually doesn’t happen overnight. Just to clarify things a little bit, I’m a former 97E in the Army, with service in the Gulf War in 1991. I’m not the final word by any measure on interrogation tactics and techniques, but I know what does and doesn’t work. Torture falls into the category of methods that don’t work. It’s been proven time and again, and anybody who proposes that it is a valid interrogation tool doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

  15. It is true that physical torture is generally not as effective or reliable due to the nature of it. Captives will often say anything to get the pain to stop. Physical discomfort such as continually being wet, or cold, or hot, or sleepless, etc. DOES work and quite well, and has been proven to if you have the time to work it properly, and drugs often work well also. As these methods are often effective, they should be used. I only object to kneecapping and such because it is not very effective, I could give a rat’s ass if it is legal or not, or if it is hard on the poor terrorist/ILLEGAL COMBATANT. One last thing: if you don’t use every effective tool in your toolbox to win a war, you DON’T DESERVE TO WIN.