During World War II, thousands of Nazi prisoners of war were held for questioning in what was then a top-secret location at Fort Hunt, Virginia -- now a historic site maintained by the National Park Service. Yesterday, the NPS brought back 24 of the veterans who were responsible for interrogating those POWs:
For six decades, they held their silence.
The group of World War II veterans kept a military code and the decorum of their generation, telling virtually no one of their top-secret work interrogating Nazi prisoners of war at Fort Hunt.
When about two dozen veterans got together yesterday for the first time since the 1940s, many of the proud men lamented the chasm between the way they conducted interrogations during the war and the harsh measures used today in questioning terrorism suspects.
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.
Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration's methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance.
Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army's Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
"I feel like the military is using us to say, 'We did spooky stuff then, so it's okay to do it now,' " said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.
When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece.
"I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war," said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City.
Needless to say, this kind of puts the kibosh on the right-wing narrative that sees Nazi Germany as the template for the Bush administration's terror policies. Rightie bloggers are now scrambling to 'spin the spin.'
Clifford May, referring to one veterans' stated opposition to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, wants to know what's wrong with the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and protests that HE saw nothing amiss when HE was shown around Gitmo:
Can someone tell me what controversial procedures have been used at Guantanamo Bay? As far as I'm aware there is not a shred of hard evidence — and certainly no proof — that torture or even enhanced interrogation methods have been employed there. ...
Not only is this idea of odious "procedures" being used at Guantanamo unsupported, almost every reproter [sic] who has visited the place (myself included) have found conditions there — medical care, quality of food, access to the ICRC and to lawyers — to be of the highest standard.
At Gitmo, the interrogation rooms are fitted out with televisions and easy chairs. The idea is for detainees to view interrogations as pleasant diversions, engage in conversation with their interrogators and, over time, reveal useful tidbits of information. Detainees can — and do - decline to be interrogated. This approach doesn't work in a "ticking time-bomb" scenario but it makes sense with the kinds of combatants being held at Guantanamo.
Google is your friend, Cliff. And when you're done reading up on Guantanamo, google Theresienstadt next.
Jules Crittenden crows, "The FDR admin engaged in black site detentions" because Nazi POWs were held and questioned in secret for "days, even weeks," before military authorities informed the Red Cross -- which was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Crittenden somehow forgets to tell us how many months or years the CIA black sites have existed, or when we might expect contemporary military authorities to inform the Red Cross of their existence and the identities of the individuals being held in them.
For Sister Toldjah, Absolute Moral Authority only takes initial caps when said authority comes down on the side of opposing torture or war:
Does the Post believe interrogators would have gotten the same information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by taking him out to a steak dinner and/or playing games with him instead of waterboarding him (an aggressive interrogation tactic which, btw, saved lives)? Furthermore, does the Washington Post understand that different threats sometimes require different strategies?
Curious objection -- it's the WWII veterans who say they got actionable intelligence from former Nazis by gaining their trust rather than by torturing them. The WaPo is just reporting a newsworthy event.
I'm struck even more, though, by that parenthetical "...which, btw, saved lives. ..." How does the good Sister know this? The link she gives us as proof that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed saved lives is a post at The Corner in which Rich Lowry quotes from a Bill Reilly interview of ABC News reporter Brian Ross. Brian Ross's conviction that torturing KSM saved lives is based entirely on the Bush administration's assertion that it did. Plus, this may be the first time in right-wing blogging history that a member of the "liberal media" has been offered as the gold standard of accuracy.
Ed Morrissey theorizes that humane interrogation techniques might have worked better on Nazis than they would work on Muslims suspected of terrorism today, because the Germans were "different" [emphasis mine]:
... The Germans fought to expand territory through traditional warfare, at least as arrayed against the US and the West. While they conducted sabotage missions in the US through espionage, they did not use terrorist infiltrators to attempt to kill thousands of American civilians. They also did not face religious extremists who believed that death brought them to Allah and 72 waiting virgins for taking out women and children. One can make a case that the civilized techniques of PO Box 1142 worked because their detainees also believed themselves civilized and members of the Western culture.
These are the same Nazis who murdered six million Jews and millions of Catholics, homosexuals, gypsies, and political dissidents in a wide variety of creative ways, such as: Using poison gas to kill hundreds of Jews at a time and then burning their corpses in huge ovens. Slicing open pregnant women. Smashing babies on the ground. Sealing Jews and others inside rooms and leaving them to starve to death -- which could take weeks. Lining up dozens or hundreds of Jews and others at the edge of vast pits, and shooting them down one by one. Sometimes the victims were forced to dig their own graves or kill each other.
But heavens, these human monsters may have believed themselves to be civilized, because they were members of the Western culture. Get it? Ed is not saying the Nazis were civilized -- he is saying something even more twisted. He is saying that, even though the Nazis committed acts of savagery unparalleled in all of human history to that point, it's reasonable to think that they may have considered themselves civilized because they were part of Western culture -- and since it is an accepted axiom that Western culture is inherently more civilized than any other culture, it's possible that Nazis did think themselves civilized, even if they did do some uncivilized things. And there's that whole Aryan thing, too -- they took a lot of pride in being Aryan, didn't they?
Because I hate to end on such a depressing note, here are a couple of links to bloggers who are neither consistently liberal nor consistently right-wing.
Phillip Carter at Intel Dump:
They may be crusty; they may be a little slower; they may be a little cantankerous. But for the most part, you can count on old guys -- especially old combat veterans -- to offer a few amazing stories. Between the lines of those stories, you can often find some common sense with great value for understanding today's events.
In today's Washington Post, we hear a few stories from the old guys who manned Fort Hunt -- the Army's top secret intelligence facility outside of Washington DC for the interrogation of top prisoners during WWII. It's a very touching story, and if you've ever listened to your father or grandfather (or great-grandfather) tell war stories, it'll probably remind you of that. But you don't need to read too closely into these men's comments to find prescriptions for today; they come right [out] and say it[.]
It's a hell of a story. I think that sometimes, we forget how bad these guys had it. We think that we're the first ones in American history to face an existential threat; that the world really changed and became more dangerous on 9/11/01, and that we've never been here before. But, in fact, we have been here before. Our nation has faced existential threats in its short history, like the Civil War and WWII, and we've prevailed. History offers many lessons for today about how we might view these threats, and respond in a way consistent with our nation's core values. These men did it during WWII. I hope we're doing what we can to learn from them while they're still around.
And James Joyner at Outside the Beltway.
The degree to which the men quoted here are representative of the group is unknowable from the piece, of course. Reporters will naturally focus on controversy and the vets supportive of current policy are much less interesting. Still, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these sorts of criticisms from professional interrogators.
Stephen Budiansky had a superb piece in the Atlantic Monthly a couple of years ago (exerpted at OTB at the time) noting that the most successful interrogators on both sides in WWII used psychology rather than torture to get information.
I share Phil Carter’s hope that we can learn from the experiences of the men of Fort Hunt and others who went before.
Yes, jihadist terrorists are different in important ways than the soldiers of Germany and Japan. But human nature remains constant.