From a reader:
As an historian and a military analyst, I’ve looked at this one many times, and the only conclusion I can reach is torture does indeed work when it comes to eliciting actionable intelligence in a hurry. That a person will say whatever you want to make the pain stop is also true, but that approach only applies when one is using torture to illicit a confession, and more pointedly, a politically motivated confession. Thus, the Soviets used torture to get people to confess to counter-revolutionary activities, even where none existed. The North Vietnamese tried to get our POWs to confess to war crimes. In both cases, in the end, people put their signatures on anything thrust in front of them, no matter how improbable.
But that’s not what happens when torture is used for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes. In such instances, all statements are validated against other sources. Usually the initial questions will be those to which the interrogators already know the answers, so that they can calibrate the prisoner’s ability to resist. But gradually they turn to the essential information they need to extract, and over time, they get it, and usually in a very accurate form.
The Nazis used torture quite effectively to roll up resistance movements throughout Europe. The only places they failed were in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, because the partisans were even more vicious than the Nazis. Elsewhere it was quite a different story. Eventually, the Nazis did not even have to use torture that much–the mere threat was sufficient.
Similarly, the Soviets used torture to roll up real nationalist and counter-revolutionary movements, as well as espionage rings within its territory. They may not have been as scrupulous as the Nazis, but they generally got enough good information to identify key agents, who in their turn would be broken, revealing other parts of the network.
Of course, in the heat of battle, torture may be a little slow. My favorite example of “coercive interrogation” involves Major Orde Wingate and his Special Night Squads (SNS) formed in 1936 to combat the Arab Revolt in Palestine. Recruited from a combination of British soldiers and Jewish settlers (mostly members of Palmach), they were charged with protecting the oil pipeline from Jordan to Haifa, as well as Jewish settlements that were being attacked by Arab guerrillas. Wingate did this by training the SNS in guerrilla tactics themselves, so that the ambushers became the ambushed.
On one patrol, Wingate’s scouts captured to armed Arabs hiding along a trail. Convinced that they were lookouts for a larger ambush further along the trail, Wingate interrogated the two men, asking them where their comrades were hiding. Both denied there were any other Arabs nearby. Wingate pulled out his .455-calibre Webley service revolver, and promptly blew out the brains of the one on the left. The one on the right fell to his knees and began gibbering in Arabic, telling Wingate exactly where all the other Arabs were deployed. Wingate then sent his men on a wide enveloping movement that took the Arab ambush from behind, killing a dozen and capturing more.
I’m sure Wingate would be hauled before the ICC in the Hague today, but back then people had their priorities in better order.
Update: And a contrary point of view:
Um, just to make sure you know this–
Your unidentified writer who relates the anecdote from the Arab revolt (after rather creepily pointing out how how helpful torture was to the Nazis and the Soviets) says that “back then” people had their “priorities in order.” The implication was that shooting prisoners was admirable and efficent and only the ICC and the pansies at the Hague would think otherwise.
In fact, it is a crime under U.S. military law to shoot an unarmed prisoner and it is further a violation of the laws of war as they have been adopted and recognized, not just by some kooks at the Hague, but by just about everybody for the last hundred and fifty years or so. In 1842, Daniel Webster (not exactly the Keith Olberman of his day) said that “the law of war forbids the wounding, killing, impressing…or otherwise maltreating the prisoners of war…and from the obligations of this law no civilized state can absolve itself.” The Geneva Conventions forbid summarily killing a prisoner.
I guess what troubles me the most is that you (whom I generally think of as a thoughtful person) have published this kind of extremist nonsense without any comment–as though it is an acceptable argument. It is not. It is contemptible and morally rotten at the core.