Questioning the Questioners: Interrogation Tactics of World War II
By Jordan Michael Smith
Intelligence-gathering is by its very nature secretive. It involves putting together pieces of a puzzle that donâ€™t always fit. In fact, it quite often involves putting together pieces of a puzzle that are not meant to fit. Sometimes the information is naive, other times deliberately misleading; sometimes the information is insufficient, other times so abundant it becomes contradictory. Perhaps most frustratingly of all, the intelligence officer never knows what the story is supposed to look like. He has only his instinct and training to predict just what it is exactly that the enemy is planning.
But if intelligence is the meal, then interrogation is the after-meal drink. It is a world of shady characters with hazy experiences. The information gathered from a captured enemy is always suspect: how does the interrogator know when the prisoner is telling the truth? How does the interrogator know when the enemy is truly devoid of information? When he is spitting out half-truths? Even if he is sincere and forthright about his knowledge, is he correct? Is his information accurate? Interrogation is incurably untrustworthy-but it is still vital.
There is an added degree of difficulty for the interrogator operating in wartime. He is forced to work with an additional sense of urgency he is unburdened with in a peaceful environment. He must supply his superior with the necessary information in a timely manner. His effectiveness can often quite literally mean the difference between life and death for his fellow soldiers-and he knows it. Quickly providing his military commander with clear and accurate information can-and indeed has-influenced the outcome of decisive battles.
There are three classifications that methods used in interrogation fall into: psychological, physical and mental coercion, and torture. Psychological interrogation is completely legal under international law and is widely accepted and practiced in the international community. It refers to attempts to gather information by simply talking to the prisoner. Now, the interrogator may outsmart and deceive the prisoner-as we will see later-but there is never any physical contact involved and the prisoner is never in any pain.
In the Atlantic Monthly last year, journalist Mark Bowden listed the methods involved in mental and physical coercion, a category that is informally referred to as â€˜â€torture-lite.â€â€™ â€œThese include sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on fears of himself and his family,â€ he wrote. The distinction between torture and mental/physical coercion, Bowden felt, was that â€œalthough excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no physical harm.â€ The Geneva Conventions, he added, make no such distinction. Both the 1929 Conventions and their expanded 1949 counterpart explicitly prohibit any type of interrogation more intense than the psychological approach outlined above.