U.S. fliers who were prisoners of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War said Thursday that their interrogators hit them in several cases and administered repeated shocks to an Air Force pilot by wrapping electrical wires around his ears and chin.
The captured U.S. servicemen scraped calendars into the walls of their cells, prayed, paced for miles in solitary confinement and played “little mental games” to overcome what one former POW called the “loneliness and uncertainty of not knowing what was going on.” On Thursday, they had their first encounter with the press since their release from captivity. Army POWs, including two women, were not made available to the press.
But while one of the returnees, Marine Capt. Russell A. C. Sanborn, called his incarceration “a terrifying experience,” the group described more mental anguish than physical cruelty at the hands of Iraqi forces.
“It’s very difficult when you lose your freedom,” said Marine Capt. Michael C. Berryman, the pilot of an AV-8B Harrier attack jet. “Especially as Americans, you don’t realize what you have till you lose it.”
The Bush Administration has charged that the Iraqis forced U.S. servicemen to make propaganda videos under severe physical and mental threat. But on Thursday, the former prisoners of war offered little evidence to support Bush Administration charges that prisoners were severely tortured.
That fact has sparked debate among some former POWs and military officers at the Pentagon over whether the U.S. military services may have gone too far in relaxing the code of conduct that guides prisoners of war in resisting their captors’ interrogation techniques.
U.S. servicemen and women are instructed to resist interrogators “to the best of their ability.” While in the past GIs were told not to give more than their name, rank and serial number, U.S. military trainers have been instructing them since the late 1970s that in resisting, they should not disable themselves permanently or risk their sanity. The change came in response to hideous interrogation tactics endured by U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.
“With some of the kinds of torture they were subjected to in Vietnam, we had to change the code of conduct a little,” one Navy official said. “But it doesn’t mean they have to submit after mere threats. Giving in to mere threats can be very damaging in the long run.”
It is a debate that was recently given voice by retired Vice Adm. James R. Stockdale, a captive of North Vietnam for more than seven years and a winner of the Medal of Honor for his resistance as a POW. Well before the U.S. POWs told their stories, Stockdale, writing in the March issue of Naval Institute Proceedings, dismissed as “the world’s worst solution” a proposal that would let U.S. prisoners of war give propaganda statements to their captors without forceful resistance.
“Compliance extracted by brute force is in no way as spiritually damaging as that given away on a mere threat,” Stockdale wrote. “Prisoners of war grow to live on honor and self-respect,” he added. “Then, reputation is one of the few things they have left in their world, and they value it as they would a life ring in a raging sea.”
If American GIs were allowed to give such statements freely, wrote Stockdale, “after months or years behind bars, they would have hated themselves and their government for encouraging them to spew all that rot on the airwaves free of charge.”
On Thursday, however, U.S. aviators who submitted to televised Iraqi interviews said that they hoped to use the broadcasts for positive purposes. Marine Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, of Oceanside, the commanding officer of a Marine air squadron who was pictured in videotapes, said that he wanted to relay crucial intelligence to allied forces in his interviews--that in spite of the near-disappearance of Iraqi surface-to-air missiles as a threat, the weapons were still being used effectively and had brought down his plane.
Lt. Lawrence R. Slade, a back-seater in a downed F-14 Tomcat, said that while he “was certainly worried how it would look” in the United States, he submitted to being videotaped so that American authorities and his family would know he was alive.
He called the tapes “documentation, where at the end of the war, if we weren’t in that same condition, someone would have to answer for it.”
Navy Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, who in the Iraqi tapes made statements critical of the United States, Thursday described the incident that led to his bruised and lacerated face being shown on television around the world. Most of the injuries were suffered as he punched out of his A-6 Intruder, he said.
After being “a little bit slapped around” and bloodying his own nose to avoid being put before the camera, Zaun said that he was brought to a television studio and “told . . . five questions they were going to ask, then they told me what my answers were going to be.”
Zaun said that he tried to “screw it up a little.” But the 28-year-old aviator added that he “had enough faith in the Americans to know that anyone that saw this was going to go, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ You know?
“So I wasn’t worried what you all were going to think. I was a little bit worried that it might work out to be good propaganda for (Iraqi leader) Saddam” Hussein.
He added that “about 90% of the time you felt you were in danger of losing your life.”
The other aviators, however, described a range of treatment that included bad food, minimal medical attention and few comforts. At the same time, none described their mistreatment as torture, as many Bush Administration officials have done.
Capt. Richard Storr, an Air Force pilot, said that while interrogators used “some physical means,” the abuse was “nothing like the prisoners from Vietnam.”
Even Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Tice, who was subjected to an electric-shock treatment, said that “at no time during that type of treatment did I think I was going to be killed with it.” He laughingly referred to the device that was strapped around his head as a “talk man.”
“They were trying to coerce me into making a videotape,” said Tice. “It was obvious to me at the time that they were on a schedule, and I was destroying their schedule a little bit, so they increased the intensity of my interrogation at that stage of the game. They went from just your average human hand and a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson-type of beating to a little bit of electrical shock therapy.”
Almost all of the 15 returnees who spoke Thursday said that the support of their families and of the American public, as well as their “little mental games,” were crucial to their surviving captivity.
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter, who was shown in an Iraqi videotape calling the Persian Gulf War “crazy,” said Thursday that for “a long period of time, I felt extremely bad about that and was concerned about it.”
But on Feb. 23, when a prison holding many of the American POWs was bombed by allied warplanes, Hunter said he learned for the first time that the videotapes had caused a wave of anger against Hussein among Americans and that President Bush had denounced the Iraqis for forcing the interviews and then showing them.
“It really relieved my feelings quite a bit,” said Hunter, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton.