It’s important for all leaders to have a strLeadership Ethicsong sense of leadership ethics.  The Vietnam War  tested mine early on in my leadership career, in a high-stakes environment.

I was a prisoner-of-war interrogator during the war.  In fact, I was an Army Military Intelligence officer leading a unit of 12 interrogators and documents examiners, and about six South Vietnamese Army translators.  My team and I sat across the interrogation table from the enemy.  We tried through skillful interrogation to learn what these POW’s knew that was of intelligence value to my unit, the Army 4th Infantry Division.  As a result of that experience, I have a nearly unique perspective on torture of military prisoners.

Following is an excerpt from a chapter entitled “Leadership Ethics, Even on the Battlefield” in my forthcoming book “Leadership under Fire: Lessons from the Battlefield and Beyond”.

My Interrogation Prisoner of War (IPW) unit operated from a compound of two buildings on the edge of the division base camp.  One was a building containing my office and two large workrooms, one for the interrogators, and the other for the soldiers who examined captured enemy documents for intelligence.

A detachment of military police occupied the other building called “the cage”, which was entirely surrounded by barbed wire.  They were responsible for the care and feeding of the POW’s. The cage was essentially a combat “jail”.

The rooms in which we conducted the interrogations were also in the cage.  It was also the job of the military police to monitor our behavior in our interrogations.  An MP always attended each one, regardless of the hour.  The MP’s also lived in the cage, so they were always available.

A helipad was the third element of our compound. 

At any hour of the day or night, without notice, a helicopter would land on our helipad and unload one or more Viet Cong, or North Vietnamese Army, prisoners newly captured in battle.

On more than one occasion, along with the POW’s came an infantry officer fresh from the battlefield.  He usually outranked me, and was typically either a battalion or company commander.  He would be covered with dust and sweat from his field operation, and surging with adrenaline, still usually carrying a weapon.

Typically they would ask for the officer in charge (me), and very forcefully say to me something like, “Lieutenant, we lost X number of men in this operation, and we want to know what this guy knows that we can use, and we want it ASAP.  I want you to do whatever it takes to find out what this guy knows right away, Lieutenant.  Do you understand me?”

The implication was clear.  If necessary, he wanted us to torture the POW.

A little military leadership ethics background may be helpful.

Officially, the US military in Vietnam did not torture prisoners.  The US was (and is) a signatory of the articles of the Geneva Convention, which prohibited torture of captured prisoners of war.  My training included this consistent message: we do not torture POW’s.  It is a violation of international law.

The subject was a sensitive one too because of the My Lai massacre, which had occurred the previous year in South Vietnam.  An infantry platoon led by another Army Lieutenant named William Calley had burned a South Vietnamese village called My Lai.  In addition, they killed more than 100 of its inhabitants.  They believed some of the villagers were Viet Cong.  A court martial later convicted Lieutenant Calley of murder.  The court sentenced Calley to life in a military prison.  It was later reduced several times until ultimately he served only three years.

After leaving us, the next (and final) stop for POW’s was the ARVN, or Army of the Republic of Vietnam.  Our South Vietnamese allies reportedly tortured POW’s routinely.  In fact, the Viet Cong and especially the NVA knew that as well.

We knew, however, that both the VC and NVA tortured OUR prisoners. 

Our country wouldn’t know until the end of the war just how pervasive and brutal the torture inflicted on US POW’s had been.  We learned this from former POW’s like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a Naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam.

We did have some first-hand evidence of torture by the enemy even during my tour, however.  The VC captured a First Lieutenant from our Division.  They tortured him (possibly during their interrogation of him) by shooting pistol rounds through the fatty tissue just above his waist.  Then they executed him with a single shot to the head.

Our senior commanders made color photos of the officer’s body, and circulated it widely throughout the division.  The reaction was the one expected by us, but probably not the reaction expected by the enemy.  The primary objective of the enemy in committing such atrocities was to demoralize and scare us.  Their second was to erode our support among the US public.  Of course, by 1970, it was already pretty well eroded).

What our enemies didn’t realize then (and now) was that the US military is not scared or demoralized by such atrocities. 

Instead, it just plain pisses us off!  If anything, our morale and determination went up, not down.

Our training taught us that human intelligence gathered under duress was always suspect.  This is because of a simple human fact.  People under duress tend to tell the interrogator whatever it will take to end the duress.  They tell the interrogator what they think s/he wants to hear.  Intelligence gathered in this way is notoriously unreliable.  That was true then and it is still true now.

It saddened and disappointed me when our senior civilian leadership apparently authorized the use of torture during the Iraq War.

When I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, I said to my interrogators that we would not engage in torture.  Our enemy practiced torture, and we would not sink to that level.  We went there to save the South Vietnamese from the people who do those things.  We are better than that as a unit, an Army, and a country.  It’s a matter of leadership ethics.  Period.