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The Lessons of Torture in World War II

[digg-reddit-me]When I first started this blog, I told the story of two different interrogations at the beginning of Bush’s War on Terror – one using traditional methods which yielded actionable intelligence; and one using “enhanced” techniques which yielded false information. Now – in the past few weeks with Obama referencing Winston Churchill in defense of his administration’s anti-torture stance, a battle has broken out over torture in World War II. Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly engaged in a skirmish earlier this week – but at the same time, two academics have written pieces about the broader historical context – both of which purport to demonstrate how torture helped the Allies win the war. 

N.B. Keep in mind while reading these stories that the justification for using torture that American proponents utilize is that it is an essential intelligence tool that is necessary to produce actionable intelligence quickly.

Julian Sanchez told the first story about how torture helped win “the Good War.” The Japanese tortured an American airman in the immediate aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki trying to get information about this bomb program. The airman “confessed” that America had hundreds of atom bombs ready to drop on Japanese cities. In turns out, the airman knew nothing of the program – and America has just used the only one left in it’s stock. It’s unclear what effect this information had – but this false information gleaned from torture had to have had an effect on Japan’s leadership as they debated whether or not to surrender. Sanchez doesn’t lay out the lesson – but based on his presentation, it is clear: Torture produces false information.

Andrew Roberts, who claims to be an historian, tells a different story in The Daily Beast. He starts out explaining what the lessons he wants to convey is –  the “crucial truth” about torture during World War II that he makes clear will support the right-wing defense of torture. Roberts writes:

When troops need information about enemy capabilities and intentions—and they usually need it fast—moral and ethical conventions…have repeatedly been ignored in the bid to save lives.

So far, a relatively uncontroversial reading of history. But the next sentence is a doozy:

In the conflict generally regarded today as the most ethical in history, World War II, enhanced interrogation techniques were regularly used by the Allies…[my emphases]

Google records 0 instances of anyone calling World War II the most ethical anything in history. For good reason – first, Roberts entirely mis-states what he means to say – that the Allies conduct in World War II was the most ethical in history; secondly, from the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the interment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans there are quite a few barbaric acts associated with the Allies in the war. What Roberts should know – as an historian – is that World War II is widely regarded as a “good war” – one of the few – not because our conduct was exemplary – but because the war was against evil forces that left no choice but for the Allies to violently oppose them. Roberts only uses this as a throwaway phrase – more important is his second point – that “enhanced interrogation techniques were regularly used by the Allies.” 

Roberts spends the rest of his piece not backing up this assertion – except by innuendo. The story Roberts chooses to tell is of Operation Fortitude – Britain’s program that used German intelligence agents to feed misinformation to keep the bulk of the German army away from Normandy on D-Day. But in terms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” being used on these agents, he literally offers no proof. This is the closest he gets:

If anyone believes that SIS persuaded each of these 19 hard-bitten Nazi spies to fall in with Operation Fortitude by merely offering them tea, biscuits, and lectures in democracy, they’re being profoundly naïve.

Once again – a Google search for “Operation Fortitude” and torture yielded no results backing up Roberts’s history. Roberts himself cites not sources or records or accounts – and for what it’s worthy, torture is hardly the traditional method of turning a double agent. 

What you find instead are accounts that explicitly reject Roberts’s innuendo. Colonel Robin “Tin-Eye” Stephens who ran the interrogation center that turned these German spies into double agents for the same Operation Fortitude banned violence saying:

Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment.

Stephens was manipulative – and held the threat of lawful execution over the German spies’ heads – but he understood that it was idiotic to torture them for information. Roberts gives no source for his rejection of the historical facts – but instead accuses those who accept them of being “profoundly naïve.”

Still – even if we are to grant Roberts his premise – that these agents were recruited as doubles by means of torture – his story still wouldn’t demonstrate that torture was “regularly used by the Allies” or capable of getting accurate “information about enemy capabilities and intentions.”

The story Roberts tells – if anything – undermines the idea of torture as an interrogation tool. Time and again – even in Roberts telling – history demonstrates that torture is an exceptionally effective tool to break an individual, to get them to confess to something regardless of it’s truth. Unfortunately, it is substantially documented that our intelligence agencies adopted a program of torture without knowing it’s history. What is almost inexplicable is how an historian such as Roberts can today still try to justify this program when the history of the methods used has been dragged out into the open.

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