Since interrogation has been a hot topic of late, here’s a story about the time I myself dabbled a bit in some “coercive questioning.” It was the summer of ’75 and my basic training outfit, Platoon 1076, was engaged in several days of infantry training along with our three sister platoons.
For several days we marched up and down the hills and through the scrub woods of Camp Pendleton, doing exciting things like crawling through the sticky mud and under the barbed wire of the infiltration course, while smoke grenades and simulated machineguns fired deafeningly next to our heads. Then there was the day we delighted in firing live ammo on the combat range, including taking part in a nighttime exhibition of “final protective fire,” or FPF, with full magazines of tracer rounds. Imagine more than 300 privates firing their M-16 rifles along with four M-50 machineguns, ALL at the same time on the same firing line. It was better than the fourth of July! That was probably the highlight of our infantry training, but a close second was when we got to actually “play” war.
When we played war out in the dried three-foot high grass and dusty hills of Pendleton THAT was THE first time we got to see the “human” faces behind the drill instructors’ “mean monster masks.” As recruits, it was a joy to be finally treated like humans, instead of as lowlife “maggots,” as they used to call us back then. (I hear the use of denigrating names is against the “rules” now). We loved almost every second of our time in the field, mostly because occasionally we were given a tiny taste of personal freedom. We could almost feel what it was going to be like, once we earned the right to be called Marines, although not quite. This was especially true the night we played “war games.”
Playing war was awesome. The four platoons of our series broke up into two opposing forces, and then, that night – we fought it out. Each platoon maintained unit integrity, while supporting each other on the same side against the other two platoons. A deep ravine served as a boundary between the rival factions, and while it was still daylight the platoon commanders and drill instructors of each side determined where to set up their respective fighting positions, perimeters, outposts and headquarters, or HQ.
By the time dusk gave way to dark we had all received our assignments, and mine was to stay in the rear at headquarters as a runner, as well as to act as HQ security. At first, I was disappointed. Most of the night spent back there at the rear position was boring. I was used as a runner just once, but there wasn’t much to it. I ran a message to another DI on an adjacent hilltop and brought back his spoken response. That was it, until several hours later when one of our attack parties, led by one of our instructors, came back from a foray behind enemy lines with a captured “prisoner.”
I didn’t recognize the forlorn private unlucky enough to have been seized by our guys, but I remember the grim and dejected look on his dark face. I could see him clearly in the light of our small campfire. Our drill instructor ordered those of us at HQ to tie his hands behind his back and to guard him. Before taking off back into the night to continue the fight, he directed us to question the prisoner: “Find out who he is, and what he knows. Find out who his platoon commander is. Find out what his mission was before we caught him, and see if he knows any of the details on the location of his headquarters. I’ll be back in about an hour.”
The DI led his fighting party back down the hill and disappeared into the blackness, leaving us to deal with the prisoner and his orders to interrogate him. The first thing we did was to take off the private’s shirt. We used it to tie his forearms and hands tightly behind his back. We sat him down hard next to our small fire. One of my HQ mates took it upon himself to start questioning the slender sullen-faced black private.
“Who are you?”
“F--k off,” he answered quietly with head down.
“Hey, tell us your name, damn it! The Geneva Convention says you can tell us your name, rank and serial number, so tell us your freaking name,” my partner-in-crime demanded.
He glared at us saying, “I ain’t telling you nothing. Go f--k yourself,” he continued to answer in the same emotionless monotone.
It went on like that for several minutes when an idea came to me. I spoke up, “Bring him over here and make him lie down in the bottom of this fox hole.”
After the prisoner was safely stowed in his hole, we withdrew out of earshot and I whispered my plan to the other four guys: “Let’s fake him out. John, he hasn’t seen or heard you yet. We’ll pretend that we just captured you, and when we start questioning you and you don’t answer, we’ll give you a fake beating. You play along and make it convincing, okay?”
He nodded his head with excitement, “Yeah, I can do that. Let’s make him BELIEVE it!”
John hurriedly unbuttoned and pulled off his shirt and then stripped off his T-shirt. Getting into the spirit of the deception he encouraged us, “Hey you guys; don’t take it easy on me. Hit me hard and make it sound real.”
After a few minutes, one of our fire teams returned to camp for a brief respite and we employed them to act as if they were bringing John into HQ as their prisoner. By this time we had allowed our real prisoner to sit up in his foxhole so that he could just see out. We sat John on an old log across the fire from the prisoner and began to question him, only this time we got rough. Every time he refused to answer a question one of us would pretend to slap him hard across the face. With our backs to the prisoner we were actually slapping John hard against his upper arm and shoulder. Convincingly, he would fall away from the strike and gasp in pain. He even had me believing we were hurting him.
Every time he went down we smeared wet dirt across his face and chest to make him look extra abused. After several minutes, John begged us to stop while still refusing to talk. I glanced over at our prisoner and saw his eyes wide with apprehension. We were getting to him. I was sort of surprised to see that he was actually buying our amateurish little ruse. Just a little further and I figured he would be softened up enough to try to question him again. The next time it was my turn to question John I winked at him and nodded—it was time for the “grand finale.” I pushed him hard, straight back off the log onto the ground, threw myself at him and sat atop his stomach. I exaggeratedly flailed at him, striking hard with loud slaps and punches onto his chest and arms. It sounded terrible, but all of it was simulated; I did no real damage. John went with it and groaned, gasped and cried out in pain. I had one last card to play and I wanted it to look good.
Acting as if I was enraged, I jumped off John, ran to the fire and grabbed a smoldering firebrand. Before turning back toward my fake prisoner with it, I caught the eye of our real prisoner, making sure he could see the imitation “rage” on my face.
“Hold him down! This will make him talk!” I ordered my fellow con-artists.
They held John’s arms and I brought the burning piece of wood to the ground about a foot above John’s head. He began to struggle, kick and scream. I lifted the enflamed piece of wood and demanded, “How about now? You ready to talk?”
“No! No way!” he gasped and spat back at me.
“Okay then, have some of this you son of a bitch!” I brought it down one more time, and as we had prearranged, John screamed one more time, went silent and lay still.
“Damn it. He passed out,” I declared with loud disappointment. I instructed my fellow HQ troops, “Throw him into the hole and bring that other asshole back over here.”
Roughly, we dragged the “unconscious” John to the shallow foxhole and rolled him in next to our prisoner. I pointed at the man now cowering, his chest heaving, and sneered at him, “You’re next pal.” We yanked him none-to-gently out of the three-foot deep depression and sat him down on the log, his hands still tightly secured behind his back. The man had none of his earlier bravado. He was trembling so hard with fear and from the chilly night that I almost felt sorry for him.
Straddling the log I sat down and leaned in to his left ear, and almost in a whisper I asked him, “Private. You ready to tell us what we want to know?”
He was already broken. Our scam had worked perfectly. He hung his head and nodded in abject submission. He answered every question we could think to ask him and more. We were still getting information from him when our drill instructor showed up ghostlike and watched us for a while. Not knowing what we had done to the poor fellow, the DI laid into the private with full DI fury, “Private! What the f--k is wrong with you? Why are you talking to my privates? You pussy! You will NEVER be a Marine in MY CORPS! Take this maggot back to his platoon. The war is over and YOU lost!”
I felt terrible, but I learned a few things about human nature and about my OWN nature as well. I never dreamed I could be so cruel and conniving. Also, the real moral of the story is: “be careful what you tell young privates to do, because they JUST might do it.”