Vietnam Analogy, Pt. 7: A Tape for Mr. Cheese by mattsteinglass
April 12, 2007, 5:53 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Media, United States, Vietnam

US POWs, Hanoi Hilton
U.S. POWs preparing to depart the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. February, 1973.

In today’s Slate, Jacob Weisberg muses on the nature of forced confessions, taking as examples those of Australian al-Qaeda fighter and ex-Guantanamo inmate David Hicks; the 15 Royal Navy captives released last week by Iran; and racial-sensitivity-challenged media shock jock Don Imus. “In each case,” Weisberg writes, “the implication that pivotal statements were in various ways coerced leaves us wondering whether to believe the speakers now, then, or ever.”

Weisberg’s clever, counterintuitive move here (TM Slate, 1998) is to mix the cases of Hicks and the Royal Navy POWs, who were subjected to classic versions of “compulsion” including psychological and possibly physical torture, with that of Imus, who is being “compelled” largely by career considerations. But Weisberg fails to consider the deeper implications of his move. It’s true: the compulsion deployed against prisoners, or citizens of totalitarian regimes, often differs in degree rather than in kind from various types of compulsion which anyone might be subjected to in the normal course of daily life as a free citizen. This insight ought to force us to consider what we mean when we say that a confession is or is not “sincere”. An unwilling apology often gradually transforms into a willing one, people often come to believe the things they have said under duress, and often it’s hard to tease out which elements of “duress” are outside our heads, and which are inside them. Take, for instance, the anti-war propaganda tapes made by some American POWs, at the urging of North Vietnamese prison officers such as the one known by the nickname “Mr. Cheese”.

Specifically, let’s talk about John Young. As he relates in “Survivors: Vietnam POWs Tell Their Stories” (1975), by then-New Republic correspondent Zalin Grant, Young was a Marine Special Forces officer captured by NVA and VC forces on Jan. 30th, 1968 while on patrol, receiving a severe leg wound. His interrogator kicked his leg wound to get him to confirm information about the defenses of Lang Vei, the camp he was based at. Young refused until the NVA officer began executing captured US-allied Laotian soldiers, one after the other, to make him talk. After the second Laotian was shot in the head, Young confirmed what the NVA officer already knew about Lang Vei. The NVA overran Lang Vei on Feb. 6.

Confined in a POW camp southwest of Hanoi, Young at first resisted, and was twice sentenced to solitary confinement for periods as long as 6 months. But he also began reading texts by Ho Chi Minh supplied by the camp’s head officer, Mr. Cheese, along with books by Australian journalist Wilfrid Burchett and others. He and Mr. Cheese gradually developed a rapport. Moved by the guards’ sorrow at the death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969, and by now convinced that US involvement in the war was wrong, Young gave in to Mr. Cheese’s demands that he make a propaganda tape denouncing US bombing. By 1971, he was in a larger POW camp called the Plantation, and part of a room of POWs all opposed to the war, who regularly made tapes calling on the US to get out of Vietnam. They were known as the “Peace Committee”, or PCs.

By 1973, when the POWs were sent home to the US as America pulled out of Vietnam, Young was a committed Communist. Along with several other PCs, he asked camp officials for permission to remain in North Vietnam and join the army to fight against the South. The Vietnamese refused, and the PCs were sent back to the US. (There, the PCs were briefly charged with treason by a former fellow-POW, Air Force pilot Ted Guy. The armed forces dropped the charges after one of the PCs committed suicide.)

Now let’s consider Tom Harker and Floyd Kushner. Harker was a soldier, Kushner an army doctor. They’d been held in a jungle camp for 2 years, where many POWs died of hunger. By 1971 they were in the Plantation in Hanoi and had turned thoroughly against the war. In the jungle, under intense pressure, both had made propaganda statements, but in Hanoi they began to refuse:

Harker: “Kushner had stopped doing the radio and stopped writing unless forced. Although he never wrote anything about the war he didn’t actually believe to be true, he got tired of the North Vietnamese using him… In January [1972] the North Vietnamese gave us an article from the New York Times, a Christmas story written by Kushner’s wife Valerie, who was active in an organization of POW wives who were against the war. After reading it Kushner wanted very badly to write his wife. The Vietnamese said, ‘You write something [a propaganda statement] for us and we’ll let you write home.'”

How are we to evaluate the statements Kushner made under duress (torture or isolation from his wife), but which he says he believed — denunciations of US bombings and war crimes? Are they sincere? Insincere? Did he believe them when he first wrote them? Or did he come to believe them later?

A bit later, Harker is beaten by Mr. Cheese to induce him to make a tape denouncing US bombing, as punishment for refusing to wash dishes in the presence of the PCs, whom he has come to despise. Harker eventually writes a denunciation, under duress. We know that Harker does in fact oppose the bombing — he has freely written a letter to Senator Mike Mansfield saying as much — yet we also know that this later statement was written under compulsion. Is this statement sincere? Can we believe Harker? Kushner?

In Young (and other PCs), we have a case of someone coming to believe statements which it is to his advantage to make, as an act of affiliation with a new group identity. In Harker and Kushner, we have a case of people refusing to make statements which they in fact believe, as an act of resistance against attempts to force them to affiliate with a new group identity. Who is speaking “sincerely”?

And so we come back to Jacob Weisberg’s piece. Weisberg says Don Imus’s fear of losing his career renders his “forced confession” unreliable. And yet every day, Imus makes all sorts of statements in order to further his career — as does Weisberg. For instance, Slate has a prescribed intellectual format: it requires, clever, snarky, ironic theses which make analogies between apparently unlike phenomena. Weisberg’s title — “What do Don Imus, David Hicks, and the 15 British sailors have in common?” — is a paradigmatic example of the form. Now, does Weisberg actually “believe” that Imus was also making a forced confession? Or did he simply make this statement because he knows it conforms well to the editorial demands of his online magazine, and thus will help perpetuate his career? We can’t really know. Weisberg is compelled to write things like this by the genre demands of his website. (The fact that Weisberg is among the original editors who devised the format really only complicates matters; by now he is conforming to the rules he himself created.) We suspect that Weisberg may not be sincere at all, that he may be writing under genre compulsion. Indeed, so are we all, all the time. And that leaves us, as Weisberg puts it, “wondering whether to believe the speakers now, then, or ever.”


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: