The New York Times has aquired a 44-page report filed in 1974 by Commander John S. McCain after his return from North Vietnam. The document is titled “Individual Research Project: The Code of Conduct and the Vietnam Prisoners of War.” The full pdf can be found here.
The Times’ story on McCain’s report focuses on his suggestion that American troops be told more about U.S. foreign policy, and upon McCain’s insistance on the importance of forgiveness: an issue McCain addresses briefly toward the end of the report.
There are many fascinating passages in the 44 pages. The Times does not quote, for example, this passage, which ought to be required reading for everyone who is engaging in the torture debate in the United States, today. I will simply offer it without further editorial comment.
One of the standard methods to wear down a prisoner’s resistance to their demands was the use of what could be described as “self-induced” punishment. That is to say, prisoners being ordered to sit, kneel, or stand for long periods of time deprived of rest or sleep. This form of torture, without laying a hand on the prisoner, was sometimes very successful at breaking the will. These conditions of standing, kneeling, etc. were imposed by threats of more severe punishment if the prisoner refused. Through experience it was learned that the best course of action was to initially comply with the orders to kneel or stand until fatigue set in. Then, when the physical pain became extreme, but not physically damaging, the prisoners learned to gradually refuse to punish himself [sic] further. The important idea here is to force the enemy to punish the POW not for the prisoner to punish himself. An interesting psychological effect of the “self-induced” torture is that the immediate source of discomfort is not the captor but the prisoner himself. Added to this are the threats of more severe torture if the prisoner does not comply with the orders of the interrogator. One of the most important lessons gained is that the feat[sic; “r”?] of punishment was often worse than the actual punishment itself.
There is not [sic] doubt that the ability of the prisoners of war in Vietnam to resist was enhanced by their intense dislike of the North Vietnamese. This was caused by their captors [sic] attempts to humiliate and degrade them. One example, was the camp regulations concerning bowing. The prisoners were required to bow whenever a North Vietnamese came into proximity. This aspect of the treatment by the North Vietnamese backfired on them and served to stiffen the resistance posture of the prisoners. Many ex-POWS have stated that due to the length and divisiveness of the Vietnam conflict, if the policy of the North Vietnamese towards the captured Americans had been of strict adherence to the Geneva Convention the North Vietnamese might have returned a group of men who would have been grateful and sympathetic to their problems in that part of the world. Instead, a dedicated group of anti-communists have emerged from that ordeal.
— From “The Code of Conduct and the Vietnam Prisoners of War,” John S. McCain, Commander, USN, 4/8/1974, pp. 13-14.