I, like The Washington Post's editorial of Feb. 7, hope that America will salvage from the tragic case of Pfc. Robert A. Garwood both a clear definition of the standard of conduct to be demanded of any future POWs and an explanation of why a couple of career officers, accused of similar offenses, were not brought to trial. Also like the editorial, I have no enthusiasm for gloating over the downfall of one who "appears to be a born loser"; and I have a good track record for compassion behind bars. In fact, I took heat from some good men among the 400 in my prisons of Hanoi for what they considered my overgenerous offers of reinstatement and absolution of the very few "losers" (including those two career officers "who were brought to trial") who would not conform to the minimum standards of our military organization. "It is neither American nor Christian to nag a repentant sinner to his grave," my words, were memorized by all as part of the law of the prisons. This piece is not about Robert Garwood's fate, but about the dead-wrong conclusions that are apt to be drawn from his episodes.
The first "dead-wrong" conclusion falls out of the misleading metaphors that are liberally sprinkled throughout most all modern journalistic writings on imprisonment. They keynoted the editorial of Feb. 7, too: "brainwashed," "broken," "unable to understand criminality," etc. Before I am misunderstood, let me assure the reader that I am not trying to criticize low thresholds of pain or trauma-induced emotional instability or least of all to reflect credit on myself or my gung-ho friends. I am saying that "brainwashed" and "broken" are unfortunate metaphors because they imply that a third force, an unseen hand, somehow enters the jailer/prisoner picture and changes the character or predilections of the latter. I understand pain, isolation and degradation; I've had a lot of all three, and I have cried "I submit" and done what these punishments were imposed to get me to do more times than I'd like to admit. But there was no "third force," no "unseen hand," that absolved me of guilt. Americans came back to cellblocks in Hanoi after terrible tortures, sometimes literally years of isolation, haggard and despondent souls. But as as soon as the home-comer's cell door was closed and the coast was clear, he tapped to his old friend next door, sometimes crying for joy at being back with "his gang" and told him what he had done. Both parties knew the territory too well to try to kid one another, and the guy just out of the meat grinder got what he deserved: compassion and forgiveness. To try to claim "brainwashing" or "breaking" would never do. It just doesn't happen that way.
Whenever this subject is raised, one sooner or later has to take on the psychiatrists. I've solicited the views of a number of these professionals on the subject of "brainwashing." They're all over the board on it; I think I could find three to agree on most anything. When forced to aruge the point on their turf, I quote my own psychiatrists. One in particular, a professor at a leading medical school, called on me last week. I think we agreed; consciousness can be diverted, the pattern of judgment can be disturbed, but a long-term character change is not in the extortionist's cards.
The last statement is important because prisoner misconduct charges of the sort I've seen over the recent years do not pertain to pain thresholds, depression of isolation, interrupted consciousness, discontinuities of judgment patters or temporary factors of any sort. The charges are about character. Furthermore, there is insurance against temporary factors leading to conviction in the requirement for proof of intent in these matters.
Aristotle taught that compulsion and free will can coexist; as he said, each case requires its individual sorting out of factors. Robert Garwood's is a particularly sad case, but to conclude from it that one's responsibility for long-term actions can be absolved by some sort of hypnotic "whammy" put on by an enemy interrogator or that our government should require lower minimum standards of conduct in prison from those with disadvantaged childhoods would be dead wrong. I just can't place myself in prison and make those ideas ring true.
Equitability of treatment is a different story. In the dialogues Apology and Crito, which record Socrates' words when he is on trial for his life and later in prison awaiting execution, the founder of Western philosophy makes the point that the same standards of moral judgment should pertain whether one is under pressure or not. If one can personify a government, and contrasts its actions at two points in time, even when under different administrations, is it too much to ask that its legal philosophy should be consistent whether the country is under pressure from anti-war forces or not?
When we Vietnam War prisoners came home, a "no-recriminations" policy was announced by our government. Sounds good, right? There of course was a footnote that the court-martial systems would, as always, be available to prisoner-versus-prisoner, individual-versus-individual, legal charges that could be supported by evidence. As senior officer of the Naval Service, and a leader of prisoners in Hanoi, I soon realized that I had just inherited a bomb. The same kind of conscience and sense of responsibility that had motivated 98 percent of us in Hanoi over the years flowed in exactly the same direction it had in Hanoi, to the very point it should have flowed -- to the boss -- to me. My constituency rightly said: "You put out the word. We obeyed, we resisted being manipulated by the enemy, two officers flouted your orders, now you make justice serve."
Goodbye rest and relaxation, goodbye emotional quietude, hello nine months of hell as all the legal and investigative machinery of the Navy Department droned on under my daily monitoring as I, a supposed "individual" bringing "personal charges" into the legal limelight did my duty as my constituency and I saw it. Like The Post's editorial on Feb. 7, we were worried about conduct standards in the next war. The charges started off at mutiny and worked down from there. They fell out of sworn depositions taken from scores of key men in that constituency I was so proud to have led. Then the charges hit the street; then my kids started bringing in armloads of hate-mail from our family mailbox as our "restful homecoming" went on through its first summer.
The secretary of the Navy asked the judge advocate general if the evidence supported the charges. "Yes," the JAG and his whole legal staff answered as one man. The secretary ruled that a public trial would be detrimental to the lives and families of the scores of returned POWs who would be called to testify. I bought that; I needed a vacation after 10 years and I was tired. The secretary studied the evidence, gave letters of censure to the two senior officers and retired them on the spot.
That's the story on the seniors "who never came to trial," those same ones I scarcely knew but had by the code of our prisoner organization, and my code, the just responsibility to formally investigate and charge.
Let us hope that the U.S. government feels a little more sense of responsibility for seeing that justice is done after the next prisoner return, and files its own charges.