Book Review: Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam and Iraq

I just finished reading:

Stone, James A., David P. Shoemaker, and Nicholas R. Dotti. 2008. Interrogation World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq. Washington, DC: National Defense Intelligence College.  Available online at

on my iPhone. It was a 263 page book but I was comfortable reading it on my small screen. It did not give me appreciation for the photographs, but it that was a small price to pay for having a book in my pocket.

It is well documented with over 450 footnotes. The sources consulted by the three authors included military files from the National Archives,other government documents, memoirs of former interrogators, newspapers and academic journals, and interviews with military officials, former interrogators and Special Forces officers. The result is a readable and engaging book that should be of interest to anyone concerned about how we get our intelligence.

Based on a review of documentation concerning fanatical Japanese and VC soldiers, the authors come to conclusions which will probably shock most people in this country. The most important factors in gaining useful intelligence were deep knowledge of the language and culture of the adversary. Torture and other harsh methods used by the Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese tended to elicit false confessions and information.

According to this book, one of the most successful Nazi interrogators, Hanns Scharf, understood that language, culture, and unexpected good treatment paid dividends. Here’s his introduction from the book:

From 1943 to 1945 Scharff was responsible for interrogating U.S. and British airmen captured during combat missions over German-occupied Europe. Scharff collaborated with author Raymond F. Tolliver to recount his interrogation
exploits in a book titled The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Scharff , Luftwaffe’s Master Interrogator.

For those who rightly wonder whether a former Nazi can be relied on to be truthful about the avoidance of torture, his story is collaborated by some of his former prisoners. So how did he get his intel? Author James Stone explains:

“Poker Face” Scharff was revered for his ability to convince enemy flyers that he possessed encyclopedic information about them and their units. Therefore, he would request prisoners simply “confirm” information he ostensibly possessed in order to verify that they were legitimate POWs, not spies. Indeed, Scharff did know a good deal about the flyers and their units because he was aided by an extensive intelligence apparatus that methodically exploited flyers’ captured documents, intercepted radio transmissions, analyzed crash sites, combed Allied news publications, employed prison “stool pigeons,” and coordinated with German intelligence agents.

With flyers’ identities and truthfulness now “proven” through their disclosure of additional intelligence, Scharff would tell prisoners their interrogations were concluded. Scharff would then disarm and entertain his prisoners by sharing jokes, meals, cigarettes, and outdoor recreation with them. On one occasion, Scharff even arranged for an enemy flyer to pilot a German ME-109 fighter (albeit with little fuel and no armament). With their defenses lowered, flyers would reveal information about themselves and their units that Scharff would use as leverage during later interrogations of future prisoners. So convincing was Scharff ’s ruse of “knowing all” that many prisoners mistakenly believed their units in England were thoroughly infiltrated by German spies.

I’m not saying Scharff was a typical German interrogator, but he did get results.

Our of our World War II interrogators was Sergeant Grant Hirabayashi. How effective was he (emphasis mine)?

Armed with his firsthand knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, along with the intense training he received at MISLS, Hirabayashi served General Merrill as a Military Intelligence Service interrogator responsible for collecting enemy information crucial to the successful prosecution of the Burma campaign.

How did he get this information? By treating his prisoners as human beings and not as the fanatic yellow thugs as portrayed in the press of the day:

Throughout the campaign, Hirabayashi interrogated dozens of enemy prisoners. His approach was simple; he always treated POWs with kindness and dignity. First, he made sure prisoners received proper medical care. He frequently offered them cigarettes and asked if they had heard from their families and been able to communicate with them. Many wept because of this unexpected treatment. Hirabayashi explained that prisoners truly believed that U.S. soldiers were going to kill them and noted that the POWs were completely unaware of the rights afforded to them under the rules of international law, codified in the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 27 July 1929 (the Geneva Convention of 1929).

Remember, the Japanese soldier of the 1930s and 1940s had pretty much the same rep as the jihadist of today. Here’s a WWII poster that shows the popular perception:

The Vietnam stories are similar. The best results came when the brass knuckles, stress positions and mock executions were put away.

In addition to the historical case studies, this book has a number of interesting features including a chronology of interrogation-related events from 11 September 2001 through the fielding of FM 2-22.3 (Army Interrogation Manual) in the fall of 2006 on pages 154 – 166 of the PDF file; The US military’s assessment of the seriousness of the detainee abuse (torture) problem on pages 167-168 and an extensive bibliography on pages 237 – 248. The book also carries an index.

I hope you’ll consider reading this book. Not only is it engaging and well documented, it demonstrates from past battles with fierce enemies that we don’t need to make a choice between upholding our values and getting actionable intelligence. The Cheney way is ahistorical and ineffective.

This entry was posted in book reviews, history, torture. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review: Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam and Iraq

  1. Nan (aka roswellborn) says:

    Thank you for the review! I’ve put it near the top of my must-have list.

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