Friday, April 06, 2007

Tales From Captivity

Britain's Daily Mail has a detailed summary of today's press conference, held by the Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines who were recently released by Iran. Not surprisingly, the former detainees report that their video "apologies" were coerced by the Iranians, and that they were subjected to isolation and "constant psychological pressure" by their abductors.

Reading the summary, I'd say that the Brits' description of their captivity is about what you'd expect from a regime like Iran's. Certainly, the sailors and marines could have endured far worse treatment--say, physical torture--but isolation, sensory depravation and pressure tactics are bad enough. Imagine being lined up against a wall and blindfolded, then hearing the sound of weapons being cocked. Making matters worse, there is no indication that the British personnel had any prior training in resistance techniques, giving their captors a decided advantage.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of that training for military personnel and intelligence operatives at risk for capture and interrogation. As a former Air Force aircrew member, I attended the service's "basic" survival course, conducted at Fairchild AFB, Washington. In those days (the early 1990s), the school's "capstone" event consisted of two stints in a mock POW camp, separated by three days of classroom academics in resistance techniques.

Obviously, there's no way that a training environment can fully replicate the horrors of imprisonment and interrogation, but Fairchild school provided remarkably good instruction. "Captured" at the end of our field survival training phase, we were taken to the "camp" without any prior preparation, and got a taste of what the Brits might have endured: hours of isolation in cramped, dark boxes; periodic interrogations, threats and bits of violence (I was shaken and slapped a couple of times by the survival instructors, playing the role of enemy guards and interrogators).

While our experiences were tame ompared to what "real" POWs experience, but it certainly caught our attention. After hours in the pitch-black isolation box, some of us began to hallucinate. Standing up in the box was difficult (especially if you're 6'5"), and sitting down was forbidden. For good measure, the guards would occasionally fling open the doors of the box and drag out a sleeping "student" for a good shake, a light slap, or another stint in the interrogation room.

Our second stay in the prison camp was much longer, but thanks to resistance training (and our prior experience) we were much better prepared. While most of our group performed well, the behavior of a few left something to be desired. As the group's Senior Ranking Officer (SRO), I had to convince them that wearing the "enemy's" uniform and guarding their fellow Americans wasn't a good idea. And remember: this was a training situation, carefully controlled and a far cry from a real POW camp.

In terms of the Brits' experiences, I'd say that today's press conference still leaves a few unanswered question. The officers from the boarding team indicate that they were quickly surrounded by the Iranians, and that armed resistance would have been futile. Deciding to surrender is the most difficult decision for any commander, and (based on the situation's eventual outcome), it's easy to say that the officers in charge made the right decision. But there are still unresolved issues about (a) The lack of air support for the boarding party; (b) The apparent decision to continue inspection operations after the helicopter returned to HMS Cornwall, and (c) communications between the command ship and the boarding party as the confrontation and abduction ensued. It would be very interesting to know what senior commanders knew about the incident, and instructions they passed to the boarding team as events unfolded.

As far as individual resistance is concerned, that's a matter between members of the team, their government and their own conscience. As an American military member, I was trained to resist to the utmost of my abilities, and until all resources/options had been exhausted. In captivity, I was taught to continue my resistance and, if the enemy succeeded in "breaking me," to regain my composure and continue the fight. It's all outlined in the U.S. Military's Code of Conduct. The British Army has a similar set of values, and I'm sure the Royal Navy and Royal Marines do as well. Did the detainees in Iran meet those standards during their time in captivity? Did they return with their honor intact, as did U.S. and British POWS from World War II, Korea and the First Gulf War? Ultimately, it's a judgment that only the former hostages can make.


paul a'barge said...

it's a judgment that only the former hostages can make.


Name, rank and serial number.

Courage counts.

sammy small said...

Just to share a couple of anecdotes from my experience at Fairchild in 1973 over Thanksgiving; the time in the POW camp was marked by constant cold with the opportunity to stand butt-naked in the sleet for 15 minutes at a time. Needless to say, almost everyone came down with a head cold thereafter. In fact one guy got thrown into a ditch at night that just happen to be filled with over a foot of freezing water. He got a special dryoff when the instructors realized it.

At least I got to pee since I was assigned to the dung-n-urnal cleanup duty (which involved dusting off things since no one ever got to use it.

The little boxes didn't bother me since I was kind of thin and limber at the time. I especially liked the one which was 18 x 18 x 36 inches; allows one to daydream in complete solitude. I didn't catch on to a useful technique for the interrogations until the last one. That was the most difficult part.

After that, four days in the mountains with 3 ft. of snow on the ground with all day hiking in snowshoes and all the gear. That really sucked. When I got back to Fairchild, I was so hungry I ate three complete meals at one setting. Those were the days.

Ronbo said...

Britain Rising?

The beginning of the British Revolution?

jobob said...

Courage counts.

sometimes this is forgotten, but is is so true.