DEADLY RIDES – America’s Dark History of Interrogation

| February 12, 2011 | Comments (1)

 Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.jpg

(Although  it has been 30 years since the Vietnam War ended,  scarcely a day goes by when I do not think  in some way about  that traumatic episode. I was there.)

Several years ago when reports of prisoner abuse and torture surfaced in the media detailing what had occurred at Abu Ghraib prison and other locations where “rendition” was being carried out, I found myself strangely unsurprised by this shocking news. Water-boarding, sexual humiliation and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques were terrible, but I knew of more deadly acts.

After two years service in the Vietnam War where I was involved in America’s much-touted counter-insurgency program to win over the hearts and minds of the local population in what was said to be a battle against communism, I learned the full meaning of    “war being hell.” I saw or heard about unspeakable atrocities, some too terrible to even think about.

One was an airborne interrogation practice carried out by American intelligence operatives. I first learned about it when I overheard a conversation between two Army helicopter pilots who were unwinding  in the bar of the officers’  Club at Bien Hoa Airbase in what was then South Vietnam after a day’s flying. It was 1967.

They described how they and a team of interrogators had taken two Viet Cong suspects up in a helicopter for questioning. The first thing they did when they reached a sufficiently high altitude was to push one suspect out the helicopter door, screaming to his death thousands of feet below.

Shaking their heads and chuckling, the pilots allowed as how the other “Charlie” (Communist) had sung like a canary. I was horrified by what I heard and thought the pilots might have been engaging in bar room exaggeration, but I subsequently confirmed in conversations with intelligence operatives that this gruesome practice was, at the time, considered to be  a rather standard though off-the-books interrogation technique. Strictly informal they emphasized; what happens in the air stays in the air, but very effective; the second guy always talks.

I wonder if we continue taking people up in helicopters in our current wars and that it simply  has not been reported. “This never happened” happens alot in war.

After several months in country, I became convinced that the Vietnam War was a doomed effort and that the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese would never be won by what we were doing to their country.

Today nearly forty years later, counter-insurgency warfare, which includes terror as one of its tactics, is once again being talked of as a solution to American military problems in places like Afghanistan where gaining the sympathy of the population is crucial to defeating the Taliban insurgency.

History has shown that the majority of counter-insurgency efforts are spectacular failures where innocent civilian populations suffer.  My experience in Vietnam reinforces that view.

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  1. Tuesday Rose says:

    Being fair-minded, considerate and magnanimous, you always root for the underdog and the weak. I do feel sorry for the Viet Cong who had to make a solo free-fall jump – without a parachute – from the American helicopter. [By the way, Chapter III, ‘Terres Rouges’, of your first book ‘Postcards from the Past’ is my favorite!]. What struck me was the arrogance of the two American pilots who were enraptured with their successful but ruthless mission. It is not surprising, however, that once expatriates set foot in a third world country, they develop a huge superiority complex towards local people. Just as there are haughty foreigners, there are nice but mischievous ones too. I remember a dashing American expat, who likes to do things in an unconventional way and enjoys adventure. One day, he needed to attend an urgent meeting at a government office but wished to avoid the security red tape. So, he borrowed, without permission, a chauffeur-driven flagged car of his boss to enter a restricted compound of government offices. The guards at the gate thought that he was the Head of Mission and let him in. His ‘James Bond-style’ operation went off without a hitch. Later, when he got back to the office, the secret adventurer was severely admonished by his furious British boss, may his (K) soul rest in peace.

    Tuesday Rose

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