Thursday, August 25, 2005

Try a little tenderness

When Americans talk about "the lessons of Vietnam," they usually mean failed policies and programs that shouldn't be repeated. But there were some successes in the Vietnam War, including an initiative to win the allegiance of captured and defecting Vietcong and North Vietnamese fighters by treating them generously and reshaping their attitudes. This idea - that harsh treatment of prisoners can be less effective than showing compassion - now deserves a test in Iraq.

The program in Vietnam was called Chieu Hoi, roughly translated as "open arms." While rarely effective against the most hard-core and high-ranking insurgents, Chieu Hoi succeeded in winning the support of nearly 200,000 fighters for the American-backed government of South Vietnam.

Under Chieu Hoi, defectors and prisoners who proved cooperative received clemency against treason charges as well as good food, health care, vocational training and jobs. At the same time, they were systematically indoctrinated with literature, classes and activities to persuade them to support the South Vietnamese government...

Captured enemy documents now in the archives of the Army Special Operations Command discuss the powerful effect of Chieu Hoi on the enemy. One Vietcong report from 1966 says: "The impact of increased enemy military operations and 'Chieu Hoi' programs has, on the whole, resulted in lowering of morale of some ideologically backward men, who often listen to enemy radio broadcasts, keep in their pockets enemy leaflets, and wait to be issued weapons. This attitude on their part has generated an atmosphere of doubt and mistrust among our military ranks." The Vietcong feared the program, and expended a great deal of effort in attempting to thwart it through assassinations, infiltration and counterpropaganda.

So what does this have to do with Iraq? While Chieu Hoi was geared to counter a Communist threat, it was based on universal principles of counterinsurgency that could easily be applied to the current struggle. In fact, Chieu Hoi was something of an import in its own right: it was the brainchild of three men with long experience battling rebels. One was Sir Robert Thompson, who led the British Advisory Mission in Vietnam and was renowned for his work in Britain's quelling of the Communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950's. The others were Rufus Phillips, a former C.I.A. official working for the United States Agency for International Development, and Charles Bohannan, a retired Army colonel; this pair had led the American effort in late 1940's to stop the Huk insurgency in the Philippines.

They designed Chieu Hoi to focus on changing the underlying attitudes of the subjects, not simply on trying to control their behavior. Empirical research in social psychology reveals that efforts to directly control behavior through coercion or bribery usually leave underlying attitudes intact, or even harden them. Thus putting a gun to a man's head and instructing him to support a particular political ideology will work only as long as the gun is present and he is being watched. The preferred method for long-term change is instilling sincere belief in the new political ideology, making the gun and monitoring unnecessary.

I would submit that while it is true that "winning their hearts and minds" by changing their underlying attitudes is absolutely necessary and morally the only direction in which to go with prisoners of any stripe, it seems to me like this is speaking long after the cows have left the barn. Just like in Vietnam.

For what everone remembers is not this "successful" program, but the picture above, and what everyone will have burned into their brains is not how nice we can be once we've decided to drop the bad imitation of the Brittish in Northern Ireland/Israelis in Palestine, but Abu Ghraib.

It's actually more shocking that they have to publish an article like this - "see! we can get a lot by being nice to them!" - as though torture and Abu Ghraib was somehow the norm nowadays.

But - probably echoing the earlier articles on this topic from the Atlantic- it's OK, I guess to remind folks that this torture stuff only backfires.

And that folks who champion it ought to worry about karma...

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