Nothing is riskier in life—at any rate, for those interested in discovering that elusive thing, the “truth”—than to assume that what one has personally experienced years ago can be a useful guide in judging present problems. It is particularly true when the time gap between the two exceeds 50 years. This said, I feel almost duty-bound, as a World War II G.I. who served for almost two-and-a-half years in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS), to say a few words about my own experiences, which might help to throw some light on the catastrophic crisis in information extortion that has overtaken us in Iraq.
In September 1943, while I was receiving basic training as an artilleryman at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I was suddenly transferred to an MIS training camp located at Camp Ritchie, not far from Hagerstown and the Potomac River in northwestern Maryland. The basic purpose of this camp was to train American officers and enlisted men in the subtle arts—which is how they should be regarded—of interrogating prisoners of war and of establishing useful contacts with anti-German resistance movements in countries that might be invaded by “liberating” U.S. forces.
I much regret today not having kept a diary—I was only 19 years old at the time and felt no burning desire to become a novelist—for the incredible goings-on in this American Tower of Babel were tailor-made for a satirical novel, along the lines of Jaroslav Haek’s The Good Soldier Schweik or of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
To call Camp Ritchie a Tower of Babel is no exaggeration. With an admirable sense of ecumenical thoroughness, the top planners in General Marshall’s headquarters staff who were already preparing for an eventual invasion of Europe had decided that expert linguists could be needed to establish useful contacts in a large number of countries that might, according to this or that contingency plan, be chosen as a good spot for staging an unexpected landing and thereby taking the Germans by surprise.
It was thus that a polyglot horde of supposedly expert linguists had been brought together—one that included not only German and Italian POW interrogators and French liaison teams but Americans capable of speaking Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Greek, and even Turkish! All of them packed into a camp capable of holding at most 1,000 soldiers, and which was soon filled to the point of bursting.
One thing in particular distinguished Camp Ritchie from other U.S. Army training camps at that time: an emphasis on speedy preparation and the relative shortness of the training period. Whereas seventeen weeks were regarded as necessary for the making of a skilled artilleryman and four months for the graduation from Fort Benning of an infantry officer, the camp’s commander, Colonel Banfield, had decided that a mere eight weeks should suffice to train MIS experts in the art of interrogating POW’s or of establishing truly useful contacts with, for example, French resistance networks and cooperative civilian authorities. To meet such hectic, time-rationed requirements, the colonel had introduced a special eight-day week (seven days of instruction, followed by a kind of rotating Sunday, which inevitably was called “Banfield Day”).
By January 1944, the overcrowding at Camp Ritchie had become so grotesque that “good conduct” soldiers (i.e., those who could afford the price demanded for such favors by the master sergeants in charge) were being granted two-week passes so that their barracks bunks could be occupied during their absence by incoming soldiers. An improvised overflow encampment, with primitive huts heated by wood-burning stoves equipped with metal funnels, was established some 22 miles away at a place called Camp Sharpe, where that consummate exhibitionist William Sloane Coffin (who later made himself famous as the controversial Presbyterian minister of the Riverside Church in New York City) taught us, with evident delight, how to take apart and reassemble automatic rifles and machine-guns. A number of us, including my dear friend Walter Hasenclever, the nephew of a famous German Expressionist writer who had been teaching German at Andover, were “farmed out” to the nearby Letterkenny Arsenal, where we spent several weeks counting and inventorying nuts and bolts of every size and shape.
The reason for this disorderly crush was simple, though not openly avowed. Colonel Banfield—who, if I rightly recall, had married the daughter of the general who then commanded the Army’s G-2 (Intelligence) department—had reckoned that, if he could successfully graduate 5,000 properly trained POW interrogators and liaison personnel, he could lay claim to a coveted promotion to the rank of brigadier general. He would probably have fallen far short of his goal but for a truly providential bonanza—when he learned from friends that a list was being prepared by the top brass in Washington of casualties likely to be suffered in future battles on the continent of Europe; and that, along with the estimates concerning losses to be expected among infantrymen, artillerymen, tankmen, engineers, etc., there would probably arise a need for some 1,100 “combat intelligence replacements.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Banfield let it be known that he could easily supply those replacements.
It was a brilliant trompe-l’oeil maneuver, worthy of the great Houdini—simply because “combat intelligence” has virtually nothing to do with intelligence, such as we normally think of it, but a great deal to do with what might be called “hillbilly” instinct and experience. It was simply the Army’s hobnailed, typically bureaucratic way of designating the essentially nighttime scouting and patrolling that infantrymen had to undertake as a matter of course behind front lines to ascertain the strengths or weaknesses of the enemy’s positions.
The vast majority of those who had been trained at Camp Ritchie to interrogate prisoners of war were German-Jewish refugees who had fled from Nazi tyranny to the United States. Admirably suited linguistically to interrogate German POW’s, they had had, as city-dwellers, little or no experience of life on the land or of rural conditions down on the farm; and being unable to distinguish the hoot of an owl from the croak of a frog, they were totally useless for nighttime reconnaissance behind enemy lines. The inevitable result of what we were soon calling a “cattle shipment” was that, not long after the arrival in Great Britain (in early March 1944) of some 1,100 truly competent POW interrogators and French-liaison specialists, we were effectively frozen into military immobility by flabbergasted infantry officers, amazed to discover that these “combat infantry replacements” did not even know how to handle a simple rifle, having been trained in the use of short-range carbines.
For some six months, while senior G-2 officers at Eisenhower’s headquarters in London struggled in vain to persuade General Bradley to lift the ban that had condemned us as useless infantrymen, we were moved from one replacement depot to another and made to march ludicrously around the English countryside, while inexpert linguists who had been rushed through ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) cram courses at Ivy League colleges were formed into POW and French-liaison teams (two officers, four enlisted men was the usual formula) and assigned to divisions slated to take part in the invasion of Normandy.
By September, the campaign in France, for which I had been specifically trained as a specialist in “French liaison,” was virtually over. With my friend Walter Hasenclever and other MIS “linguists,” I spent three rain-soaked weeks in a muddy encampment not far from Omaha Beach, waiting for a suitably empty train to transport us to Paris. I am happy to add—more details in a moment—that Hasenclever, a gifted linguist who later became the favored translator of Saul Bellow’s and Bernard Malamud’s novels, soon made up for lost time.
Not knowing quite what to do with T/5 Curtis Cate, my MIS superiors in Paris finally decided to assign me to a POW interrogation team. This was, of course, a ridiculous assignment. As a history student at Harvard, I had begun to study German, but even with the help of two hastily acquired ASSIMIL grammars, I could not possibly begin to display the linguistic competence needed to interrogate German prisoners of war. I am nevertheless grateful for this “misassignment,” for the five months I spent with the 7th Armored Division—first in Holland, then in the Belgian Ardennes, and finally in the Rhineland—offered me invaluable insights into the way military intelligence works, at any rate in the U.S. Army.
The first thing that struck me, at the highest headquarters level, was the general lack of prestige enjoyed by G-2 officers. This is anything but a specifically American phenomenon. The secret (and occasionally open) contempt that many infantry officers feel for artillerymen, who operate at varying distances from the perilous front, is probably a sentiment to be found in every army in the world. Basically, it is the scorn that the man of action feels for the man of thought. I am not a military historian, but I strongly suspect that it was Napoleon, a man of action if ever there was one, who lent his prestige to (if he did not actually invent) what came to be known as the deuxième bureau—the “second office” or department (in military shorthand, the G-2 or General Staff; S-2 at lower levels)—responsible for gathering pre-battle information. The curious thing about the U.S. Army, however—and a revealing symptom of the basic antimilitarism that has existed in our country ever since George Washington tried to regiment his undisciplined soldiery against the detested Hessians and the Redcoats—is the primacy accorded to the essentially rear-echelon “Personnel” or G-1 department. In the German army, as I had discovered at Camp Ritchie, pride of place was (and probably still is) officially given to “Action” (or “Execution”)—G-1—whereas, in the U.S. Army, it occupies a seemingly more modest role as G-3.
The second thing that struck me, during my five months with the 7th Armored Division, was the prestige enjoyed not by its three POW interrogation teams but by a single individual—a French army captain named André Dvigoubski. A former officer in the Czarist army and later a political refugee, he had established residence in France and volunteered for service in the French army’s cartographic department in Paris. Totally fearless, he had managed to join the 7th Armored Division not far from Chartres, by chronometrically calculating the exact number of seconds he and his driver would need to roar up a highway without being hit by regularly exploding German shells. He brought with him a mass of precise information concerning German army depots, ammunition dumps, and fortified strong points, which he had carefully memorized, for transmission to the Allies, as they began the encirclement of Paris. What made his information-gathering so invaluable was his insistence on checking what he heard from German POW’s by bold front-line and even beyond-the-front observations.
I was fortunately able to have several long conversations with Dvigoubski about the art of cross-examining prisoners of war—which, to be truly successful, requires not only a thorough linguistic expertise but patience, perseverance, a talent for deliberate circumlocution designed to disguise the central aim of the interrogation, and, not least of all, a memory capable of discerning falsehoods when the person being interrogated is led through seemingly random bypaths to contradict earlier affirmations.
In a fascinating book entitled Ihr werd-et Deutschland nicht wiedererkennen—the contraction of a famous Adolf Hitler boast, “Give me four years, and you won’t recognize Germany”—my friend Walter Hasenclever later wrote up his experiences as a wartime and postwar interrogator of German POW’s who was finally chosen to “interview” more than a score of Nazi bigwigs—including Gen. Wilhelm Keitel (the Wehrmacht’s chief of staff); Grand Admiral Dönitz; the fanatical Nazi-Ostpolitik ideologist Alfred Rosenberg; the former foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop; and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Twice, while serving with combat units, Hasenclever was asked by impatient colonels to speed things up by having German prisoners of war forcibly “conditioned” before interrogation. He refused, on the grounds that such methods were invariably counterproductive.
It is, of course, misleading to compare the wartime conditions that existed in Western Europe in 1944-45 with the chaotic postwar situation that has confronted us recently in Iraq. Because of the sneak Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler’s crazy declaration of war against the United States, our country found herself involved in a condition of “total war” which made a draft imperative for all able-bodied men. The unforeseen result—truly a bonanza for intelligence-gathering on the “Western front”—was that the U.S. Army was able to rope in hundreds, indeed thousands, of truly qualified linguists capable of competently interrogating German prisoners of war.
Had the surprise assault on September 11, 2001, against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon been followed by a condition of total war, the U.S. Armed Forces would have had little trouble drafting hundreds, indeed thousands, of competent Arab speakers from among our citizenry of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern origin. But no such urgency was felt by an American administration that was convinced that wars today are essentially won by the massive use of sophisticated, electronically controlled weapons.
The price we have had to pay for this presumption is a catastrophic lack of truly qualified military-intelligence interrogators. There is, alas, nothing really new about this deplorable situation. In 1978-79, when the shah’s regime in Iran was beginning to collapse, my brother, then Time’s bureau chief in Paris, was hurriedly flown to Teheran to “pinch hit,” even though he spoke not a word of Persian. Worse yet, when he reached the Iranian capital, he discovered that there was only one person in the entire U.S. embassy who was fluent in farsi.
Past masters in the art of POW interrogation, such as André Dvigoubski and Walter Hasenclever, would have been horrified, had they lived long enough, to hear of the crude, sadistic, sexually revolting methods of humiliation that have been used by U.S. military police men and, even worse, women in the notorious Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq to “soften up” suspected “terrorists.” They would have been even more shocked to discover that these practices, far from being isolated actions motivated by spontaneous hatred or contempt, had been condoned and encouraged according to the warped tenets of a strange new code of “R2I” (Resistance to Interrogation) misconduct that British and American “military intelligence” officers have adopted in the name of speedy efficiency.
Along with fast food, we now have “fast facts” and, as an almost inevitable concomitant, “fast falsehoods” as well. It is indeed depressing to realize that, in this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, certain of our military “experts,” in a self-deceiving crusade to bring Freedom and Democracy to Iraq, should have been advocating methods of intimidation worthy of Reinhard Heydrich and his SS torturers.