I have a friend, a Boston thoracic surgeon, who has a great sensitivity for issues concerning the meaning of life and the nature of man. It’s easy to understand how a man who spends the best part of his busy days at the pressure-packed juncture of life and death could become absorbed in philosophical thought. But this doctor doesn’t let it go at that. He refines his thoughts through reading and shares the best of his findings of high quality professional articles, those bearing on the human predicament in general and human ethics in particular, with me and a few others. Anyone in the Dr. Eugene Laforet network could expect his colleagues to have some pretty strong notions about ethical systems and their formulation.
Pressurized experiences have a way of giving us an overload of dilemmas that can’t wait for a waffled solution. We seem to be continually in the position, described by Dr. Alfred North Whitehead, of not being able to bring half an umbrella to work just because the weatherman says there’s a 50 percent chance of rain. When Dr. Laforet gets a person’s chest opened up, he has to cut here or cut there in a finite interval of time. He can’t waffle. Life seems to become compressed, running ahead, as if being watched on a movie screen, with the projector set on high speed advance.
But in these circumstances, as your attention is channeled, as you concentrate, you can sometimes sense that you’re undergoing a “melting” experience. Some of your inhibitions and preset feelings, fears, and biases melt as you come to realize that under the gun, you must grow or fail—in some cases, grow or die. A sort of transformation takes place under pressure—under what the alchemists of the Middle Ages called the “hermetic.”
The hermetic idea is old and has come down from ancient Egypt and Greece and was colored by Christian sacramental teaching. It was a two-fold concept. It meant something sealed off—hermetically sealed, as we say. And it also meant magic, particularly magical transformation. You put something in a crucible or a retort, and you subjected it to certain pressures like heat or doses of sulphur or mercury. If you were lucky or wise or both, some kind of creative transformation would take place. In physical terms, this referred to the changing of base metals into precious ones—lead into gold.
But the top grade alchemical philosophers were not content with mere physical crucibles and crystal retorts they could hold in their hands. They were aiming at even more important things. Paracelsus thought it might be possible to create a human being (homunculus) in the laboratory—something people today are again getting uneasy about. The higher alchemy aimed not at mere physical change, but at moral and spiritual transformation. The crucible and retort became symbols of creative growth. Fire and the twin elements sulfur and mercury came to represent the outside pressures exerted upon the human soul in its confined place. In extreme cases, the fire might be of hellish origin. But if the soul in question were strong enough, not mere passive matter, that spirit might undergo an alchemical change—a metamorphosis of the spirit in which the ordinary stuff of humanity could turn into something precious, emerging as if from a tightly sealed cocoon.
This alchemy comparison may sound farfetched, but it contains a hint of the sort of process of intellectual and even spiritual transformation I’m going to talk about today. A person’s ethical notions tend to crystalize in the hermetic. Mine did. The pressure chamber in which my most deeply felt ideas were forged was not a surgical operating room, not a pressure-packed classroom, but a prison cell.
Prisons have been crucibles of both degradation and creative impulse throughout history. Like most pressure chambers, they seem to draw out the very best and the very worst of mankind. Writers have attributed prison inspiration to Boethius, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and dozens of other ex-convicts who later made their marks in the world. But, in many cases, the main inspiration was obtained through reflection, through the opportunity their prison experiences provided for uninterrupted thought, time to reorder their lives while languishing.
I have had periods of more or less stress-free imprisonment, even in solitary confinement. A fellow prisoner, a math scholar, once did me the tremendous favor of passing to me (and I mean by that putting it through the concrete wall between us with our tap code, as I memorized it) an arithmetic formula of expansion that, in a remarkably few iterations of such simple form that they could be performed with a stick in the dust, would yield natural logarithms to three or four decimal places. After weeks of thought, I reconstructed the process of going from natural logarithms to logs of base ten. I slowly became the world’s greatest expert on the exponential curve; I dusted off the construction of a log log duplex deci-trig slide rule in my head. (No pencils or papers were allowed in the cell; my log tables had to be etched with a nail on the concealed side of a bed board.) I became one of the few men alive to truly understand why any number raised to the zero power necessarily had to be unity, why zero factorially is unity, and so on. I spent months and months in deep concentration and, at one point, could have written a pretty good advanced mathematics text. I knew the logarithmic-exponential picture inside out.
You might find it interesting that after I’d been home about two weeks I was so struck with disillusionment at the contents of a freshly received letter that I almost cried. It was just a short letter from my young son’s prep school math teacher with a casual request for a brief, written summary of all it took to build a slide rule in prison. He obviously had devoted very little reflection to the comprehensiveness of mathematical development entailed. I chose not to do it, and I hope you can understand my frustrating dismay with the commonplace insensitivity of this “big easy world of yaekety yack,” as I sometimes maliciously thought of it those first weeks out. More about disillusionment later.
Those stress-free prison experiences occurred only late in the game—only after the North Vietnamese ceased trying to extort propaganda and other material from us (a heaven-sent reprieve, which took effect only after President Nixon came into office and reversed the previous Administration’s misguided policy of keeping known instances of communist brutality against American prisoners secret from the American press). My mathematical thoughts came from the stress-free period. The ethical thoughts came from the period when the pressure was on—extortive pressure, torture pressure—pressure to the limit to get us to contribute to what turned out to be their winning propaganda campaign beamed at the American man-on-the-street, pressure to the limit to get us to inform on one another. These last two ideas were tied together as integral parts of the extortion system.
The central strategy of the extortion system involved not only the imposition of loneliness, but of fear and guilt—fear of pain and guilt at having betrayed a fellow prisoner. We were all in solitary confinement and solemnly warned that any attempt to communicate with fellow Americans, by wall tap, by signal, by whisper (you name it), would be evidence of our ingratitude for “the humane and lenient treatment of Ho Chi Minh.” The rules of the game were that such ingratitude gave the North Vietnamese the moral justification for pommeling the communicator while his arms were simultaneously squeezed with tourniquets, shutting off the blood circulation until he submitted. Their system was designed to produce the propaganda and information they wanted, whether the American chose either of the two obvious ways to go: to stay off the prisoner communication tap code network and eventually become so depressed after a couple of years that he would presumably be willing to buy human contact at the price of collaboration with the enemy; or to join the American communication network, that is, to join the American covert civilization, get caught communicating as one eventually did from time to time, and then be put through the standard chain of events. That chain went from torture to submission to confession to apology to atonement. The atonement was of course to be the giving away of prisoner secrets—being an informer in other words—plus writing the old propaganda statement about how he had been guilty of bombing “churches, schools, and pagodas.” In theory, at least, we were in a no-win situation.
I think that’s enough background to show that we were in a pressurized quagmire of ethical dilemmas. People were trying to use us and have us tear each other apart in the process. From this cauldron were extruded some basic ethical guideposts.
From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea, plus a few corollaries. It is a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is the epitome of high-mindedness, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. If the pressure is intense enough or of long enough duration, this idea spreads without even the need for its enunciation. It just takes root naturally. It is an idea that in this big easy world of yaekety yack seems to violate the rules of game theory, if not of reason. It violates the idea of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, our ideas of human nature, and probably the second law of thermodynamics. That idea is: You are your brother’s keeper.
That’s the flip side of What’s in it for me? If you recognize the first as an expression of virtue and the second as an expression of vice, let Bacon’s distinction add relevance to my concentration on adversity: “Adversity doth best induce virtue . . . while luxury doth best induce vice.”
I need to tell you it soon became clear that the only way to go—for peace of mind, for mental health if you will, as well as for practicality—was to forget that business about lying low and staying out of trouble by not communicating. Everybody had to get on the line and take the torture after being caught because we had a civilization to build, a civilization of Americans behind walls, a civilization of political autonomy that had the courage to responsibly rule itself with its own laws without contact with the parent country or its government in Washington for eight years. (Thank God.)
When I started teaching philosophy at the Naval War College about four years ago, I commenced reading the literature of the Vietnam era and came across a startling essay about prisoner-of-war ethics by Harvard Professor Michael Walzer. This piece appeared about three years before we were released and had as its central theme the sanctity of individual rights and how the individual prisoner had no particular obligation to bother cooperating with fellow prisoners in a clandestine organization because the poor incarcerated soul had enough to do following the orders of the captors. Walzer could not have been more wrong. To ignore a fellow captive in the pressure chamber is to betray him. Anybody who has been there knows that a neighbor in the cell block becomes the most precious thing on earth, a soul who deserves your care and cooperation no matter what the risk. I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why.
When you’re alone and afraid and feel your culture is slipping away even though you’re hanging on to your memories—memories of language, of poetry, of prayers, of mathematics—hanging on with your fingernails as best you can and yet, in spite of all your efforts, still seeing the bottom of the barrel coming up to meet you and realizing how thin and fragile our veneer of culture is, when you suddenly realize the truth that we all can become animals when cast adrift and tormented for a mere matter of months, you start having some very warm thoughts about the only life preserver within reach—that human mind, that human heart next door. You become unashamed to say what you mean when your pal is being taken out for torture for being caught trying to get a message to you. You tap “God bless you, Jerry,” or perhaps “I love you, Jerry.”
Man’s need for his fellows was certainly spotlighted in those intense circumstances. We found ourselves overcoming what is often billed as the natural selfishness of man, even the survival instinct of man, by clinging to ideas like Unity Over Self and the spirit of other similar axioms of our organization. The sting of guilt was taken out of the program by the commonsense expedient of never keeping secrets from other Americans. No matter what we said or were forced to say under torture in the privacy of the interrogation room, we routinely put out the details on our tap code net. This was a natural for tactical defense and expediency, but its fallout in terms of expiation of guilt feelings was golden. We learned that the virtues of truthfulness and straightforwardness had their own reward.
But there was more to being your brother’s keeper than being rewarded in a practical sense. J. Glenn Gray, a professor of philosophy at Colorado College until his death in 1977, wrote of that special power of comradeship to overcome man’s alleged basic instinct of self-preservation. He made his observations as a foot soldier on the European battlefields of World War II and recorded them in one of his books, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. I was at a convocation at Colorado College (where three of my sons have gone) when the president introduced me to this man and his literature by remarking that Professor Gray was the only serious scholar of recent times to reflect deeply on how men behave in mutually shared danger, mutually shared pressure. His book and my conversations with him the year before he died corroborated what I saw in Hanoi. Gray wrote:
Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result and not the cause of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons. Men may learn to be loyal out of fear or rational conviction, loyal even to those they dislike.
Gray contrasts comradeship with friendship:
Friendship is not just a more intense form of comradeship. It is its very opposite. While comradeship wants to break down the walls of self, friendship seeks to expand these walls and keep them intact. The one relationship is ecstatic, the other wholly individual.
Nothing is clearer than that men can act contrary to the alleged basic instinct of self-preservation and against all motives of self-interest and egoism. Were it not so, the history of our civilization would be completely different than what it has been.
The question is sometimes asked of those who have been in high stress situations for long periods, “What kept you going?” “What was your highest value?” My answer is: “The man next door.”
What about corollaries to this single, simple, oldfashioned idea? First, let’s talk about very recent history. How does what I’ve said track with the way we Americans handled the matter of the hostages in Iran? Did we credit them with that nobility of spirit, that pride of autonomy and self-reliance that generates within a body of people of goodwill united in a common cause under pressure?
I don’t think we gave them a chance to generate that spirit. We played with them like rag dolls. We couldn’t keep our hands off them, allowing American do-gooders to parade them before TV cameras on holidays, arranging for and executing piecemeal destabilizing early releases. (President Carter worked for and secured through Yassir Arafat of the PLO the parole of some U.S. Marines in the first weeks of the affair—Marines whose duty it was to remain with their embassy in accordance with the Code of Conduct.) In general, we seemed to proceed from the assumption that a captive embassy staff was destined to become not a proud autonomous band, but a bunch of pitiable lost sheep—children stranded at the bus station waiting for a parent to come and take them home.
Americans don’t seem able to grasp the politics and psychology of terrorism and hostage taking. After the Pope was shot, the papers were full of thoughtful reflections and predictions by informed people. Their message was that this age will be the age of terrorism and hostage taking.
A better explanation of my thoughts on the recent hostage issue was in the Washington Post on Sunday, January 25, the day the main body of hostages arrived back in the United States. I entitled my article “Extortionist Theatre.” I see this whole scene as a modern art form, a vile art, but like most arts, fed and supported by its audience. Of course, actors are needed, too. In the recent show, America furnished both the actors and the audience. The hostages were on camera, our squeamish President was publicly agonizing and assuring the world and the Iranians that no damage would be inflicted on the theatre, and the American man-on-the-street demanded and got his daily dose of several hours of hostage soap opera. To any outlaw group or government with that natural bent for extortion, this whole scene spelled one thing: gold mine! Just swoop in and grab a group of Americans, get the show in the news, get the hands wringing and the tears flowing, and write your own ticket. Some countries know how to stop this. If you’re interested, check with Israel.
A second corollary could also become a public policy issue. How does what I’ve said track with the well-intentioned suggestion I sometimes hear that goes something like this: You military prisoners went through hell trying to protect information that wasn’t worth it and refusing to make statements against your government that were no worse than those Senator Fulbright was making. Let’s get smart. Forget the Code of Conduct. Tell the world we’ve instructed our prisoners to say or write anything they’re asked to say or write. That way we would defuse the whole torture and isolation situation.
Let me tell you that the enemy extortionists would really like that solution. With resistance brushed aside, they would just dig deeper and play even more lethal games with fear and guilt. Don’t kid yourself into thinking they’re going to start with an antiwar statement in a candy store situation like that. More likely, subjects for their first assigned prisoner essays would be: “Why I know that capitalism made my mother a whore” or “Why I believe it is every prisoner’s duty to inform on his fellow Americans.” In a prison civilization, covert or overt, a person’s most prized possession is his reputation with his peers. Right off the bat, dissension would dominate the scene because most good people will just not stoop to self-imposed degradation. At least half would refuse to write anything. Who’s going to order them to follow this proposed new U.S. government policy? Are you going to ask the senior prisoner to do that? You would never get me to do that. You can’t get out of this predicament by making it optional, either. This oft-heard proposal has an inherent logic that drives captives toward destructive guilt feelings and disunity. Togetherness would go, self-respect would go, and the prison civilization would become an animal farm. It has been said that you can’t legislate morality. You can’t legislate degradation either. My message on this corollary is: You can’t make a good man under pressure finesse evil, no matter how smart it seems.
A third corollary also focuses on conventional smartness. How does what I’ve said track with the fact, which I generally believe to be the truth: Well-applied torture can eventually make any man give up particular facts that the interrogating ghoul knows he knows. When confronted with this, the smart money guys from the big easy world of yackety yack might say: “When you know your enemy is on a winning wicket, why resist?”; “It defies common sense to resist—save your strength for something important”; or “Don’t fight City Hall.”
My point is that people of goodwill under pressure and united in a common cause do fight City Hall. (Thank God.) When the cool, rational smart money skeptics challenge the united sacrifice in this example, several answers are possible.
* A practical answer: It’s the only way to go in an extortion environment—everybody makes ’em hurt him. The ghouls don’t like to have to hurt everybody. They don’t like to be reminded of our unity. Furthermore, when you see how frustrated it makes ’em, it makes you like to live with yourself
* An Aristotelian answer: Man is not a package of on-off switches; he is not at his base some sort of binary computer. Compulsion and free will can coexist. To give up just because you know you can’t achieve total success is a form of determinism. I don’t subscribe to environmental, genetic, or any simplistic determinism. Will is the thing. Man makes his character here on earth. I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.
* My answer: Loyalty to the group. I have a reputation to uphold with them. I can’t let them down. They are my country. They are my family. I’m not a kid stranded in the bus station trying to minimize the pain while I wait for my mother country to come and pick me up.
Finally, there is one corollary that falls out of that ecstatic relationship that comes as a surprise to most of us. I’m picking up on the suggestion that I would have more to say about disillusionment. I’m going to talk about how easy it is for a well-intentioned person to commit a cruelty of disillusionment under pressure.
It’s important here to interject the fact that we in those prisons were not an unsophisticated group. We were almost all fighter pilots, all had bachelor’s degrees, and more than half of us had at least one advanced degree. At least most were sophisticated enough to know that as intelligent people we should be able to cope with tentativeness and commitment at the same time, much as Aristotle would have us cope with the ideas of free will and compulsion at the same time. What I’m saying is that by and large we were able to accommodate commitment unto death and freedom of thought simultaneously. Political or religious orthodoxy was not a requirement for joining the club. But I think we all tacitly agreed that insensitivity and lack of restraint in the expression of destabilizing personal views to others were very poor form.
Nevertheless, I saw unintentional cruelty of disillusionment kill a rare sort of depressed and thoughtful man. You would never guess how. It was not messages of gloom, but cheery messages of hope, persistently drummed into him month after month that eventually did him in. He internalized and took seriously those surefire, upcoming release dates.
After a number had eventually passed, his mind drifted away, he couldn’t hold his rice down, and he died of a broken heart. After I returned, I found that there are many examples of that in the literature. Some of you may have read the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, veteran of the Holocaust and a psychologist and lecturer. He says that the big threats to morale in the crucible are not the pessimists, but the incurable vocal and persistent optimists. That being so, think how much more damage gratuitous statements of political or religious dissent could do to people close to the wire. It is easy to forget that, in this age of free speech at any cost.
However, it was not forgotten in Hanoi, probably because we were all so close to one wire or another and so determined—spontaneously determined, ecstatically determined—to prevail, to see each other through, with love, together.
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