When something is especially gruesome, yet a fact of life, we tend to hide it behind a euphemism. I was very aware of this in the Army, where we routinely used jargon to label things that, if named factually, could involve emotions and feelings that might interfere with the objectivity needed to accomplish the mission. And sometimes we did it simply because we preferred to think of war in technical, not human, terms.
But sometimes it's healthy to call a thing what it is. A senior officer under whom I served at the Infantry School many years ago had a sign printed up and displayed on an easel in his outer office. It said, "Your job is to kill people, and don't you forget it." Many Infantry officers were in and out of that room, and no doubt some were shocked by his bluntness. I thought it was a good sign. Infantry combat is about killing people. All the fancy words in the world won't change that fact, and if you're going to be part of the organization that does it, you need to face up to it early on.
I mention this because something euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation" keeps making its way back into our consciousness. A popular movie, I am told, seems to suggest that use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which is something we used to call "torture," is an acceptable practice when attempting to get information out of an enemy under our control. Debates continue over whether the killing of Osama bin Laden was made possible by torture or not, or if it was, to what degree. We are told that John Brennan, the President's choice to head the CIA, favors the use of torture when deemed necessary.
Perhaps the best known modern example of "enhanced interrogation" is water-boarding. Some highly placed officials have defended this practice. It's interesting, though, to note that among the most efficient practitioners of this technique was the Nazi Gestapo in World War II, those sinister thugs who spread terror across Europe and whom I would never have guessed we'd want to emulate. It's also noteworthy that, as Senator John McCain pointed out, in World War II we hanged Japanese soldiers who'd water boarded American prisoners of war.
It is worth stating, again and again, that information gained through torture has good reason to be suspect. And that skilled interrogators in World War II got massive amounts of high-level, highly valuable intelligence without ever laying a hand on their captives.
But beyond the question of whether torture works, whether it has the desired effect on our prisoner, is the question of the effect it has on us.
In December 1943, an American B-17 bomber, shot to pieces during a bombing run over Bremen, Germany, unable to keep up with its sister aircraft, limped alone toward the North Sea. Its 20-year-old pilot, a West Virginia farm boy, and its Texas mechanic co-pilot fought desperately to keep the shattered hulk in the air, one of its four engines dead and another malfunctioning. One crew member was already dead and others were severely wounded.
When it seemed things could get no worse, they did. A German fighter appeared off the wing of the bomber. The crew of the B-17, its guns either empty or unable to fire, expected the worst. The harrowing story of their ordeal and the strange actions of the German fighter pilot make a fascinating story in "A Higher Call," by Adam Makos (The Berkley Publishing Group, 2012). But the story behind the German's chivalry, risking execution for treason in order to act honorably, is what relates to my point.
Franz Stigler, the Messerschmidt pilot, got his first taste of aerial combat in the Afrika Corps, where he had the good fortune to fly for Gustave Roedel, who, like many colleagues, considered the German Luftwaffe to be descendants of the Teutonic knights, men of honor and chivalry. Stigler was told that while he should take pride in a victory, he must never take pride in killing or injuring another human. Some flyers on both sides had been known to shoot an enemy who'd bailed out and was hanging, helpless, in a parachute. If he ever heard of Stigler doing that, Roedel said, "I'll shoot you down myself."
The corrosion of the soul that results from unnecessary infliction of pain or death on another human is a serious matter, for an individual or a nation. You don't treat your enemy humanely for his benefit, Roedel told Stigler. "You fight by rules to keep your humanity."
I believe that, in dealing with enemy captives, we, like the Luftwaffe fighter pilot 70 years ago, must respond to "a higher call."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."