Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Torture in Vietnam

It’s no secret that torture was used in the Vietnam War – by both sides. However, I’m interested here in the American side of the equation, to wit, when US personnel were involved or bore witness. It’s commonly assumed torture on ‘our’ side of the conflict could be laid at the door of our South Vietnamese allies, both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the national police. Indeed, there were many accounts of ARVN soldiers or police kicking or punching Vietcong (VC) prisoners who were tightly bound as well as civilian VC suspects. There were also reports of waterboarding, a harsh technique for extracting information, now widely known since 9/11.

It was a model soldier, Master Sgt Donald Duncan, who first blew the lid publically on the widespread use of torture in Vietnam. A highly decorated Green Beret sent to Vietnam in ’65, Sgt Duncan turned down a field commission a year later and left the Army over his profound opposition to the mission and how it was being carried out. Part of it was his revulsion as a soldier to the torture he witnessed and the complicity of US forces in handing over civilians suspected of VC sympathy to the ARVN. Duncan published a major firsthand exposé in a radical magazine and testified in ‘67 at the Copenhagen session of the International War Crimes Tribunal organized by Lord Bertrand Russell as to what he saw and heard in Vietnam. The torture issue was out in the open.

US troops were not only accomplices in the use of torture, but active participants as well. A former medical officer told me how he witnessed wounded VC being tortured over his objections. A combat unit back from the field brought a couple of seriously wounded enemy soldiers to his aid tent. He and his staff patched them up so they could be quickly medevaced to a field hospital for urgent medical care if they were to survive for standard post-action interrogation. The combat personnel, however, would not wait and began immediate interrogation through an interpreter before the trail went cold. The objections of the military doc, the regimental surgeon himself, were overruled on the basis the military situation took precedence. The method of ‘persuasion’ was poking the prisoners’ wounds, causing great pain if answers weren’t forthcoming on their unit’s strength, deployment, and equipment. Other times, patrols in the field conducted ad hoc interrogations under threat of torture, trying to learn whereabouts of the elusive enemy.



Field interrogation by knife*

By far though, the most common form of torture employed by US forces was euphemistically called the “Bell telephone hour,” a reference to the instrument used as well as to a familiar stateside music program sponsored by the Bell Telephone Company. This technique involved using a standard military field telephone to deliver a painful shock to the person under interrogation when cooperation was withheld. Military Intelligence (MI), a branch of the Army, was principally responsible for interrogating captured enemy soldiers as well as civilians suspected of being VC. The use of the field phone to extract information was routine for MI’s trained interrogators.

Although Jeff served in Vietnam with the Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence outfit, he would have been aware of MI and their procedures. Apropos, he located Peter Martinsen, a former MI interrogator in Vietnam, and interviewed him for Vietnam GI (VGI) so that GI readers would know what was going on in those MI tents. A little background on Peter Martinsen: he had also testified before the Russell Tribunal on war crimes, an unofficial body of distinguished international public intellectuals and members of the arts, at the Copenhagen session in ‘67. A member of the tribunal wrote that they were “overwhelmed” by Martinsen’s testimony. A young man, son of a psychology professor, he was demoralized by what he had been required to do, including beating Vietnamese civilians under interrogation; witnessing torture daily; and having caused the death of a teenage girl by forcing her out of hiding with a smoke bomb. Needless to say, Martinsen had turned against the war, deeply upset by what he’d been involved in.

Brother Jeff caught up with Peter in the States. He had been with the 541st Military Intelligence, the MI detachment with the 11th Armored Cav Regiment, which operated in Long Khanh Province about 50 miles east of Saigon. Like Jeff, he was a Vietnamese linguist, but an interrogator as well. Jeff asked him how he tried to get information out of the people rounded up, including women and children. Martinsen replied:

Force was used a lot, and like … you could beat them with your open hand and not leave a mark on them. Electrical torture with a field phone … it really gives a nasty shock. You know how bad it is, and you can imagine being shocked for three or four hours by one of those things. That was pretty common.
Standard torture device of military interrogators

To convert the above EA312 military phone to an electrotorture device, the interrogator merely had to attach a ground wire and a hot wire to the terminal block at the top of the instrument at one end, and to sensitive parts of the prisoner’s body at the other end. Then each turn of the crank on the side (which would normally cause a phone to ring elsewhere), delivered a short but powerful shock to the individual being asked questions.

Peter Martinsen concluded saying, “This is a dirty war, and there’s no reason on earth for us to be there.” At the time of his interview with VGI in early ’68, Martinsen was 23. A few years later he committed suicide.

*Photo credit Joseph Carey

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