Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

June 22, 2005

Dick Durbin, Guantánamo, and Vietnam

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:39 pm

Responding to my initial post on the Dick Durbin scandal, Ollie (who has his own political blog here, and a very cool math blog herethis describes one of my favorite math mind-benders) commented:

Had we read of our prisioners getting treated in this way (e. g., our POW’s in Vietnam) we would have been outraged.

I responded in comments, but I’ve since decided this issue deserves to be “promoted” to its own post.

The fact is, if our POW’s in Vietnam had been treated like the terrorists in Gitmo, it would have been far better than how our POW’s in Vietnam wer actually treated. There is no comparison. Here is a description of the treatment of then-future Senator Jeremiah Denton, when he was a POW in Hanoi, 1966-1973:

Denton’s torturers used their “standard” techniques of torture – they had starved him and then subjected him to “the ropes and iron bars.”

Returned prisoners described the torturers’ use of “the ropes”.

They said the North Vietnamese would pull the prisoners arms behind him and tie them together at the elbows.

The prisoner’s wrists were then locked in “torture cuffs” and “jumbo irons” were placed over his ankles.

A two-inch thick bar was slid through the “jumbo irons”.

The torturers then looped a rope around the bar, over his shoulders, pulling the prisoner’s head between his knees.

The prisoners were then forced to sit on a stool for days at a time.

“They took me right off of that {the ropes}, with me like a vegetable, up all night for three nights, telling me that I was going to go before this interviewer,” Denton said describing the incident.

Vietnamese torture took many forms, but basically, according to returned POWs, it boiled down to four types:

  • beatings which either permanently crippled or killed the prisoner,
  • deprivation of food and rest,
  • solitary confinement for months at a time,
  • and the intentional denial of medical treatment.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimated in 1973 that the Communist Vietnamese had tortured to death more than 55 U.S. prisoners.

Further descriptions of Vietnamese torture:

Navy Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez Jr. became the first American pilot shot down. … Alvarez, who ejected not far from shore, was captured by armed Vietnamese in a fishing vessel. By Aug. 11, he had been taken to Hanoi’s notorious Hoa Lo Prison, a turn-of-the-century French-built facility with thick two-story concrete walls known in Vietnamese as the “fiery furnace.” Rats infested his cell. Food, consisting of animal hooves, chicken heads, rotten fish, and meat covered with hair, was sickening.

Navy Lt. j.g. Rodney A. Knutson, a radar intercept officer captured with pilot Lt. j.g. Ralph E. Gaither when their F-4 was shot down on Oct. 17, 1965, got an early taste of what lay ahead. His captors bound his arms so tightly that they lost circulation. He was denied food and water. He was beaten. When he still refused to cooperate, his torturers moved on to a new, more sinister method-the “rope torture.” Knutson was subjected to this technique on Oct. 25, 1965. The prisoner was forced face down onto a bunk with his ankles in stocks and a rope tied at his elbows, with the rope then pulled up to run through a hook in the ceiling. The guard hoisted the prisoner off the bunk so he could not ease any of his weight-producing extreme pain and constricting breathing.

USAF Capt. Konrad W. Trautman suffered the rope torture on a dozen occasions. “The pain is literally beyond description,” said Trautman, who was shot down and captured Oct. 5, 1967. “After about 10 or 15 minutes in this position, tied up so tightly, your nerves in your arms are pinched off, and then your whole upper torso becomes numb. It’s a relief. You feel no more pain. … However when they release the ropes, the procedure works completely in reverse. It’s almost like double jeopardy-you go through the same pain coming out of the ropes as you did going in.”

On July 6, 1966, 52 prisoners were assembled, blindfolded, handcuffed in pairs, and taken by truck to downtown Hanoi. The plan was to parade the Americans in public view and then use them as props in a war crimes show-trial to take place at a nearby stadium. This event came to be known as the “Hanoi March” and is viewed as a watershed in the propaganda war. “Oh boy, I love a parade,” quipped USAF Capt. Robert B. Purcell, captive since July 27, 1965, when his F-105 went down 30 miles west of Hanoi.

The prisoners were prodded through the streets at the point of bayonets, past the Soviet and Chinese Embassies and through threatening crowds standing 10 deep. One prisoner estimated the crowd as high as 100,000. Guards incited the angry mob with loudspeakers. Over a two-mile route, the POWs were punched and pummeled by flying bricks and bottles.

Air Force Capt. Earl G. Cobeil, captured on Nov. 5, 1967, feigned mental illness, as did some other POWs, to protect himself from the experimental brainwashing carried out by a dreaded Cuban interrogator. The Cuban, known among POWs as “Fidel,” convinced that Cobeil was faking, mercilessly beat him day after day. One day, Cobeil refused to bow. For the offense, Cobeil on May 21, 1968, was trussed in ropes overnight and mauled for 24 hours straight. Fidel, enraged, emerged from one torture session to shout to prisoners within earshot: “We’ve got [a POW] that’s faking. Nobody’s gonna fake and get away with it. … I’m gonna teach you all a lesson. … I’m gonna break this guy in a million pieces.” Cobeil was last seen in the fall of 1970 and did not return with the other POWs in 1973. The Vietnamese later reported Cobeil had died in November 1970; his remains were returned March 6, 1974.

Vietnamese communists played the race card. Air Force Maj. Fred V. Cherry, the highest ranking black POW in the North, recalled his captors trying to exploit him by treating him differently. The Vietnamese housed Cherry with Navy Lt. Porter A. Halyburton in apparent hopes of sowing dissension between a black aviator and a white Southerner. The tactic backfired. Cherry later credited Halyburton with saving his life, when his injuries from being shot down became so infected that he had to be fed by hand and assisted with his bodily needs.

Cherry’s resistance won him some of the war’s most severe exactions-including one 93-day stretch of unbroken torture and 53 straight weeks of solitary confinement.

This is a far cry from the worst treatment at Gitmo, which seems to consist of dripping water, variable air conditioning, and loud pop music.

Of 704 American POWs, 113 died in captivity. No prisoners have died at Gitmo.

Instead, they learn to read

Ismail Agha was a slight, illiterate village boy of 13 when his family last saw him 14 months ago. When he reappeared last week, he was three inches taller, his voice had deepened, his chin had sprouted a black beard and he had learned to read, write and do basic math.

Ismail’s transformation occurred mostly at a place called Camp Iguana, a seaside compound within the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he and two other Afghan teenagers suspected of belonging to the Taliban militia were confined for more than 12 months, until their release Jan. 29.

Transplanted to a modern U.S. military base half a world away, the shy village youth said he saw the ocean for the first time, played soccer, slept in an air-conditioned room and showered twice a day after growing up in a village without plumbing or electricity. “We could even turn the lights on and off when we wanted,” he said[.]

Ismail said he was repeatedly asked whether he was with the Taliban or other Islamic groups, and repeatedly answered no. He said he was arrested by mistake while looking for construction work with a friend at an Afghan military camp in the town of Greshk, in central Helmand province. He said Afghan soldiers beat him and then turned him over to U.S. troops, who flew him by helicopter to Bagram.

After more than a month at Bagram, Ismail said, he was warned that if he did not confess he would be sent to a terrible and distant place called Guantanamo. …

Once he arrived at Guantanamo, Ismail said, he was astonished by the change.

There were no more questions and no more threats, only school and exercise and Muslim prayers and dorm life with two other young Afghans he had never met before. He said both were from Paktia province, one his age and one a little younger, and that he knew them only as Asadullah and Naqibullah.

The boys lived in a house with several rooms: a shared sleeping room and an adjoining room for eating and studying. On one side they could see the ocean, but the other three sides were blocked by high walls and barbed wire, and they never saw or spoke with the adult prisoners.

Each day, Ismail said, they were taught English, Pashto and basic math by Afghan American teachers. They were also given copies of the Koran. Each night, four U.S. soldiers took turns sleeping in the second room. On Wednesday, he asked to send greetings to all of them, but said he never learned their names.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross failed — or refused — to deliver his mail:

When he first reached Guantanamo, he said, he asked a translator to write home on his behalf. After he learned to write in Pashto a little bit, he said, he wrote several letters and gave them to Red Cross delegates, who he said visited every one or two months.

But last week, after Ismail was reunited with his father, he learned that most of the letters, addressed to relatives in Naw Zad, never reached his family in their village. For nearly one year, they knew nothing of his whereabouts.

His father’s reaction:

“I didn’t recognize my son even when he came up and kissed my hand,” Hayatullah said. “He was much taller and a little fatter, and he had a beard. Also, he told me he had learned to read.” The old man sat up and smiled. “My son got an education in America.”

2 Responses to “Dick Durbin, Guantánamo, and Vietnam”

  1. ollie Says:

    I agree that our POW’s in Vietnam were treated rather barbarically and, on the average,
    the detainees at Gitmo have been treated better.

    But I hope you can admit that the one observed incident didn’t reflect on us very well.

    As far as I know, Senator Durbin apologized for one reason: he saw how people could have
    taken what he said and felt badly. You see, one of the reasons a person becomes a liberal i
    is that they think that seeing things as others see them is a good thing. :-)

    As far as how his constituents see him: Senator Durbin got a very warm reception from one
    of our local VFW posts and even drew standing ovations. You can read about it at


  2. Different River Says:

    Dick Durbin, Guantánamo, and Vietnam (2)
    Responding to my initial post on the Dick Durbin scandal, Ollie (who has his own political blog here, and a very cool math blog here — this describes one of my favorite math mind-benders) commented:

    Had we read of our prisioners getting treated i…

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