The Good Soldier

Lessons from the past for this generations military interrogators

Photo (below) by Erik SkindrudAbout 20 mostly World War II veterans meet on Wednesday mornings at a Denny's in Oceanside. They call themselves the Old Bold Pilots. Not much appears to distinguish them from one another, but they have their secrets and there are ways of making them talk. Like, for instance, asking them a question.

Interrogation—that's what they call it in the military—is a particularly relevant subject among three of the Old Bold Pilots:

•Norm Achen was interrogated in August 1944, when his P-51 Mustang was brought down by German anti-aircraft fire.

•Chris Scharff's father—Hanns-Joachim Scharff—was the German officer who interrogated Achen.

•Raymond Toliver, a retired Air Force colonel, wrote a book about those interrogation techniques in the 1970s—a book that echoes anew with significance today.

Achen remembers well the first time he met Chris Scharff's father. He was still getting his bearings after falling from the sky and somewhat apprehensive after spending several days in "the cooler"—solitary confinement—when he was marched to his first meeting with Hanns-Joachim Scharff. After about 10 minutes of tense one-on-one time, Achen was happily surprised to be suddenly reunited with three other flyers from his fighter group.

"They served us wine and beer—and a big meal," Achen recounts. "We had a great party."

Was Hanns-Joachim Scharff a Quaker in Nazi clothing? Hardly. Scharff was the Luftwaffe's most respected, most successful interrogator—so skilled at extracting information from enemy prisoners he was dubbed the Master. The way he treated Achen was not unusual; it was his method.

"The Americans opened up to me," Scharff would later tell an acquaintance (not talking about Achen in particular, but Americans in general). "They were conditioned by their own intelligence to believe we would do bad things to them. They were scared, and when we were nice to them, they talked freely."

Scharff's results continued to grow. Toliver reports that while he was researching his book, one former prisoner told him that "Scharff could probably get a confession of infidelity from a nun." The key was that in most cases, the POWs being interrogated never realized their words—many times seemingly insignificant small talk—were being reconstructed by Scharff for Germany's benefit.

It's a measure of Scharff's reputation that after the war, he was not prosecuted for war crimes. Instead, the Pentagon invited him on a postwar lecture tour. Scharff told his military audiences that camaraderie, fair treatment and respect are the indispensable keys to extracting information from the enemy.

Obviously, somewhere in the past 50 years, Scharff's lessons were lost on American interrogators. What could be more un-Scharff-like than the tales of torture that have come from Iraq—beatings, simulated drownings and sexual abuse. In contrast to the image of Scharff's wine-with-dinner technique, we have the photos of Army MP Lynndie England gleefully forcing Iraqi prisoners to masturbate while screwing her Army buddies in front of them. (Through her attorneys, England claims she was just following orders from higher-ups to "soften up" prisoners—a term both sad and ironic.)

Events of the past year are all the more galling to Toliver. His 1977 book The Interrogator, written with and about Scharff, works as a textbook on efficient information extraction. Greg Miller, a Los Angeles Times reporter who recently co-authored The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al-Qaeda,says Toliver's book is "practically required reading" for army interrogators in Afghanistan.

"Everybody going over to Afghanistan in any sort of intelligence capacity was trying to get a copy of Scharff's book," an anonymous U.S. State Department official told UPI.

Maybe they should have readthe book, too.

"[Scharff] had the philosophy of the carrot when everyone else uses the stick," Toliver said. "The same goes for this present mess—they all think you've got to squeeze them, but I say they don't know what they're talking about."

For proof, Toliver can present Newport Beach resident Walker M. "Bud" Mahurin, 85, who was captured by communist forces during the Korean War. Mahurin endured a month of torture so bad that he attempted suicide. But the cruelty didn't extract any information from Maurin. Instead, it increased the pilot's contempt for his captors and boosted his will to resist.

"I had broken the brainwashing cycle," he told Toliver years later. "Finally . . . they decided I would never break down."

The lesson is still with Mahurin as he listens to accounts of Abu Ghraib.

"You're not going to get information if you use torture," he said. "The chances are that if you torture somebody, they're going to give you false information."

Interestingly enough, Scharff's son, Chris, who emigrated to the United States from Rhodesia, where he was a tobacco farmer, remains unconvinced that good treatment alone would bring interrogators better results in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

"I think one evil draws out another—you have to remember that," he said of the Iraqi prison scandal. "You have to understand that [Allies and Germans] were from similar cultures. My father's techniques wouldn't necessarily work on al-Qaeda."

Hanns-Joachim Scharff eventually settled in the Hollywood Hills and became an American citizen. Fittingly for a man adept at reconstructing information out of bits of seemingly disparate information, he made his name as a mosaic artist. He died in 1999, but his art survives at Los Angeles City Hall, Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World and as part of the state capitol floor in Sacramento.

Achen, for one, hopes the American military pays more attention to Scharff's wartime artistry.

"The crazy things those kids did have damaged our reputation," Achen said, his voice rising. "The torture gained us nothing—but it gives all our enemies something to yell about. The Army should have had an officer in charge there, someone there to kick their ass when the prison guards got out of line."

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