Enlightened Hard-Boiled-Ness

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran found himself facing a fanatical and implacable enemy in a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and he was under intense pressure to achieve quick results as an interrogator. He went on to write an influential document on the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture and how to extract useful information from prisoners:

The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.


Part of why Sherwood Moran became such a legendary figure among military interrogators was his cool disregard for what he termed the standard “hard-boiled” military attitude. The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others’ experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation — in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors” — invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

In his report (written in the form of a letter of advice to interpreters newly assigned to interrogation duty) Moran stressed that he would usually begin an interrogation by taking almost the opposite tack.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word “safe.” That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the “enemy” stuff, and the “prisoner” stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Every soldier, Moran observed, has a “story” he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator’s job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it.

Begin by asking him things about himself. Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems. If he is not wounded or tired out, you can ask him if he has been getting enough to eat; if he likes Western-style food … You can ask if he has had cigarettes, if he is being treated all right, etc. If he is wounded you have a rare chance. Begin to talk about his wounds. Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. (They will like to do this!)


On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, “Won’t you please come and talk to me every day.” (And yet people are continually asking us, “Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?”)

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. “This line has infinite possibilities,” he explained. “If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable.” Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve “the first and most important victory” — getting “into the mind and into the heart” of the prisoner and achieving an “intellectual and spiritual” rapport with him.

Moran’s whole approach — and Hans Joachim Scharff’s, too — was built on the assumption that few if any prisoners are likely to possess decisive information about imminent plans. (And as one former Marine interrogator says, even if a prisoner does have information of the “ticking bomb” variety — where the nuke is going to go off an hour from now, in the classic if overworked example — under duress or torture he is most likely to try to run out the clock by making something up rather than reveal the truth.) Rather, it is the small and seemingly inconsequential bits of evidence that prisoners may give away once they start talking — about training, weapons, commanders, tactics — that, when assembled into a larger mosaic, build up the most complete and valuable picture of the enemy’s organization, intentions, and methods.

Moran’s report had an immediate impact. The Navy and the Marines recruited second-generation Japanese-Americans to teach an intensive one-year language course for interrogators that included a strong emphasis on Japanese culture. James Corum notes that the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945: Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were able to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian.

In contrast, in late 2002 the military’s Southern Command had so few interrogators and interpreters that it was forced to employ inexperienced and untrained civilian contractors to perform these jobs at Guantánamo./blockquote>


  1. Bert E. says:

    Interrogation methods and techniques that will work in one war will not necessarily be so successful in a subsequent war when faced with another adversary whose mindset and culture is different.

    American interrogators prior to 9/11 had been told that in most cases 95 % of prisoners would readily talk and reveal information. The terrorist captive not only does not talk but spits in your eye and almost in 100 % of the instances.


    That language problem is a difficulty with the Arab in particular. And you have to be careful of the Arabic translator who might have a degree of sympathy for the captive. Bad instance of the Chinese interrogator Larry Wu Tai Chin prolonged the Korean War by as much as a year due to his deliberate mistranslations of interrogations.

    The U.S. has a significant population of native Arabic speakers in this country but refuses to use them as they are Christian. A valuable asset totally denied.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    The question if torture does or does not work is moot when according to the Seton Hall reports most of the detainees in Guantanamo, 440 of 517 detainees (86%), appear to have been captured by bounty hunters in return for a $5,000 reward from the US for each prisoner, in a country where the annual wage for a good government job is around $1,000!

    Perverted incentives on top of unintended consequences, sure, I’ll turn in my neighbor for half a decade of wages.
    The air force was even dropping pamphlets reading “you can receive millions of dollars for helping catch Taliban”…

    Police departments for example don’t like offering cash rewards and also discourage family members to do so, because It’s counter productive.

    How to extract useful information?
    Step one, get an actual enemy!

    What a mess, in the future they will refer to those two wars as the Biden wars, because everything that could be done wrong, was done wrong with gusto.
    (For anyone not familiar, that’s the running gag in DC, that Joe Biden is like a broken clock, wrong every-time, you can be on it.)

    I guess the war planners shouldn’t have given Edward Luttwak the boot, but he does sound crazy, the bad road is the good road because it’s the bad road… get out of there!

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