Admiral Lawrence: I would like to make a preliminary statement on the POW issue.
Proceedings: Be my guest.
Admiral Lawrence: Wars today have a stronger propaganda element than any in history. That’s been a key aspect of war since World War II. And it seems inevitable that prisoners of war become pawns in the propaganda battle. When you’re fighting a totalitarian nation such as Iraq, which does not conform to the traditional rules of warfare, you know its leaders are going to use every device at their disposal to advance their cause, particularly from a propaganda perspective. The same occurred in the Vietnam War. We are fighting a nation in a desperate situation, in which its main goal is to arouse the sympathy of the Moslem masses around the world and cause nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to withdraw their support from the Allied Coalition. By broadcasting statements from POWs that are critical of their respective countries, the Iraqis hope to achieve this goal. Proceedings: How did seeing the POWs on TV affect you? What were your reactions?
Admiral Lawrence: It brought back painful memories of my own POW experience in Vietnam. Somehow, I had hoped that the Iraqis were a bit more sophisticated and advanced, perhaps, than the North Vietnamese. But I realize that they aren't, that they’re fundamentally the same.
Proceedings: What can you tell us that only a former POW could tell us? What are those guys really going through?
Admiral Lawrence: They’re sturdy individuals. They wouldn’t be in this profession if they didn’t have the right stuff, and they’ve gone through the survival training. So, I am confident that they will endure their captivity well. I think most people in the world know that their public statements were obtained under coercion. So it shouldn’t reflect adversely on the men being held. I’m sure they gave their best effort to resist, but they’ve been told not to disable themselves permanently or to lose their rationality by trying to resist making some absurd propaganda statement. Proceedings: How do you feel about the requirement of the POW Code of Conduct to give only name, rank, serial number, and date of birth?
Admiral Lawrence: I think it’s proper in that it conforms to the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs, which clearly states that it be the only information required of a prisoner of war. But some nations won’t abide by that provision.
It’s important that POWs resist giving military information and making propaganda statements, short of destroying their health. By resisting, a POW establishes a credibility with his captors that he’s not an easy mark, and they’ll be less prone to come back again to exploit him for something else. They want to keep POWs alive and reasonably healthy because of their hostage value, and the leverage it’ll provide them in future negotiations. They don’t want to kill POWs.
Proceedings: We’ve heard from several former POWs that one of their foremost comforts was knowing that they had comrades in the same situation. Now that Saddam has stated that he will place each of his prisoners at separate strategic spots as shields, what effect would that have on individual POWs?
Admiral Lawrence: It would certainly make it more difficult, particularly now, since there are relatively few POWs. I think it’s inevitable that they’re going to be held. And they’ll just have to get through it the best they can. Many of us in North Vietnam spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, and we got through it.
"It seems inevitable that prisoners of war become pawns in the propaganda battle. ... We are fighting a nation in a desperate situation. . . .”
Proceedings: What do the armed services do to prepare personnel for the possibility of being a prisoner?
Admiral Lawrence: They get very intensive training on the Code of Conduct, which governs the behavior of a prisoner of War. But the training also includes preparation for how to handle physical abuse. They get an introduction to what physical abuse and deprivation are like and taught about the techniques of dealing with interrogation, manipulation, and coercion. One thing that was instituted as a result of our North Vietnam experience was being prepared to use a cover story or fallback position. When they put so much pressure on you, you can no longer simply conform to name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. We have instructed potential POWs that they must be prepared to talk skillfully and deal with the captors by the use of clever deception.
Proceedings: In overall treatment, are the Iraqis much different from the Vietnamese?
Admiral Lawrence: It appears to me that they’re fundamentally the same. I know that the Red Cross was critical of the Iraqi treatment of Iranian POWs. There were indications of cruel treatment and propaganda exploitation. I think it would be very similar to what we experienced in North Vietnam.
Proceedings: What advice—personal, gut-level advice—would you offer to someone who may be facing being captured ?
Admiral Lawrence: Number one would be to take your survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training seriously. That training is realistic and very helpful. Of course, it s impossible to recreate the actual POW environment, but it gives a good appreciation of what captivity is like.
Number two would be to do your absolute best to maintain Physical fitness and good health. In a POW situation, where your dict is restricted and you’re experiencing deprivation and poor sanitation, being in the best physical condition possible will enhance your ability to function effectively and endure prolonged captivity.
The third thing, of course, is to have faith in yourself, your fellow POWs, your country, and your family. Know that your President will do everything possible to gain your release. A strong degree of faith maintains your morale and keeps you going. Those are the three major areas that I would address.
Proceedings: What should the United States do about the current situation now?
Admiral Lawrence: As President Bush announced from the very beginning during the hostage crisis over there—and now with the POWs—he simply cannot allow their presence to influence the conduct of the war. I agree. It may appear uncaring or callous, but it is the only practical course. But we should start taking actions now to minimize the advantage that they might have in holding POWs because of our high regard for human life in this country, and our open society. For example, we simply couldn’t tolerate not having our POWs returned. On the other hand, a totalitarian nation such as Iraq would probably have no problem with simply writing off their POWs. First, we should seek a formal resolution out of the United Nations condemning Iraq for not conforming to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs and, obviously, for coercing POWs to make propaganda statements. Such a resolution will help in applying the pressure of world opinion upon Iraq.
I think we also should work through the United Nations to change the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs to include a specific provision that labels any public statement from a POW automatically as having been obtained through coercion. And it should reflect adversely on the holding nation as a violation of the Geneva Convention. The Convention now says that POWs will not be used for propaganda purposes. Such a provision would emphasize the point.
To reduce Iraqi leverage in negotiations to end the war because they hold U.S. POWs, we should seek to capture as many Iraqis as possible. In addition to providing POW lists to the International Red Cross, the United Nations, and the Iraqi government, we should broadcast POW names by radio and drop leaflets in Iraq. This would all be designed to keep their people informed, and to incite them to apply pressure on their government to release U.S. POWs in exchange. I think these are all measures that would help the situation faced by our POWs.
Proceedings: Do you think the Iraqis should be tried for war crimes when this is all over?
Admiral Lawrence: Unquestionably, they should. And I think that either through U.N. resolutions or other means, it should be clearly conveyed to the leaders of Iraq that they have violated international law, and they will be subject to trial under a war crimes tribunal. Not only have they mistreated POWs, they have invaded Kuwait, committed heinous atrocities there and released massive amounts of oil into the Persian Gulf, which is going to have an extremely adverse impact on the environment. The leadership in Iraq can’t all be like Saddam Hussein. Their foreign minister, ambassador to the United Nations, and other leaders are educated, intelligent men. And 1 think when they realize that someday when this is all over, they’re going to be subject to trial for war crimes, and they will reflect upon whether or not they should continue to blindly support Saddam Hussein. I think we should encourage discussion in the United Nations about Iraqi war crimes, as a means of reducing support for Saddam Hussein and, perhaps even effecting his overthrow.
“. . Have faith in yourself, your fellow POWs, your country, and your family. Know that your president will do everything possible to gain your release. A strong degree of faith maintains your morale and keeps you going.”