In Iraq's Prisons, Try a Little Tenderness


Aug 25, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on August 25, 2005.

WHEN Americans talk about "the lessons of Vietnam," they usually mean failed policies and programs that shouldn't be repeated. But there were some successes in the Vietnam War, including an initiative to win the allegiance of captured and defecting Vietcong and North Vietnamese fighters by treating them generously and reshaping their attitudes. This idea — that harsh treatment of prisoners can be less effective than showing compassion — now deserves a test in Iraq.

The program in Vietnam was called Chieu Hoi, roughly translated as "open arms." While rarely effective against the most hard-core and high-ranking insurgents, Chieu Hoi succeeded in winning the support of nearly 200,000 fighters for the American-backed government of South Vietnam.

Under Chieu Hoi, defectors and prisoners who proved cooperative received clemency against treason charges as well as good food, health care, vocational training and jobs. At the same time, they were systematically indoctrinated with literature, classes and activities to persuade them to support the South Vietnamese government.

Studies carried out during the war by the RAND Corporation found that thousands of those former enemies who participated in Chieu Hoi became good sources of intelligence on the Communist forces, provided American advisers and troops with cultural and linguistic knowledge, enlisted civilians to support the American cause, and even took up arms against their former Vietcong and North Vietnamese comrades.

One unidentified Marine officer quoted in a 1973 RAND study said that a Chieu Hoi participant named Truong Kinh, who worked as a scout with his division, killed 55 Vietcong and North Vietnamese fighters in a single day, saving American lives and gaining "the admiration and respect of every marine in the company."

Captured enemy documents now in the archives of the Army Special Operations Command discuss the powerful effect of Chieu Hoi on the enemy. One Vietcong report from 1966 says: "The impact of increased enemy military operations and 'Chieu Hoi' programs has, on the whole, resulted in lowering of morale of some ideologically backward men, who often listen to enemy radio broadcasts, keep in their pockets enemy leaflets, and wait to be issued weapons. This attitude on their part has generated an atmosphere of doubt and mistrust among our military ranks." The Vietcong feared the program, and expended a great deal of effort in attempting to thwart it through assassinations, infiltration and counterpropaganda.

So what does this have to do with Iraq? While Chieu Hoi was geared to counter a Communist threat, it was based on universal principles of counterinsurgency that could easily be applied to the current struggle. In fact, Chieu Hoi was something of an import in its own right: it was the brainchild of three men with long experience battling rebels. One was Sir Robert Thompson, who led the British Advisory Mission in Vietnam and was renowned for his work in Britain's quelling of the Communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950's. The others were Rufus Phillips, a former C.I.A. official working for the United States Agency for International Development, and Charles Bohannan, a retired Army colonel; this pair had led the American effort in late 1940's to stop the Huk insurgency in the Philippines.

They designed Chieu Hoi to focus on changing the underlying attitudes of the subjects, not simply on trying to control their behavior. Empirical research in social psychology reveals that efforts to directly control behavior through coercion or bribery usually leave underlying attitudes intact, or even harden them. Thus putting a gun to a man's head and instructing him to support a particular political ideology will work only as long as the gun is present and he is being watched. The preferred method for long-term change is instilling sincere belief in the new political ideology, making the gun and monitoring unnecessary.

American forces in Iraq would have nothing to lose in applying this basic psychology and developing a pilot program based on Chieu Hoi. It is an inexpensive and nonviolent approach that can aid the counterinsurgency: there are some 10,000 prisoners being held in Iraq, and "turning" even a small fraction of them could reap huge dividends in terms of gaining intelligence for our forces, diminishing support for the insurgents and reducing anti-American sentiment among average Iraqis.

In addition, running our prisons under the Chieu Hoi model could help reverse the terrible propaganda defeat suffered with the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. Nongovernmental groups like the International Red Cross and Amnesty International would praise America, bringing more international support. And prisoners released by our forces would return to their communities with stories of American generosity and tolerance, increasing support for the United States' efforts.

Some Americans would undoubtedly criticize a program that treated prisoners and defectors well, arguing that insurgents who kill our men and women do not deserve kindness. This is understandable: during the Vietnam War, Chieu Hoi was often derided as "rest and recreation for the enemy." But we are up against a determined insurgency; a desire for retribution should not be allowed to stand in the way of effective policy and our ultimate success in Iraq.

Scott Gerwehr is a policy analyst and Nina Hachigian a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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