I. Interrogation of an Enemy Physician during the Vietnam War

(Martin, 2007)

     I got better at convincing people to do things [during my tour of duty in Vietnam]. I think that was probably the biggest thing that came to me was talking to people and getting them to open up. Even when they didn’t want to, indirectly. Remember I was telling you about the doctor?  He was just so full of himself that he was not going to reveal anything to me.

     I would appreciate it if you would put this story on tape.

     Okay. We’re sitting there and I get a notification. “Hey, we’ve got a prisoner inbound.”  I said, “Is there a fire fight?” And they said no. That means I can take a little more time with the person. It’s not time critical. If the person has been removed immediately from the battlefield, then that’s a whole separate issue. Because I want to work on him quickly to get information back to my guys to maximize our opportunity to stay alive. At that point I’d talked to quite a few people, over the year I was there, over a thousand, easily. And so this guy was well into the pile. I’d gotten a lot of comfort, skills, felt comfortable with what I was doing.

     And so he comes in and I start talking to him. And he was very arrogant looking. Normally they come in there, they’re kind of a little bit sheepish, sullen; they’re worried; they’re nervous. This guy wasn’t. He wasn’t nervous. He was walking erect. He was in charge. He was just captured.

     Could you tell me what kind of a setting you’re doing this in?

     It’s what’s called a general purpose tent, small. Which is big enough for about six men if you put cots in there. It’s Vietnam. Summertime. It’s hot. It’s muggy.

     So we walk over and we get the guy. The interpreter and I are walking him back. —Now, the guards always know that we carry pistols. My issued weapon was an M-16, but I finagled a .45.—And so we walk into the tent. We’ve got sandbags around the outside of the tent. On the inside, we’ve got cots. And then a little makeshift desk we use there to type with. So I have him sitting on a couple of sandbags, just so he’s got something to sit on.

     I’m sitting on a cot. And the interpreter is sitting beside me on a cot. So it’s like two of us facing you. You train the interpreter. And he and I had worked together for a long time. So he knew what immediately to tell the guy. When we were walking over, he’s going, “Look, he’s going to ask you questions. When you talk, you look directly at him. You don’t have to look at me. Just listen to my voice, but respond to him.”

     So I’m watching the guy. And I says, “And your name, please?” Whatever it was. And I say, “Your rank?”

     And that’s when he stiffened a little bit and he says, “I’m a senior captain.”

I said, “Really?” Because normally we just get these people who are just of no rank whatsoever. You know, just privates. I say, “Really? What do you do?”

     “I’m a doctor!” And he just kind of elevated a little bit more. [laughs]

And this is when I went into automatic mode and I brought my clipboard down. I said, “You’re a doctor!  What kind of doctor?”

     “Well, I practice surgery,” stuff like that.

     I said, “Really? You know, I’d like to have been a doctor. There’s a doctor in my family, one of my cousins. But he was the lucky one. His father had money to send him to school. And he did well. He had a scholarship because he could play sports and stuff.” I said, “I didn’t have any money. My family was poor [a true statement]. Like a lot of your people.” I said, “You know, we just lived on the farm” [a true statement]. You know, la, la, la, I could relate to all that. So I’m telling a story about how I’m just a peasant. And that I’d like to have been a doctor, but I just couldn’t go there. “Tell me about your training. Where did you get it?”

     What I did was I appealed to his ego. And it was just so off the chart. So he starts telling me about how he went to the medical training. And he’d done this advanced training, and how he took surgery. And he went to Soviet Union and studied something and came back. And everything.

     I says, “I’m impressed.”

     Were you taking notes during this time?

     No. It’s all here [in my head]. All mental notes. Because, see, it would show too much. And so the interpreter and I are just sitting there just having a conversation with this guy. I’m sorry, “Doctor.” I referred to him always as doctor after that. I said, “Doctor, are you thirsty?”

     He said, “Well, yes.”

     I said, “I’ll get you some water. But have you had an American soda? Would you like one of those?”

     “Well, I’ve never had one.”

     “Well, wait right here.” So I told the interpreter, I said, “Just a second.” So I went out of the tent. And he’s armed. So I go over where we had the little cooler, and I get an orange, I get a grape. I think there was one other, like a lemon-lime or whatever it was. And I bring one each of these back, and they’re cold. So I bring them back over and I set them down and I say, “Which one do you like?”

     And he’s looking at them, he says, “What are they?”

     I say, “Well, this one’s grape, this one’s orange, and this one’s–” I said, “It’s okay.” So I get a cup. And I open it up, I poured a little bit in, a drink, and I gave him some. “Let’s try this.” It’s carbonated, cold. So I rinsed it out. I said, “Try this one.” Gave him some orange. I rinsed it out and gave him some of the other one.... Well, I’m bonding with this man. But I’m also like subordinating myself to him. He was older than I was. He must have been in his thirties, minimum.

     So now we’re sitting there and I’m having a soda with him. We’re talking. I say, “Well, tell me more about your training.” Now it’s got nothing to do with the immediate situation. But what I’m doing is now, in terms of what I’ve learned over the years, I’m building rapport. I’m building a mini-relationship with this man. And so I talk with him and everything.

     And just right out, he says, “Now I know that you want to know where I was going.”

I said, “Well, of course. I’m a soldier. They told me that I was supposed to find out where you were going and what you’re doing.”

     He says, “Well, you know I can’t tell you.”

     I said, “Well, I understand.”

     He says, “But I was going to the hospital.”

     Where else would a doctor go? I mean, gee, whiz. “You’re important. So it must be a pretty good-sized hospital.”

     He says, “Yes. We even have generators.” And he’s bragging about all the things in this hospital. And it’s underground, and we won’t find it.

     I say, “Yeah, you guys are too tough. You guys are really clever.” So then, a few minutes later, he’s telling me, “Yeah, I like it in the morning when the sun comes up.”  Ooh, that’s a big clue. Now I know it’s on the East side of the mountain, not the West. So I can eliminate the backside of every hill. But then he says a little bit more: “But even the generators, we’ve got them very well hid, muffled. And they’re not close.” So that means they’re running some wires.

     I say, “Well, you’ve got to have water and all that stuff.”

     He says, “Oh, yeah. By the stream there.”  So now I’ve got a mountain, East side, stream. Well, Vietnam’s got a lot of those. But when you put where he was captured and where he thinks he was going to that time of day, general direction, you kind of start looking at trails and things, you can look and you can start fanning out. And he says, “But I can’t tell you nothing about .... But he would describe certain things, kind of taunting.

     And I just kept saying, “Yeah, I know what you mean. We can’t do that.” 

     I say, “Just a moment.” I call down to the Medevac down there. I knew the captain down there. I said, “Hey, I would like to bring this guy down there and get a tour of your Medevac where people are triaged. He says he’s a doctor, and I want to check him out a little bit.”

     He says, “Yeah, bring him down.”

     So I said, “Hey, would you like to see our emergency areas?”

     And he said, “Well, sure.”  There was no one there at the time. They were just kind of sitting around waiting for business, which is what they had to do, unfortunate.

     So we went down, which was a couple hundred yards down the road. Walked in. I introduced the captain to the major. And he says, “Oh, Doctor, pleased to meet you.” You know, very cordial. So we’re walking down. He’s got his hands behind him like a little peacock, walking along, looking. “Yes, we have some of this. We have some of that.” And I’m making a mental note of what he’s talking about.

     And he says, and a doctor’s talking to him, “When we bring him in, this is what we do here, here, and here.”  So they were talking about the doctor stuff. Typical things, you know.

     Through an interpreter?

     Yes. Mine. I want to use mine, because he’s got a good memory, too. Because he and I are going to talk. [laughs] And so we went all the way through it, and came all the way back. And he says, “Very impressive, but I think my place is better. About twice the size.” Now this is a big facility they were talking about. “How many hospital beds could it handle?”

     And so we narrowed it down, after I took him back and put him away. And we sit back and went to look and did our best guess on where we think this guy was headed and what would it look like. We found the place. But I didn’t tell him that. I talked to him a couple more times. “You sure there isn’t anything that you’d like to tell me?” I said, “You know, I’ve got a boss to please].”

     So gave me a little tidbit about the inside, but nothing he thought would help me.

     “Oh, thank you. Thank you!” I said, “You know, I might get a promotion because of this.” [laughs]

     So he was helping me without helping in his mind.

     Why would he be so unsophisticated about this at his rank?

     I think it’s because of his arrogance in thinking that maybe I was a rube. Just some peasant, because I painted myself that way. And maybe he bought more into it by saying in his society farm people don’t know anything. It was very uneducated [conversation], very low key. Well, that’s not quite so in our country. They’re still farmers, but there’s still a certain amount of education. [laughs]

     Now suppose an American physician or somebody of status were captured. Would he be vulnerable to the same kind of ruse?

     On exercises, I have tricked a lot of people. People are people.

     But what do you find about professionals?

     You treat them differently. I don’t look at them as anything different, other than it’s a different type of target.

     Because psychologists, for instance, in the military, claim that they have more autonomy, not subject to ruses from intelligence people.

     Oh, baloney. In my opinion, they’re easier, because of their egos. I’m going to stroke them and I’m going to use them. Because they have that, “I’m a superior.”  They don’t want to admit it. But I can just bring them right up.

     Look, who would I want to talk to? Would I want to talk to some colonel over in the Iraqi Army or would I rather talk to Saddam? I want to talk to Saddam. Why? Because he’s got an ego that’s huge! Can I play with that easier than some colonel who’s really security conscious and so forth? He’s going to be more difficult than Saddam.


Issue 1:  Taking Martin’s account at face value, his successful interrogation of the physician depended on his unusual abilities, as must always be the case with the social-skills model of interrogation. Should psychologists attempt to develop algorithmic interrogation techniques that can be used by less able interrogators?  At the cost of abusing the source?

Issue 2: In this case, the interrogator exploited a character flaw in the source. Would exploiting a virtue, such as a physician’s propensity to care for the wounded, or a psychological disability, such as a phobia, be unethical?  To what extent could psychologists ethically assist interrogators in identifying character flaws, virtues, or psychological disabilities?

Issue 3:  The army medical personnel Martin called upon cooperated in his theater of interrogation for the enemy physician, although apparently no deception was demanded of them. Do military health professionals have any ethical obligations to captured enemy health professionals beyond their general ethical obligations to captives?  For example, could an army surgeon ethically call upon a captive, enemy surgeon to assist in a false medical emergency so as to deepen rapport for the purpose of exploitation?   In a true medical emergency?


Martin, William (pseudonym). (2007, December 15). People just don’t want to associate with you if you’re not a good person. Interview conducted by J.M. Arrigo, Herndon, VA. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.