Consult: Harold William Rood, PhD


Military and Intelligence Consultation on

“Psychological Stress Experiments on Soldiers”

Harold William Rood, PhD

October 1, 2008

Reported by Jean Maria Arrigo

Harold William Rood, is W.M. Keck Professor of International Strategic Studies, Emeritus, at Claremont McKenna College.  In World War  II, Dr. Rood was a forward observer in an artillery unit in the U.S. Army in the invasion of Germany. He served in the Korean War as a combat intelligence staff officer, with expertise in combat field interrogation and strategic intelligence.  Among his varied work experiences of relevance to this consultation, he once managed a biological laboratory at Stanford Research Institute and participated in preparation of a military handbook on the effects of nuclear weapons.  Dr. Rood is author of Kingdoms of the Blind (1980), which examines errors that democracies make in assessing military threats.

Teleconference Participants:  Jean Maria Arrigo, Ray Bennett, Martha Davis, Jancis Long, Harold William Rood, Stephen Soldz

Note:  Quotations are condensed and approximate.

Selective Summary of Tele-Consultation with Dr. Rood on

The Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics

     Dr. Rood began by describing some actual military combat episodes, as a comparison for the stressful military situations created experimentally by psychologist Mitchell Berkun and colleagues at the Presidio of Monterey.  For example, in his World War II role as a forward observer in a field artillery unit, he removed booby-trapped anti-personnel mines from battlefields.  To lay a prima cord (an explosive) across the battlefield and detonate the mines would have alerted the German forces, so the easily triggered mines had to be unearthed by hand.  “It was a matter of being patient and careful, and one did it in whatever circumstances were prevalent on the battlefield at the time.”  His unit also had to calculate and transmit code coordinates every day, for a correct line of fire, with care not to fire on one’s own people.  Again, this required precision, but he stated that he and his comrades were not stressed by the work.  “We were trained, for two years, in mule-pack artillery, handling heavy weapons, firing air weapons.... We all expected it because there was a war going on.”  Their substantial training contrasted with the inexperience of the new recruits Berkun used as experimental subjects. 

     Dr. Rood challenged the realism, and therefore the utility, of Berkun’s experiments because of the ignorance of the subjects.  He was reluctant to cede that trained soldiers could be fooled and believed they would reason, “The army may not like me, but they’re not going to kill me” in an experiment.  Like qualitative researchers who advocate participant observation, Dr. Rood further advised that the researcher “has to go through the experiences him- or her-self” for meaningful appraisal.

     As a truly “useful display of men under immense pressure and considerable anxiety,” Dr. Rood gave the example of the attack on the submarine USS Puffer in World War II, as described in Theodore Roscoe’s U.S. Submarine Operations in WW II (1949, U.S. Naval Institute Press).   For 31hours, the 92 officers and sailors of the USS Puffer withstood depth charges by Japanese craft at Pearl Harbor.  Water entered through cracked valves, glass broke, and wires short circuited.  The crew dared not operate the air conditioning unit because the noise would reveal their position, so they had to perform at 140 degrees Farenheit in high humidity.  They were eventually able to bring the submarine back from Pearl Harbor, and the crew was debriefed.  Some crew members were sent away to schools and replaced by other sailors, but original crew members ostracized the replacements because they had not shared the ordeal.  Afterwards, if any crew went through that kind of torment, the navy dispersed the crew members throughout the fleet to ensure cooperative crews.

     The question arose whether experiments like Berkun’s at the Presidio of Monterey add value beyond what could be obtained through training and observation, as in the field artillery unit example above, or in debriefing after significant incidents, as in the attack on the USS Puffer.  Dr. Rood believed the army could get the information it needed through training, observation, and systematic debriefing.  He expressed wariness of research psychologists “because they’re trying to get into your mind”—noting that this was also a problem with interrogation.

As for the effect of Berkun’s deception experiments on the soldiers and the mileu, Dr. Rood said news of the incident would certainly travel through the grapevine.  The researchers should debrief everyone involved (not just the experimental subjects, as Berkun reported) and explain the military importance of the experiments.  In response to the question whether this would truly mitigate the negative impact of the experiment, Dr. Rood said that the soldiers didn’t trust the military anyway.  The psychologists would be in uniform, so the soldiers wouldn’t identify them.  If so, “you’d get the reaction, ‘a bunch of mind mechanics!’”

     Dr. Rood construed Berkun’s psychological stress experiment at the Nevada Test Site as a tagalong activity during a typical training for nuclear war.  “The most important thing was to train soldiers how to conduct themselves on a nuclear battlefield.”  “Even putting them in danger of death?” a participant asked.  Dr. Rood described an analogous training of infantrymen to respond to live machine gun fire, when he was an instructor with the “school troops” at Ft. Benning.  The soldiers had to crawl under 30-calibre machine gun fire, through barbed wire, in an area known to have rattlesnakes.  During the Vietnam War era, the stream of fire was 24 inches above ground.  The level has been raised up to about 50 inches now so no one will get hurt.  But he stated that in order for training to be effective, it does have to pose risks.  That is how it teaches soldiers to be careful.  “I taught bayonet drill for  a long time.  One had to come to the point of not being afraid of the bayonet.   Somewhere between being careful and being scared to death.” 

     Interrogator Ray Bennett added his training experience of going into a small building filled with CS tear gas [a riot control vapor] wearing gas masks.   This experience instilled confidence in them in their training; otherwise, they might face the situation with panic. 

     Whether Berkun’s Nevada Test Site experiment added value to the training event was unclear.

     In regard to Berkun’s air bubble experiment, Dr. Rood quipped that  the soldier’s remaining two-minutes provided enough time to “beat the shit out of the guy who shot you in the arm.”  Berkun’s informal report though was that the affected recruits became quite withdrawn.  On the surface, Dr. Rood did not see any military value in this experiment on recruits.  He conjectured that the response of trained soldiers might well be different.

     Ray Bennett suggested that it might be useful to know if you can get the soldier to do something militarily useful in the last two minutes—as in the proverbial throwing oneself on the hand grenade—or whether you’ve lost the soldier as an operational asset.  But Martha Davis noted that the experiment, as reported, offered no options for militarily useful action.

     In closing, Stephen Soldz returned to the general question of what value experimentation adds to observation of, or reports from, the combatants.  Bill Rood remarked that it is “very difficult to compose a situation in which everyone will feel the way you want them to feel so you can measure how they feel.”  But as a concession to scientists, he noted that one learns to do good experiments by doing bad experiments.  Fundamental research entails learning what questions to ask.

     Jancis Long asked whether there was any point in drawing a line — whether in training conditions, battle conditions, or experimental conditions — between what military people should and should not do.  Bill Rood responded:  “When I went to fight the Nazis, they were bad guys as far as Americans were concerned, and the newspapers and the people were my support organization.”  But in the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, there was no feeling of support.  “How do you train soldiers not to care how their fellow Americans feel about them?....  If a senator accuses you of being a barbarian, well, you might as well act like a barbarian, unless your personal ethics prevents this.”  He linked American soldiers’ misconduct to lack of moral connection to the people for whom they are fighting.

     Martha Davis considered the moral cost of experimentation. “In weighing the benefits of research against the risks, the methods of observation and debriefing don’t seem to raise the host of problems raised by experimental manipulations.” Bill Rood replied:  “If you’re going to experiment with people, you ought to tell them.  It’s one of those conflicts like interrogation.  If you don’t get the information no matter what you do, you feel bad.  If you do get the information no matter what you do, you’ll never feel well again because of what you did.  It’s a contradiction.”  Presumably he favors the observational and debriefing methods.

     Jean Maria Arrigo asked whether the intelligence professionals trained as debriefers would be suitable as social science debriefers.  Bill Rood and Ray Bennett (a veteran military debriefer and instructor) said yes, but Ray noted that  doesn’t decide the between the relative effectiveness of a debriefing methodology and experimentation.

     Reporter’s Comment: Central questions that emerged for the Casebook are whether psychological experiments add practical knowledge for military and intelligence operations and whether naturalistic methods of psychological study would be more valuable—as well as more ethical.