John Nichol knows more than most about the horrors of captivity. Shot down during the first Gulf War in 1991, the British Royal Air Force navigator was taken prisoner, tortured and forced to denounce his own actions on Iraqi television during almost two months in captivity. Such experiences mean that he’s now reluctant to condemn the British naval personnel freed last week after two weeks as prisoners of the Iranians. Since their release, the 15 sailors and Marines have been attacked for their apparent compliance with their captors. Nichol spoke by telephone to NEWSWEEK’s William Underhill. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Some in the media have condemned the captives for their readiness to appear on Iranian television. Do you think such criticism is justified?
John Nichol: It’s not justified at all. All the criticism I’ve heard comes from people who have never been in such a situation themselves. I was flabbergasted that the co-called experts were prepared to criticize even before they knew what these people had been through.
How’s your view changed now that the released sailors have described how they were bound and isolated?
All you ever saw [before their release] were snapshots from a 14-day ordeal. They were seen to be laughing and smiling in the television pictures but that was because they were suddenly put in a room together—with the cameras rolling—for the first time after 10 days in solitary confinement. Of course they were delighted to see each other.
But was there any need, for example, to thank their captors for their release?
There is no point in trying to make it worse for yourself. They weren’t giving away any secrets or saying anything that was damaging to national security. They were just trying to keep their position on an even keel. It’s a very personal battle.
They must have been given training in how to respond in such situation. What form would it have taken?
I can’t tell you that. If I were to broadcast the training instructions that they had been given it would negate their whole purpose. In fact the rules were changed as a direct result of my own experience. When I was captured you were only supposed to give your name, rank, number and date of birth. I can’t tell you how the rules were changed—but it isn’t hard to guess.
At one point, the normal regulations were waived to allow the captives to sell their stories to the press. That’s since changed, but was that really a wise move?
The Ministry of Defense was always in a lose-lose situation. These stories were always going to come out whether it was through a so-called friend or cousin. This way it could come out in a controlled fashion.
But should they have received payment?
Some of the biggest critics have been the generals and colonels now populating the television studios who have themselves been paid in the past for writing their own memoirs. And now they are being paid to appear on television to criticize these young sailors. That’s an irony that seems to have been missed: it’s OK for a general to sell his story but not a young sailor.
Did you get any criticism for your appearance on Iraqi television?
Because I looked as if I had been beaten up—I was under threat of execution and I said what I was told to say—I don’t think I took any kind of criticism. But what people don’t realize is that mental and psychological torture can be just as effective as physical.