The top gun never believes it can happen to him. Not when the engines of his F-14 are roaring in his ears, his instruments all check out and the smart bombs and missiles are ready at his fingertips. Not when the enemy won't even come up to fight. Not even when the antiaircraft batteries open up around the target and the night lights up with tracers. Then suddenly he sees a blinding flash and hears the crump of an explosion. Black smoke fills his cockpit. The plane cartwheels out of control. With a sharp bang the ejection seta hurls him into the darkness at 600 miles an hour. Icy wind tears at his face, and his bones shudder with the jolt as his parachute opens. Then down, down he floats, right into the hands of that enemy he was just trying to kill. "One minute you're a hawk in the skies," shudders an old POW who has made the tumble, "the next you are an ant on the ground."
That fall from martial grace, from the warrior ascendant to the captive under the boot, lends the POW his tragic gravity. You could see it at work last week in the swollen faces, glazed eyes and mumbling voices of the American, British, Italian and Kuwaiti airmen that Saddam Hussein dogmarched through Baghdad and grilled on TV. In staging the performance, Saddam added Iraq's name to a tradition of dishonor that snakes from the Third Reich's Stalag 17 of North Korea and on to the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. President Bush, an old Navy pilot who was shot down and rescued in World War II, swore he would never let Saddam get away with it. What Bush knew and Saddam neglected was a truth as old as combat itself. Nations at war can measure their raw power by success at arms; but the more accurate gauge of their moral fiber is the way they treat their POWs.
Now the war against Saddam will create a new generation of POWs. The dictator chose to introduce his first captives with a television special. Wearing their uniforms, seven allied airmen--three Americans, two Brits, an Italian and a Kuwait--sat glumly in front of a white wall somewhere in Baghdad. An interrogator questioned and prompted them. He opened with questions about their names, ages, units; then he asked what the fliers though about "this aggression against Iraq." Like zombies out of "The Manchurian Candidate," Guy Hunter Jr., 46, a Marine warrant officer, said, "I condemn the aggression against the peaceful Iraq," and Jeffrey Zaun, 28, a Navy lieutenant, said, "Our leaders and our people have wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq." Hunter also said, "I think this war is crazy," a fresh, almost believable opinion' but he quickly reverted to parroting the interrogator's favorite word: aggression.
Images told more than any word about the reality on the screen. Out of consideration for frightened relatives, the Pentagon refused to speculate on whether the prisoners had been beaten. Saddam refused to let the International Red Cross examine them. The trauma of ejecting from a crippled plane could have produced the lumps and bruises on the faces of each man. But, in private, Air Force officers who studied videotapes of the interviews didn't believe that. "It's bulls--t," exploded one angry colonel. "They've been through more than cockpit injuries." The prevailing view was that during the first 48 hours after capture, the men had been beaten into attacking the war. "Forty-eight hours is sufficient time," said Arizona's Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot who spent nearly six years as a POW during the Vietnam War. "With a skillful interrogator, no food, sleep or water, you can get a statement."
The airmen may not have been entirely helpless. McCain believes they were acting like robots to send a message home. Some new evidence supported the theory. The next day the Iraqis hauled forth Maj. Jeffrey Scott Tice and Capt. Harry Michael Roberts. Speaking in chopped syllables like the Tin Woodsman of Oz, Roberts said, "I-was-shot-down-be-fore-rea-ching-my-tar-get." And mocking the interrogator's accent, Tice said he had been shot down by a surface-to-air "meesile." At the Pentagon, officers scrutinized the tapes and detected a clear signal: the two men were reading a prepared script, not speaking of their own free will.
How to make Saddam change his scabrous behavior was a frustrating problem for the Bush administration. Outraged, Under Secretary of State Robert Kimmitt summoned Iraq's charge d'affaires to the State Department and shoved a copy of the Geneva Conventions into his hand along with a formal diplomatic protest. The conventions, signed by Iraq along with 163 other nations, stipulate that prisoners of war may not be dragged before hostile crowds, beaten or mistreated or used for propaganda. To step up pressure, the department and the White House threatened to put Saddam on trial as a war criminal, but this was a rather moot point until they caught him (page 52). The more serious warning came from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who said Saddam would not be able to obstruct the air war by using POWs as human shields.
For Saddam the rewards of abusing the POWs clearly outweighed the risks involved in his tactics. Part of his motive was simply to buck up Iraqis, who had seen thousands of American airstrikes. When Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a retired Navy flier who spent more than seven years as a Vietnamese prisoner of war, looked at the videotapes of Hunter and Zaun, he felt a shock of recognition at the behavior of their captors. "They are trying to show that the knights on white horses are reduced to whimpering wimps," he said. "This is supposed to convince Iraqis to "go get your guns and we can take these people to the cleaners'." By flaunting the captured airmen, Saddam has also elected to wage psychological war against American pilots flying combat sorties. His calculation is that when American pilots see their comrades humiliated on TV, they will lose their nerve on the attack.
For the short term, it is more likely that they will get mad and get even. Pilots flying from airfields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain watch CNN on local television, and carrier pilots get cassette videotapes a day or two late depending on the weather. When the hostage came on TV last week, Maj. Scott Hill, a Thunderbolt jockey from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, was sitting in a ready room with 10 other pilots. "We will hit 'em harder and make them pay for every violation of decency," Hill told a pool reporter. And that didn't mean going off half-cocked. "When we go to war we go to war smart. We don't go to war with our hair on fire and our fangs out."
While most pilots felt that way, there were a few signs that Saddam's little show had made them edgy. Aboard the USS Saratoga, which had lost three planes and had one pilot among the POWs, the crew became so tense the military kept reporters away. The official reason was that "logistical problems" prevented visits to the carrier; but choppers were shuttling back and forth all the time. Pilots who had given their full names and exploits to reporters during the first few days of the air war started using only first names or initials. Some were worried that Iraqi agents would get their home addresses and organize terrorist attacks on their families. Others feared that if they were shot down, the Iraqis would find them boasting of successes on old CNN tapes. Still others decided not to paint silhouettes of destroyed targets on the fuselages of their jets. If the tallies appeared on wreckage, the pilot would be in for double mayhem.
If the way Iraq treated prisoners during its war with Iran is any indicator, wounded American pilots can probably expect only perfunctory medical care. American military doctrine calls for immediately evacuating the wounded from the battlefield. The Iraqis take a different approach. As the ordeal of the first American hostages was playing out on TV, an officer at the Pentagon remembered how an Iraqi had once told him Saddam's doctrine: "When you ar fighting you fight. When it's over you worry about the wounded."
Saddam didn't let the Red Crescent inspect his prisoner-of-war camps until his war with Iran was almost over; but a United Nations study reported many head wounds among POWs, with scars, bruises, broken teeth and other signs of frequent brutality. The Iraqis took reporters only to showplace camps where squatting POWs shouting "Death to Khomeini" were obviously prepped on what else to say. On one such trip to a camp in southern Iraq the guards shouted at their captives in Farsi, who all yelled back in the same language that they were well treated and happy. Suddenly from the back, a young prisoner said in very good English, "They're not treating us well at all; they stole my watch and boots last night." For a moment there was stunned silence. Then the guards dragged the young man off. From around the corner, the reporters soon heard the thump of solid kicks and blows.
The same rules will undoubtedly apply to Saddam's latest prisoners. The Pentagon does not know where he is holding them as human shields and it is too early to say precisely what will happen to them if the war goes on for a long time. But military thinkers have accumulated quite a data bank on POWs from experience in early wars. According to American Ex-Prisoners of War, a national organization of former POWs based in Arlington, Texas, there were 4,120 U.S. POWs in World War I, 130,201 in World War II, 7,140 in Korea and 766 in Vietnam. The shock for all of them was tremendous. Newly captured prisoners are often wounded. Even if they are uninjured they are suddenly under an enemy's total control. A downed pilot's first feeling tends to be one of inadequacy and remorse. "You think, "Hey, I must have screwed up or I wouldn't be in this situation'," says David Hoffman, a retired Navy captain who flew F-4s in Vietnam until he was shot down in 1971. "You have to get at peace with yourself. You have to learn to stay in control."
Pilots can acquire some of this learning through the survival, evasion, rescue and escape training they all undergo before flying into combat (page 55). Trainers playing hostile forces "capture" their students. For 24 to 36 hours they isolate them, grill them and manhandle them. The time and details of the program are classified. The aims is to eliminate the fear of the unknown that destroys a downed flier's equilibrium, but there are limits to what drill can do. "You know you are going home on Saturday night," says Hoffman. "The uncertainty of real captivity can't be simulated." Before his captors threw him into isolation for 100 days, they told him his entire life story. "They said, "We can get to your family any time we want'," he recalls. "I had a lot of time to think what they could really do."
Iraqi interrogators will probably try to pry sensitive military data from Saddam's POWs as fast as they can. On the battlefield, where conditions rapidly change, secrets have a shelf life of a month or so. If the Iraqis follow the model of the Vietnamese, they will try to extract bombing targets and codes first. To encourage Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner shot down in 1965 after 200 combat missions, Vietnamese interrogators used a torture called "the ropes." They tied him up in ways that caused great pain for long periods of time. When Stockdale saw Zaun on TV, he thought he saw some familiar signs. "He talked to me like a guy who had just come off the ropes," he says. "Your circulation is cut off, you're disoriented. The pain makes you numb."
Saddam and other thugs can use torture in all shapes and sizes. Stockdale spent seven and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, the Zoo and other North Vietnamese stops. Captors broke his back and shattered his leg trying to make him talk. Finally he signed a letter to the camp commissar purporting to give his captors all the information they were after. He faked everything. Still, the reality is that torture works. The military Cod of Conduct used to forbid POWs from giving anything but their name, rank and serial number. Now it requires only that they resist to the best of their ability giving anything but those basics. "The problem is fear--fear and guilt," says Stockdale. Even when anti-American statements are coerced from pilots, they feel ashamed. "It's the worst feeling in the world," says Hoffman. He remembers the pain of returning to an isolation cell or cellblock after saying things he knew he shouldn't have said: "You feel like an absolute piece of crap."
It is difficult to fight back against an enemy who controls your food, water, clothing, shelter and movement; but it can be done. As senior POW in his camp, Stockdale took command of the other POWs. In prison, where the individual can be isolated and broken, he says, it is vital to maintain a system of orders and communications. This will be impossible for Saddam's prisoners, who are now scattered and deployed as human shields. one of the worst configurations for a POW. Stockdale instructed his own men to refuse in the beginning all objectionable requests from their captors. A POW who cooperated once, then balked, was treated more brutally than a holdout. When the men came to him with a request for a list of other do's and don'ts, he constructed a four-letter formula he called B.A.C.K. The letter B stood for "don't Bow in public"; A was "stay off the Air" (no propaganda broadcasts); C meant "don't admit Crimes." And the letter K was "don't Kiss "em goodbye."
Iraqi cultural values--as well as how much Saddam thinks he can wring from his prisoners--will determine how badly they are treated in the months ahead. Not all countries are as bad as others in this regard. Saddam has always admired Germany, but so far he shows no signs of following German practices for POWs. William Chapin was 25 in 1944 when the B-24 bomber he was flying was shot down over Yugoslavia. A German patrol found him with a badly broken leg. That night he lay in a litter alongside Wehrmacht enlisted men, some wounded by bombs from his own raid. A German surgeon amputated his leg to save his life, treating him before the Germans because he was an officer. He wound up in Stalag 17. "It was rough, but not concentration-camp rough," he remembers. "We were cold as hell and hungry as hell, but we weren't beaten." After seeing the Americans on Iraqi TV he thought, "I got none of the manipulation--where POWs become tools."
The real question is whether Saddam attaches any value to the lives of the POWs or whether he holds them in contempt for being captured. During World War II the Japanese considered surrender a moral disgrace and POWs beyond the human pale. After the fall of Corregidor in the Philippines, Fred Peppers, then a 24-year-old Navy quartermaster, spent three years in camps where POWs were beaten, starved and left to die from diseases. He ate rice crawling with maggots to survive. For a time he was a slave laborer in a coal mine. He stands 6 feet 2 inches tall. When he was released, he weighed 92 pounds. "Next year it will be 50 years," he says. "You don't ever get past it. Every time there's a war, the bad memories come back." What has happened to Saddam's captives, he says, has left him "pretty depressed."
The will to live is the only force a POW can count on to get through the worst of conditions. After North Korean troops overran Lt. Charles Minietta's headquarters base in 1950, he spent 38 months, including a winter death march, as a POW. The North Koreans aimed pistols at the heads of captives to make them do propaganda broadcasts. His comrades suffered from frostbite, dysentery, beriberi, hepatitis and night blindness. Of 750 men captured with him, 500 died. He would wake up mornings to find the man next to him frozen to death. Others gave up eating their meager rations of two millet balls a day and died of starvation. "They had what we called "give-up-itis'," he recalls. "A man would tell you, "I'm not going to be here tomorrow, I'm going to die,' and by God, he would be gone."
Next to the fear of dying, a POW's worst torment is the feeling that no one knows where he is or cares. After William Fornes tangled with MiG-15s, he was captured by Chinese troops in North Korea. Neither his outfit nor his family knew whether he was dead or alive. He spent 10 months in solitary counting lice ad watching dogfights overhead. Then the dogfights stopped. "That was the worst," he remembers, "I couldn't help thinking, if the war is over, why am I still here?" It was not an idle thought. Unlike German POW camps, Korean and Vietnamese camps were never liberated. The MIA lobby thinks Vietnam is still holding captives, or at least their remains. The Pentagon sees no evidence that any POWs are alive in Southeast Asia.
Fornes didn't know whether he would reach Virginia as a hero or a traitor, and he was surprised when his hometown gave him a parade. After years of nightmares, he found comfort talking to other ex-POWs. Whether they had been held by the Germans, Japanese, Koreans or Vietnamese, they shared a bond that now extends to those held by the Iraqis. Today Fornes is trying to raise $2.5 million for a POW museum in Americus, Ga., near the site of the South's Andersonville POW camp during the Civil War. Andersonville showed what horrors even Americans can work on one another as POWs. When Fornes dies, he wants to be buried alongside the 13,000 Union soldiers who lie there, a Southerner among Yankees. "Andersonville offers me a kinship that transcends everything else," he says. "There I am among my own." A prisoner of war at peace.