Truth Extraction: Honey Beats Vinegar

Stephen Budiansky has a superb article in the current Atlantic Monthly discussing the legendary interrogators of World War II, U.S. Marine Major Sherwood Moran and the German Lufwaffe’s Hans Joachim Scharff. Both men were incredibly effective at extracting useful information from their prisoners, using very similar techniques. The basic premise: “Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being.”

Truth Extraction: A classic text on interrogating enemy captives offers a counterintuitive lesson on the best way to get information

Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation—in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors”—invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

In his report (written in the form of a letter of advice to interpreters newly assigned to interrogation duty) Moran stressed that he would usually begin an interrogation by taking almost the opposite tack.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word “safe.” That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the “enemy” stuff, and the “prisoner” stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Every soldier, Moran observed, has a “story” he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator’s job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it.

Begin by asking him things about himself. Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems. If he is not wounded or tired out, you can ask him if he has been getting enough to eat; if he likes Western-style food … You can ask if he has had cigarettes, if he is being treated all right, etc. If he is wounded you have a rare chance. Begin to talk about his wounds. Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. (They will like to do this!) …

On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, “Won’t you please come and talk to me every day.” (And yet people are continually asking us, “Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?”)

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. “This line has infinite possibilities,” he explained. “If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable.” Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve “the first and most important victory”—getting “into the mind and into the heart” of the prisoner and achieving an “intellectual and spiritual” rapport with him.

Moran’s whole approach—and Hans Joachim Scharff’s, too—was built on the assumption that few if any prisoners are likely to possess decisive information about imminent plans. (And as one former Marine interrogator says, even if a prisoner does have information of the “ticking bomb” variety—where the nuke is going to go off an hour from now, in the classic if overworked example—under duress or torture he is most likely to try to run out the clock by making something up rather than reveal the truth.) Rather, it is the small and seemingly inconsequential bits of evidence that prisoners may give away once they start talking—about training, weapons, commanders, tactics—that, when assembled into a larger mosaic, build up the most complete and valuable picture of the enemy’s organization, intentions, and methods.

I recommend the piece in its entirety.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kent says:

    While the slant of the article sounds plausible, and I would be willing to try it with prisoners of any nationality, it has to be noted that Japanese prisoners of war were peculiarly susceptible to interrogation. They were already completely disgraced by the dishonor of surrender, leaving them vulnerable psychologically. In addition, because Japanese were never supposed to surrender, they had no preparation whatsoever for how to behave if they were taken prisoner.

    Cook and Cook, in Japan At War: An Oral History, quote a Japanese prisoner who stated that his years as a POW in America were some of the best of his life.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Kent. True as far as it goes. But the interrogators using standard techniques did not have anything like this level of success against them. And Scharff was apparently quite successful against Allied captives using similar techniques.

    Read the piece in its entirety. It’s not all that long.

  3. davod says:

    Some time ago I read an article about an Israeli interogator. He basically said exactly the same about his methods as the above gentlemen. He even studied (not just read) the Koran.

  4. Kent says:


    I don’t question that this is the best approach, for prisoners of almost any nationality. It just needs to be understood that your mileage will vary.