Air University Review, January-February 1983

Coercive Persuasion:
The Myth of Free Will?

Dr. Edna J. Hunter

ALTHOUGH there have been hostages and prisoners of war (POWs) since the beginning of recorded history, fortunately such experience is beyond that of the average person. Thus, it is difficult for most people to understand what a captive goes through, how he copes with a no-way-out situation, and what effect it has on him in the future.

For the past fourteen years I have studied stressful conditions: life aboard ship and under the sea, and sleep-deprived, sensory-isolated, and socially deprived environments, such as prisoners-of-war experience. I have been either directly or indirectly involved with the survivors of the concentration camp experience, the prisoners of war of Germany and Japan during World War II, the Pueblo crew, the prisoners of war and the missing in action of the Vietnam conflict, the Patty Hearst case, the Iranian hostage families, and, most recently, the U.S. Marine Corps Private First Class Robert Garwood trial.

Two major research questions--one medical and the other legal or ethical--underlie all these situations. The first is a medical question: Are there physical or psychological residuals of prolonged extreme stress? The answer is yes. In fact, as a result of our Vietnam POW studies and other earlier studies, when the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1980) was published, for the first time it contained a category called the "Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Inclusion of this disorder was recognition that prolonged severe stress can indeed leave permanent scars on the victim. Specifically, chronic traumatic stress disorder is defined as a cluster of symptoms resulting from a psychologically traumatic event, such as coercive persuasion (brainwashing) or being held captive or hostage, that is outside the range of usual human experience. The disorder is characterized by recurrent painful recollections of the traumatic event, a psychological numbing or blunted effect, and a variety of psychosomatic disorders, primarily anxiety, masking an underlying depression.

The second is a legal/ethical question: If there are residuals of extreme stress, are these effects such that they actually diminish one's ability to distinguish right from wrong and thus remove responsibility for behavior that might otherwise be considered criminal? This question came up in the Korean turncoat situation, the Patty Hearst abduction, and most recently in the Garwood court-martial. We still have no definitive yes or no answer to the question, primarily because it is an ethical one. The answer requires a judgment; thus, there can be differences of opinion based on the same set of so-called facts.

This article will review some of the major findings from the seven-year POW/MIA study carried out at the San Diego Center for Prisoner of War Studies,1 explain how the Southeast Asia experience differed from the recent Iranian hostage crisis, and also comment on the Garwood trial, in order to present new insights into the implications of the prisoner of war hostage trauma.

RESEARCH carried out at the Center for Prisoner of War Studies from 1971 to 1978 was prompted by humanitarian concerns, but it also offered a unique opportunity to study the effects of prolonged extreme stress that could never be duplicated in a laboratory. Additionally, this research effort made it possible to understand better the etiology of the excessively high morbidity and mortality rates reported for POWs of other wars. For example, former prisoners of war of the Japanese during World War II and those of the Korean conflict showed significantly higher mortality rates the first ten years after their return than those veterans who had not been captured.

Some of the questions asked by the Center's research remain pertinent today to military planners, as well as to the State Department and large international corporations that send their employees into nations where the risks of terrorism are high. These research hypotheses included such questions as the following: What factors determine who dies and who survives? Why are some individuals able to cope with extreme prolonged stress and still go on to lead productive lives while others curl up in the fetal position shortly after capture and succumb to "give-up-itis"? What are the typical coping techniques used by both captive and family members in dealing with the situation? Are the stresses created for POW/MIA spouses reflected in their (the wives') physical health? What are the effects on children of prolonged, indeterminant father absence?

It is impossible to summarize seven years of research in a few pages. Thus, only a few of the major contributions of that first-of-a-kind study can be mentioned. Among other things, we learned the following:

THERE are both similarities and differences between the Vietnam POW experience and that of the Iranian hostage with regard to time in captivity, treatment by the captor, the process of coping, and the later effects of the experience.

With respect to differences in the length of captivity, the Vietnam POWs were captive an average of five years; some were gone 6, 7, 8, almost 9 years! The Iranians held their hostages for 14 months.

As for differences in captor treatment, most POWs held in Vietnam were methodically tortured for the first months of captivity; there was no medical treatment, at least only in extreme cases; those in South Vietnam also had to contend with mosquitoes, malaria, and leeches. Injuries were left untreated, broken bones left unset; those with open head wounds usually did not survive to return. For the most part, in Southeast Asia, the food consisted of pumpkin soup and a bit of wormy rice month after month. On the other hand, those hostages held by Iran were provided with medical treatment when ill; one man was actually returned to the United States because of his illness. In Iran, food may have been substandard, but it was adequate to meet basic bodily needs.

The two experiences also differed with regard to the amount of group support they had. Those POWs held in Vietnam were kept in solitary confinement, at least prior to 1969; some were kept in a cell alone the entire time. Communication was forbidden, although the men usually conversed by tap codes through the walls. There was no lack of communication in Iran, except for a few hostages who were segregated from the others, and for those few more long-term effects from the experience can perhaps be anticipated.

As for mail communications, many of the families of the Vietnam POWs did not know for three years whether their husbands, sons, and fathers were dead or held captive. The first mail for the families of men captured early in the conflict did not reach them until three years after capture, and then it was only a six-line, letter once a month, if that. Some families did not know whether their POW was alive until the time of release in 1973. One wife had had no word for almost nine years and presumed her husband dead; she was planning to remarry within the immediate future when the imminent release was announced and her husband's name was on the list. In contrast, many letters were allowed to pass between the hostages in Iran and their families, although with little consistency, and the hostages themselves were allowed to talk with each other, at least after the initial few weeks subsequent to the takeover of the embassy.

There were also similarities in both experiences. The event of capture and subsequent confinement were extremely stressful. Even in the absence of brutal treatment, captivity per se is stressful--the verbal abuse, being accused of being a criminal or a spy; and being threatened with trial and/or execution. Both the POW in Southeast Asia and the hostage in Iran experienced these stresses. In both, captives experienced the emotional roller-coaster effect mentioned earlier.

All captives and hostages experienced the powerlessness, the denigration, the humiliation, the lowering of self-esteem that occurs when one must cope with a parent-childlike situation, where he must depend on his captor for even the most basic of needs, even the privilege of going to the bathroom.

Guilt feelings, during and after captivity, occurred as a result of a combination of factors: the captor's verbal barrage, the powerlessness and loss of self-esteem ("I'm being punished, thus I must be guilty."); guilt over the family being left to cope alone; guilt, perhaps over not behaving up to one's own standards or of being made to say or sign something while under duress that one did not think he could be made to say or sign; guilt over coming back when others did not live to return, perhaps because they resisted harder, or were killed trying to effect the hostage's rescue.

THERE are essentially two dichotomous ways captives cope with a POW/hostage experience: by resisting vehemently or, especially where the captive or hostage is first threatened with death and then treated nicely and spared, by identifying with the captor and actually feeling favorably toward him, the so-called Stockholm syndrome.2 Both ways are valid and effective coping mechanisms for dealing with the anxieties caused by such a powerless, life-threatening situation.

But what about after captivity? Can persons who cope by resisting, or conversely by identifying with the captor, both cope with freedom equally effectively? Certainly it is easier to resist if one is treated very harshly, but the one who resists vehemently is less likely to come back. It is dangerous to show one's hostility overtly toward a captor! If, however, the captor treats one nicely (and that is his option), it is normal to identify with him. Both captor and captive have something to lose if the prisoner is not released eventually. It almost appears that the captive unconsciously reasons, "He's not so bad after all; he didn't kill me," In fact, research shows that upon release, the former hostage is more likely to voice hostility toward his rescuer than toward his captor, especially if he was isolated from other captives during his confinement.

OF considerable interest is the case of Marine Corps Private First Class Robert Garwood, the former Vietnam POW who suddenly showed up after 14 years. According to Garwood, he was still a prisoner of war in 1979 when he managed to slip a note to a Finnish diplomat in Hanoi, whom he overheard speaking English. Garwood was captured in 1965; those who testified against him at his subsequent court-martial in the United States first saw him in late 1968 or 1969, almost four years after he was captured. Those few who did see him during those long years from 1965 to 1968 could not corroborate his story because they were no longer alive; they all died in captivity.

What happened to Garwood during those years? The psychiatrists who examined him prior to his court-martial all said they had no reason to doubt that he was telling the truth. According to Garwood, while on duty as a G2 driver, he was sent to pick tip a senior officer. He overshot his destination, encountered the enemy, and exchanged fire, with them. He was wounded in the right arm and their captured. For 13 days, virtually naked, he was marched from small village to small village. He was made a spectacle; villagers poked him with sticks. He was tied and beaten. Often he was caged and tormented. His right arm became badly swollen and infected. Today, he still has a scar from the swelling and the wrist thongs. His right forearm bears evidence of a clean pass-through bullet woud.

During the next three months, he was kept caged in a bamboo tiger cage. He made two escape efforts, but both failed. He began to fast in a suicidal fashion and lost considerable weight. He learned to handle pain through disassociation in the same fashion described by other POWs who testified against him as a method they had also used to cope with extreme pain. Garwood was beaten and held in stocks. He was put in a hole and defecated upon. On one occasion he was forced to observe a "play" that involved a number of South Vietnamese POWs. Two of those prisoners were forced to play Russian roulette with a revolver until one blew off the top of his head. After that incident Garwood was certain that his captors had the power of life or death over him. Thus, according to his report, he became defeated and submissive, and he signed his first propaganda sheet.

All those POWs who testified against him also signed propaganda sheets by their own admission; one even told the North Vietnamese at one point that he would join their side. Garwood continued to be alone for the next three months, except for one other POW with whom he developed a close, almost father-son, relationship. Garwood watched that man die and remorsefully buried him. The officer who befriended Private Garwood in those early months gave him a command (of course, he did not live to verify the story, so we only have Garwood's report as to what he was told): "Your duty as a Marine is to survive. To help you survive, you must learn to speak Vietnamese." So, as the officer was dying of injuries and illness, he taught him ten words of Vietnamese a day until Garwood was able to get by.

Almost four years passed, and eventually Garwood learned to speak the language fluently. When he finally came in contact with other American POWs, he said he felt that by serving as an interpreter for them--none of them spoke the language well--he could make their existence easier for them; he could help them. But they did not trust him; he spoke the enemy's tongue and was dressed in their attire (they had stripped him of what remained of his uniform four years earlier).

Even when he stole from his captors, endangering himself, and brought the other POWs chickens or medicine, they would not allow him access to their group. They labeled him a nonperson, an outcast.

Much of this, of course, is based on Garwood's own words. However, the tone and content of what he reported is consistent with the experience of other POWs. Finally, those psychiatrists who examined him indicated they believed he was reporting events truthfully as perceived by him. Moreover, he was consistent each time he related what had occurred.

When Garwood's court-martial ended, he was found guilty on two charges: collaboration and physically abusing another POW. What did he actually do according to the account given? The collaboration charge included that he had interpreted for the captors. There was never any testimony, however, that he had any authority on his own or that he gave any "orders"; he merely translated what the North Vietnamese told him to tell the other POWs.

As for the physical abuse charge, he backhanded another POW in anger. Why? One night very late, four hungry POWs decided to steal the camp commander's pet cat. They killed it, skinned it, and were boiling it in a pot when they were discovered by one of the guards. The guards rushed in and demanded to know who had killed the cat. One man stepped forward and claimed that he had done it. The man who courageously took all the blame was rushed off and severely beaten. When Garwood found out what had happened, he rushed into the hut in anger, shoved one of the men down, demanding, "Why are you letting one man take all the blame?" That, according to testimony, was in essence the physical assault of another POW for which Garwood was found guilty. On the orders of the Vietnamese captors, the beaten man was repeatedly verbally harangued by the very POWs who had taken part in the cat incident, and he died a short time thereafter.

There is no doubt that Garwood interpreted for the enemy, but was that collaboration? Nor is there any doubt that he pushed another POW down in anger, but was it intentional physical assault? Or is it mere labeling?

When the hostages came back from Iran, the country needed heroes, and they were made heroes. The entire country joined in, just as they had done for the POW heroes who returned in 1973. When Private Garwood came back in 1979, alone, apparently an example was needed. If the Marine Corps let him go unpunished, the reasoning went, how could they maintain discipline during wartime? The fact is that the official policy in 1973 was that no returned POW held in Southeast Asia would have charges preferred against him by the government for his behavior while a captive. However, individual POWs could prefer charges against other POWs, if they chose to do so. Two senior POWs in fact did so in 1973, but the charges against the eleven men they accused of collaboration (two were officers) were immediately dropped after one man committed suicide rather than face the charges and more years in prison.

It is noteworthy, I believe, that the charges against Garwood were not initiated by any of the former POWs held with him in Vietnam. Although they did not necessarily condone some of Garwood's actions, many of them were quite vocal in expressing their opinions that to try Garwood was unequal justice, since almost every man held in Southeast Asia found that he was made to do something that could have been labeled as collaboration. The eleven men previously accused in 1973 had all had the charges against them dropped. I firmly believe that Garwood would never have faced court-martial had he been allowed by North Vietnam to return with the other men in 1973.

According to his own words--a story which is difficult to discount--Robert Garwood was "ordered" to learn the Vietnamese language to survive. When he finally returned 14 years later, this ability became a liability instead of an asset. He survived to be court-martialed. He is a survivor and yet a victim, much like the treatment accorded many rape victims. The celebrated kidnap victim/"collaborator" Patricia Hearst was also a survivor as well as a victim.

IN closing, the question is again posed: When one is subjected to extreme stress, does one really have free will, or should coercive persuasion relieve one from the responsibility for acting in a manner that ordinarily would be considered criminal behavior? Clearly, an individual can control some of his reactions and actions. It is equally clear that there is a limit to the degree of control which one can exercise. Where do we draw the line--or can a hard line be drawn at all? Under circumstances such as those experienced by Robert Garwood, can an individual separate right from wrong? Our research as well as the testimony of the POWs who took the stand against Garwood show that there is absolutely no way to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Military Code of Conduct in a situation like that which they experienced. In fact, shortly after the return of our prisoners of war in 1973 a change was made in reaching the code. It is now instructed that military persons . . . "will give name, rank, serial number, and birthdate" . . . and then ... "resist to the best of one's ability." Perhaps Garwood really did resist to the best of his ability.

There continue to be reports that some of our men are still to this day, 18 years later, being held POW in Southeast Asia. As of August 1982, there had been 426 live sighting reports since our 566 men were released in 1973.'I'hese reports would bear investigation, except that there is as yet no way to investigate the matter thoroughly (although a group of mercenaries sent into Laos recently tried and failed). One recent report from a Vietnam refugee was that a number of our pilots are still being held in Laos to teach their pilots how to fly the planes we left behind. Still another report states that a Scandinavian construction crew in North Vietnam recently saw a road gang made up of American prisoners. The crew members were told to leave the area immediately, and as they left, one prisoner was reported to have shouted, "Tell the world about us!"

If and when these men finally come home, if they ever do, are we going to court-martial them for aiding the enemy? I feel very strongly that tire Robert Garwood case was not quite as black and white as many would have us believe, and the issue of coercive persuasion as a defense to criminal liability is not yet resolved. Also, the decision of the Marine Corps courts-martial board is still being reviewed, so the final outcome of Garwood's trial is enigmatic.

One point is, at least in my mind, very clear: The issues raised by the Garwood case are real and compelling ones that have wide applicability. In a world where armed violence plays an uncomfortably large role and terrorist kidnappings and detentions have become a routine fact of life, we ignore them at our peril.

United States International University
San Diego, California


1. The San Diego Center for Prisoner of War Studies, a joint Army, Navy, Marine Corps activity, was disestablished in September 1978. The medical follow-up of former Navy POWs has continued for a second five-year period, however, with annual medical follow-ups being done at the Navy Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI), Pensacola, Florida. Follow-up studies of the hostages held by Iran are also being undertaken at NAMI.

2. The Stockholm syndrome first received widespread public attention through media coverage of a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1974. When the robbery attempt miscarried, the robber retreated with hostages to the bank vault where he barracaded himself and attempted to barter the hostages' lives for a series of demands. To the astonishment of the authorities, police spike microphones tapped into the vault revealed considerable affection for the robber by at least one hostage. The captives subsequently went to the defense of the very person who had threatened their lives; they also exchanged letters with him and visited him in jail. This process of transference had been mentioned much earlier in the research literature on brainwashing, prior to the Stockholm incident.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 89th annual American Psychological Association Convention in Los Angeles, California, on 24 August 1981.


Edna J. Hunter (B.A., University of California at Berkeley; M.S., San Diego State University Ph.D., United States International University at San Diego) is Director, Family Research Center and Chairman, Marriage and Family Therapy programs at United States International University, San Diego, California. She has served as research psychologists, Acting Director of the Center for Prisoner of War Studies, and Head of Family Studies, Naval Health Research Center, San Diego. Dr. Hunter is author of Family Separation and Reunion, Families in the Military System, Military Families: Adaptation to Change, Children of Military Families, and One Flag, One Country and Thirteen Greenbacks a Month.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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