Captain Moroni and the Interrogation of Prisoners

For the past couple of years we’ve heard dozens of government and military officials reminding us that we need to be “aggressive” in the interrogation of prisoners. We’ve had our top leaders insisting that captured prisoners in the war against terror cannot be expected to have the same rights as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, all in the name of the good cause of getting out information to save the country from terror. While we’ve been shocked and shamed to see what these aggressive techniques can lead to, and we have created many more enemies with the heavy-handed approach, in the end, we’ve been told, it’s all been essential in the name of getting every bit of info we can out of the captured prisoners.

Those who love the Book of Mormon may wince and wonder. We have Captain Moroni held up as an example of a great man whom we should emulate, a man who despised bloodshed yet was one of the most effective military generals ever. One thing that both friends and foes learned Moroni was that he was clever but NICE. He treated captured enemies well. Many times he would release prisoners if they would make a serious oath to not fight against the Nephites again. He abhorred unnecessary killing and looked for clever ways to win without bloodshed. And we can be sure that when he interrogated prisoners, they weren’t being tortured.

But how naive to think that such methods could possible work. Could “nice” interrogation ever get anything valuable out of prisoners, any vital information at all?

Actually, the state-of-the-art information in interrogation techniques for several decades has pointed out that “nice” approach is far more effective that torture. It’s hardly a secret. And the tough approach that the US seems to taking has had the results one would expect in light of the best information on interrogation: almost NOTHING of value has been extracted by our interrogators. Abu Ghraib was a disaster not just for the harm to our public image and the harm done to the victims and the degradation of American soldiers who stooped to such levels, but it was also a military disaster in terms of failing to extract useful information.

Please read “Truth Extraction” by Stephen Budiansky in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly (June 2005). Here is a brief excerpt:

Six months before the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison broke into public view, a small and fairly obscure private association of United States Marine Corps members posted on its Web site a document on how to get enemy POWs to talk.

The document described a situation very similar to the one the United States faces in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan: a fanatical and implacable enemy, intense pressure to achieve quick results, a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seem to apply.

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, the report’s author, noted that despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. More than a half century later his report remains something of a cult classic for military interrogators. The Marine Corps Interrogator Translator Teams Association (MCITTA), a group of active-duty and retired Marine intelligence personnel, calls Moran’s report one of the “timeless documents” in the field and says it has long been “a standard read” for insiders. (A book about the Luftwaffe interrogator Hans Joachim Scharff, whose charm, easygoing manner, and perfect English beguiled many a captured Allied airman into revealing critical information, is another frequently cited classic in the field.) An MCITTA member says the group decided to post Moran’s report online in July of 2003, because “many others wanted to read it” and because the original document, in the Marine Corps archives, was in such poor shape that the photocopies in circulation were difficult to decipher. He denies that current events had anything to do with either the decision to post the document or the increased interest in it.

But it is hard to imagine a historical lesson that would constitute a more direct reproach to recent U.S. policies on prisoner interrogation. And there is no doubt that Moran’s report owes more than a little of its recent celebrity to the widespread disdain among experienced military interrogators for what took place at Abu Ghraib and Guant√°namo when ill-trained personnel were ordered to “soften up” prisoners. Since the prison scandals broke, many old hands in the business have pointed out that abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.

A key point is that torture makes it obvious that the soldier being interrogated is in enemy hands, and strengthens the resolve to be silent. When a man finally talks under torture, the information will often be deliberately incorrect. On the other hand, when prisoners are treated nicely, when there is someone interested in how they are doing and just talking, the prisoners may be willing to tell stories and share incidental information that can be pieced together with other information to provide useful insights. Moran and others obtained far more information from their prisoners that those who took more “aggressive” approaches.

And I bet that Captain Moroni’s “nice” treatment resulted in much more useful information as well. If he were in charge of this war, I think we’d be in a much stronger position, with Muslims all over the world questioning the anti-US propaganda, and . . . . Actually, if he were in charge, it’s hard to imagine just how different things might be. We might have both Osama bib Laden AND Howard Stern locked up in the same prison cell for all I know. Yes, Captain Moroni was nice, but he wasn’t naive and he could take strong measures when essential.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on “Captain Moroni and the Interrogation of Prisoners

  1. What I’m always amazed at is the honor the ‘bad’ side had in BoM times. Swear by an oath that you won’t fight?
    You are ok to go. I can’t fathom that honor in modern times.

    Also Capt M would NOT be in Iraq today – he’d either be protecting the borders or kicking some hinie in DC.

  2. I’d rather have Ammon in charge of the war. He was cool enough to compare Moroni too, but moreover, he was a guy who didn’t want to destroy the lamanites out of the land (those horrible human rights abuser lamanites) when the sentiment of the rest of his countrymen was to blast them all to kingdom come. Ammon wouldn’t be in Iraq either unless it was to preach the gospel to a hostile people.

  3. Point well taken. One question I have is this: How does a faithful member account for Moroni’s willingness to kill citizens who would not fight for the government. While I’m certainly no pacifist, these actions don’t strike the best cord with me. I am huge fan of Moroni. This one episode, however, has given me pause.

  4. Treason has long been recognized as one of the highest crimes worthy of the death penalty. Captain Moroni was dealing with something more dangerous than external enemy soldiers, he was dealing with treason among his own people during a time of extreme danger and utmost urgency when the Nephites faced imminent destruction from external attack. There was no time for lengthy procedures. Enemy armies were approaching and instead of helping to defend their land, the treasonous kingmen were rejoicing over the threat and refusing to help when their country needed them. Those who had already shown themselves to be traitors had to be dealt with. Those who raised weapons against Moroni – an act of overt treason, as bad or worse than thugs today shooting at the police – were dealth with according to established Nephite law.

    Here is the relevant text from Alma 51:

    5 And it came to pass that those who were desirous that Pahoran should be dethroned from the judgment-seat were called king-men, for they were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land. . . .

    8 Now those who were in favor of kings were those of high birth, and they sought to be kings; and they were supported by those who sought power and authority over the people.

    9 But behold, this was a critical time for such contentions to be among the people of Nephi; for behold, Amalickiah had again stirred up the hearts of the people of the Lamanites against the people of the Nephites, and he was gathering together soldiers from all parts of his land, and arming them, and preparing for war with all diligence; for he had sworn to drink the blood of Moroni.

    10 But behold, we shall see that his promise which he made was rash; nevertheless, he did prepare himself and his armies to come to battle against the Nephites.

    11 Now his armies were not so great as they had hitherto been, because of the many thousands who had been slain by the hand of the Nephites; but notwithstanding their great loss, Amalickiah had gathered together a wonderfully great army, insomuch that he feared not to come down to the land of Zarahemla.

    12 Yea, even Amalickiah did himself come down, at the head of the Lamanites. And it was in the twenty and fifth year of the reign of the judges; and it was at the same time that they had begun to settle the affairs of their contentions concerning the chief judge, Pahoran.

    13 And it came to pass that when the men who were called king-men had heard that the Lamanites were coming down to battle against them, they were glad in their hearts; and they refused to take up arms, for they were so wroth with the chief judge, and also with the people of liberty, that they would not take up arms to defend their country.

    14 And it came to pass that when Moroni saw this, and also saw that the Lamanites were coming into the borders of the land, he was exceedingly wroth because of the stubbornness of those people whom he had labored with so much diligence to preserve; yea, he was exceedingly wroth; his soul was filled with anger against them.

    15 And it came to pass that he sent a petition, with the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him (Moroni) power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.

    16 For it was his first care to put an end to such contentions and dissensions among the people; for behold, this had been hitherto a cause of all their destruction. And it came to pass that it was granted according to the voice of the people.

    17 And it came to pass that Moroni commanded that his army should go against those king-men, to pull down their pride and their nobility and level them with the earth, or they should take up arms and support the cause of liberty.

    18 And it came to pass that the armies did march forth against them; and they did pull down their pride and their nobility, insomuch that as they did lift their weapons of war to fight against the men of Moroni they were hewn down and leveled to the earth.

    19 And it came to pass that there were four thousand of those dissenters who were hewn down by the sword; and those of their leaders who were not slain in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was no time for their trials at this period.

    20 And the remainder of those dissenters, rather than be smitten down to the earth by the sword, yielded to the standard of liberty, and were compelled to hoist the title of liberty upon their towers, and in their cities, and to take up arms in defence of their country.

    Later, in Alma 60, Moroni’s letter reminds us of how much harm the kingmen caused by taking up arms against their nation instead of for it:

    16 Yea, had it not been for the war which broke out among ourselves; yea, were it not for these king-men, who caused so much bloodshed among ourselves; yea, at the time we were contending among ourselves, if we had united our strength as we hitherto have done; yea, had it not been for the desire of power and authority which those king-men had over us; had they been true to the cause of our freedom, and united with us, and gone forth against our enemies, instead of taking up their swords against us, which was the cause of so much bloodshed among ourselves; yea, if we had gone forth against them in the strength of the Lord, we should have dispersed our enemies, for it would have been done, according to the fulfilling of his word.

    17 But behold, now the Lamanites are coming upon us, taking possession of our lands, and they are murdering our people with the sword, yea, our women and our children, and also carrying them away captive, causing them that they should suffer all manner of afflictions, and this because of the great wickedness of those who are seeking for power and authority, yea, even those king-men.

    As the war wears on, the kingmen take advantage of the strain on the Nephite nation and start what is essentially a civil war, with armies actively fighting among the Nephites to seize power (and presumably they have released from prison the leaders of the kingmen that Moroni defeated in ). The Nephite nation is in great peril. Pahoran explains this in a letter to Moroni in Alma 61:

    6 And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs.

    7 And they have come unto us, insomuch that those who have risen up in rebellion against us are set at defiance, yea, insomuch that they do fear us and durst not come out against us to battle.

    8 They have got possession of the land, or the city, of Zarahemla; they have appointed a king over them, and he hath written unto the king of the Lamanites, in the which he hath joined an alliance with him; in the which alliance he hath agreed to maintain the city of Zarahemla, which maintenance he supposeth will enable the Lamanites to conquer the remainder of the land, and he shall be placed king over this people when they shall be conquered under the Lamanites.

    These kingmen aren’t just questioning the wisdom of the war, they are openly acting to overthrow the government, to destroy the liberty of the people, and to assist an enemy that seeks to destroy the Nephites. They have raised armies to fight against the Nephites. This is an extreme case of treason that, according to the law of the Nephites and probably any nation in the history of the earth, demands the death penalty.

    Alma 62 provides Moroni’s response:

    3 And it came to pass that Moroni took a small number of men, according to the desire of Pahoran, and gave Lehi and Teancum command over the remainder of his army, and took his march towards the land of Gideon.

    4 And he did raise the standard of liberty in whatsoever place he did enter, and gained whatsoever force he could in all his march towards the land of Gideon.

    5 And it came to pass that thousands did flock unto his standard, and did take up their swords in the defence of their freedom, that they might not come into bondage.

    6 And thus, when Moroni had gathered together whatsoever men he could in all his march, he came to the land of Gideon; and uniting his forces with those of Pahoran they became exceedingly strong, even stronger than the men of Pachus, who was the king of those dissenters who had driven the freemen out of the land of Zarahemla and had taken possession of the land.

    7 And it came to pass that Moroni and Pahoran went down with their armies into the land of Zarahemla, and went forth against the city, and did meet the men of Pachus, insomuch that they did come to battle.

    8 And behold, Pachus was slain and his men were taken prisoners, and Pahoran was restored to his judgment-seat.

    9 And the men of Pachus received their trial, according to the law, and also those king-men who had been taken and cast into prison; and they were executed according to the law; yea, those men of Pachus and those king-men, whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death.

    10 And thus it became expedient that this law should be strictly observed for the safety of their country; yea, and whosoever was found denying their freedom was speedily executed according to the law.

    11 And thus ended the thirtieth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; Moroni and Pahoran having restored peace to the land of Zarahemla, among their own people, having inflicted death upon all those who were not true to the cause of freedom.

    The author of the text emphasizes that even in such a critical time, with such obvious, visible, and despicable treason from the kingmen, they were still treated according to established Nephite law. They were given a trial according to the law, and were justly executed according to the law. Many of these people may have been imprisoned before, but had continued in open rebellion that threatened to destroy the liberty and lives of the Nephites.

    What else should Moroni have done? He hated bloodshed, but bloodshed (according to just and fair law) is the only solution sometimes when evil people are trying to kill you or destroy your nation.

  5. Have you performed interrogations? If not everything you are saying is at best speculation on your part. Have you lived in Iraq and seen how the Arabs in fear of being turned over to the Kurds becuase of the abuse they recieve will gladly give you information. Have you performed an interrogation where you are laughed at becuase your being nice is a sign of being weak. Have you dealt with a people who only understand violence? I really enjoy hearing people speak concerning war who have never tasted even a small part of it.

  6. Do not presume to know anything about Captain Moroni. First, know that a good leader must first be a good follower. If Captain Moroni were in fact alive today, it would be in preparation for something you cannot even imagine. A war so bad that you couldn’t even picture the destruction. He would be learning about leadership right now. Studying it in order to become a better leader for this war. Second, if he were alive today, he would have help. He would be a follower of Gods commandments, not just from what man tells him to do or how to be. Third, know this well. If he were alive today, he would still be just a man who would be capable of making mistakes and know the pain of repentance. He would be studying his previous history and the current tactics of modern warfare. Would be treat his prisoners with kindness? I don’t know. It’s a new war. A new time. Things are different. Yes, the Lamanites acted just as the terrorists do today, but you never know. History never repeats itself. Yea right! I’ll have to wait until he has his prisoners in question. The best place to go to find out about a subject is the source. Ask and ye shall receive.

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