Name, Rank, and Serial Number

· long story short

Article 17 of the Third Convention says, in part, that
“No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”
I think that many people, seeing this or getting the gist of it, think “How are we supposed to effectively interrogate within such kid-glove limitations?” Subliminally, we have been encouraged to think of this on the model of law enforcement: interrogating suspects and trying to protect public safety. Our conceptions here are always asymmetric in this way. We don’t identify ourselves, or Americans in general, with being on the receiving end of such interrogation.
“How are we supposed to interrogate?” We are not supposed to. This kid-gloves treatment is meant to ensure that we don’t.
Because of my age, I remember the formula: “Tell them only Name, Rank, and Serial Number.” We grew up identifying with the gutsy subject of an interrogation that was conducted by the Germans or the Japanese.
The clincher consideration that keeps getting raised is “Getting this information can save American lives.” POWs routinely possess information about the strength, location, and plans of their units, etc. that could save lives in their captors’ army.
Then the double-clincher is: “Getting this information could save civilian American lives.” Well, B-29 pilots over Germany routinely had that kind of information too.
We have to learn to see ourselves as just one among the nations. One formulation of the Golden Rule is “Don’t treat yourself as an exception.”