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The Hanoi Hilton: Brilliant Propaganda

When the United States was at war with Vietnam, it became official policy of the North Vietnamese government that if an American pilot was shot down but still alive, he was to be brought to a certain prison (actually built by the French in the 1800's) in the center of Hanoi.

Hoa Lo Prison.

These American pilots were to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity, and given the best treatment a POW could hope to receive.

That is how it is told in Vietnam today.

It is also told that the pilots were treated so well that they began to call the prison the Hanoi Hilton, because while still very uncomfortable and of course imprisoned, it felt like the hotel version of being a POW, hence the name, the Hanoi Hilton.

Images and videos of the pilots were broadcast around the world by the North Vietnamese Government. The pilots were shown to be receiving excellent medical care, receiving letters from family, that they were allowed to pray, they were allowed to decorate the prison to celebrate holidays, and they were shown spending time with guards treating them well.

Jane Fonda came to the prison and questioned the American prisoners, somewhat mockingly asking them if they felt guilty about what they had done by bombing the innocent people of Vietnam.

Whatever side of the war you were on, Jane Fonda's trip was distasteful and profoundly disrespectful of Americans serving in Vietnam.

Needless to say, Jane Fonda's popularity dropped off a cliff afterward.

Maybe the North Vietnamese government really did want to take care of these pilots and really want them to be "reformed" in their way of thinking.

It's difficult to say what all the motives might have been, and also difficult to say everything that was actually going on in Hoa Lo Prison.

However, what I think allowed Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese to hold off the US so long in the jungles of Cu Chi and the city of Hue: People were committed to Ho Chi Minh and the cause of the "reunification" of Vietnam because they believed it was just and right.

And there was evidence to back it up - prisoners who were bombing the country being forgiven and treated well was excellent evidence.

Even if reunification wasn't an actual cause, people believed in it with undying certainty.

Even if the prisoners weren't being treated as well as they were shown to have been treated, people believed in it with undying certainty.

The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were committed because they saw Ho Chi Minh as someone who would do what was right (whether or not that was true). They saw him as Uncle Ho, a wise and kind (but ruthless when necessary) uncle who was leading them to a better and brighter future for their country.

Ho Chi Minh and his government were also brilliant when it came to propaganda. There are examples of this all over Vietnam, even today.

The Hanoi Hilton was among their biggest and smartest pieces of propaganda.

Treating the pilots well gained the government the undying support of many of the Vietnamese people who weren't sure how to feel about what was going on. The Hanoi Hilton and the kindness shown to the pilots also gained the support of many people around the world for the North Vietnamese government.

Additionally, over time, people who are being treated well may come to let down their own mental guard a bit. This happens because humans tend to adapt to the conditions of where we are. If the conditions are soft, over time humans become soft. If the conditions are hard, over time humans become hard.

(Side note: If you push someone beyond the level of being hard, you cause them to break. The worst thing you can do to another human is to cause them to break. Mold, steer, direct, encourage, cajole if necessary, but breaking someone always leaves a mess behind it, a mess which almost always comes back to bite you.)

In the case of the Hanoi Hilton, I don't think the pilots actually had any information or "secrets" that the North Vietnamese would have wanted.

But if the American pilots had had information to share, this information might have come out, by accident, in the course of a card game or while smoking a cigarette together.

I think the North Vietnamese knew this.

I think they also knew well in advance that this method of propaganda (treating prisoners well and showing the world how well you were treating them) actually would sway many people around the world to support the cause of the North Vietnamese.

Even though people knew it was propaganda, it was their friends and family members who were being treated well. This swayed public opinion.

Compare that with some recent stories about how America got information from political prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Could Ho Chi Minh's propaganda machine have been used effectively by America?

Would showing the world that America treated prisoners well (even prisoners who intended to create events like 9-11) have been an effective policy, rather than keeping the world out of Guantanamo?

Would it maybe have swayed some borderline suicide bombers to not go through with their efforts if they had seen prisoners being given understanding and appreciation, rather than seeing images of hooded piled naked bodies in Abu Gharib? Instead, those images became the justification for many to take their own life (and the lives of everyone within distance) with the explosives they strapped to their body.

Would it have been good to be a bit culturally sensitive to the dietary needs and religious requests of those held in prison, and show the world how understanding you actually were?

I think so.

In short, the short-term gains of torture are not worth the long-term losses, when information can be more humanely (and ultimately more easily) obtained through relationship building (which admittedly takes time).

Am I suggesting that I like the people being held in these prisons, or what they've done, or the way they think?

No. I'm not suggesting that. I don't even know them, or if they're being unjustly held.

At the moment, I make no judgment about them in any direction other than as human beings.

But it has nothing to do with liking. You don't treat prisoners well because you like them.

You treat political prisoners well, show the world you're doing it, and avoid torture at all costs, because it's the smartest thing you can do.

Even if you don't care about being humane, then just consider the logic.

You torture political prisoners to gain information. Torture at it's most basic level is about information warfare.

In the end, extreme kindness, when broadcast around the world, is a much more powerful method of information warfare than any information you might be able to get from any source or method of torture.

When the potential losses from evidence of torture inevitably stack the deck against you long-term, and when the evidence is so easily sent around the world in fractions of seconds with images and video, it makes much more sense for governments to adopt policies of extreme kindness to political prisoners.

In the long run, political prisoners are more likely to share the information they have with people they consider their friends, rather than with those who have abused them.

In essence, if your goal is to gain influence with the world, as well as have the ability to truly protect people with the information you control, then public forgiveness is significantly more powerful than private flogging.

And yes, from a simple humane perspective, by not torturing you ensure that no torturer or torturee is left with the physical or mental scars which come with their now destroyed understanding of humanity.

To any world government - here is the path to information power after a political prisoner becomes your captive: Forgive. Show the world you forgive. Through forgiveness and kindness, help the prisoner forget they are in prison. They will let their guard down over time. And eventually they will tell you everything because they truly do know, like, and respect you.

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