Judge: Ideals clash with survival in war
CHAMPAIGN – As an Army interrogator in the Vietnam War, Mike Jones was well-versed in the Geneva Convention. But he's not so sure his superiors really cared whether he followed it.
"The Army wanted information. They didn't want to know how I was getting it," Jones told an intimate group at the University of Illinois Law School on Friday morning.
Jones, now a Champaign County circuit court judge, was one of several speakers on human rights topics at a conference co-sponsored by the Illinois State Bar Association, the College of Law, the College of Communications, and the Department of Political Science.
A native of Alton, Jones, 58, said he was nervous talking about his work as a prisoner-of-war interrogator. He's shared stories privately with friends, but never in a public forum.
Jones said he was in his first semester of law school at the UI in 1969 when he returned to his apartment to find his draft notice.
"My lottery number was 3, so I was pretty sure it was coming," he said. Young men were assigned numbers from 1 to 365 based on their birth dates; lower numbers were picked for the draft.
A battery of tests he took at Fort Leonard Wood in southern Missouri showed he had an aptitude for languages.
"The next thing I know I'm in a room with a colonel who asks if I'm interested in the Defense Language Institute. It sounded great. I'm a student. I asked what would I be studying. He said, 'Vietnamese.' I thought, 'That cuts down my chances of going to Germany,'" Jones said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Despite writing NO on the form for the Language Institute, Jones found himself at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, taking Vietnamese language classes for eight hours a day, five days a week for 30 weeks. At the conclusion of that training, he was sent to Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas, for seven weeks of training in how to be a prisoner-of-war interrogator.
"The first four weeks was devoted to the study of the Geneva Convention. We studied it line by line, sentence by sentence," he said.
The remainder of the training was in psychological techniques, "consistent with the Geneva Convention," on how to get information.
At the end of that course in December 1970, he landed in the Republic of Vietnam, where he would remain for eight months.
"Almost immediately I was taken aside by a sergeant, a grizzled veteran, who said in his Southern accent, 'All that stuff you learned in school – forget it. We have the buddy system of inducing persons to speak,'" Jones recounted.
"You take somebody you don't care about and do something to him in front of the guy you need information from. I'll just say it works," Jones said, declining to offer examples.
A few times during his talk, Jones made the point that he couldn't opt out of his job and that part of what influenced the way he did it was his "bitterness about being there."
He was in Cambodia "cowering behind sandbags" under fire when his surfer buddy Scotty from California stuck his head up to see where the enemy fire was coming from. He was shot in the throat.
"He died in my arms staring up at me," Jones said.
Later that same night, he and a few others were tuned in to Armed Forces radio around a campfire and heard a live broadcast from Washington.
"Richard Nixon was assuring the American public there were no American soldiers in Cambodia. I completely lost it. I put a clip in my M-16 and blew the offending radio to bits while everyone else dived for cover," he said. "I know that for the rest of my life I'll never be that mad again."
He told of interrogating a prisoner when a military policeman entered the room with his sidearm weapon unsnapped in his holster, a definite violation of protocol. The prisoner grabbed the gun, pointed it at Jones and pulled the trigger. No round was chambered.
"I'll go through the rest of my life without ever being that frightened," he said.
Jones conceded he was angry about being in Vietnam and not in law school.
"I did see how easily the normal inhibitions we all have as moral human beings can melt. What you're willing to do and capable of doing is directly in proportion to what your motivation is," he said.
It was pretty easy to follow the Geneva Convention when trying to get information out of someone on where a rice cache was, he said, but not as easy when trying to learn the location of 200 American soldiers being held by the enemy.
"The instinct for survival can induce you to do things that amaze you," he said. "Where I was and what I did, it was not easy to figure out what was right or wrong. It's impossible to do these things without lines being blurred."