At the conclusion of The Korean War, an armistice was signed and American POWs were released to return home to their families in America. 23 refused. They had become turncoats. This caused an identity crisis as the Western world questioned their own deepest beliefs. Movies, songs, and novels were written about the fear of Communists "brainwashing" the children. Hsi Nao the Chinese called it. Over 50 years later and released was a new understanding of how to transform a patriot into a turncoat. It's easier than cooking chop suey.
The former prisoner of war stood before the psychologist. His body was strong but seemed held tentatively by a thin wire. The room was bare with grey walls and a single metal table in the center. There was a large two-way mirror to the right of the door. As the ex-prisoner approached the table, six scientists wearing the coats of their profession, watched from behind the mirror. They each scribbled the same note: “precise movements. A career military man.” It had been five years since the Korean War had ended and the former prisoners who were released from Chinese controlled prison camps had re-entered society. Doctor Calhoon sat on the other side of the table. This would be the fifteenth ex-POW he would examine in so many days.
The western world had been stunned to discover that twenty-three American soldiers had refused to return home. These men had began their careers as ardent patriots and ended it by denouncing America.
Hsi Nao the Chinese called it, “washing the brain.” As much as the term grew to terrify Americans, it brought money into the coffers of those who would study the phenomenon. If the Chinese Communists could brainwash the most ardent of patriots into betraying his homeland, what would stop them from accomplishing the same with the rest of America?
“I understand you’ve been hounded with hundreds of questions since your release.”
“Try thousands! Tens of thousands! It never stops. Doc, I’m more than happy to help, but no one wants the truth. They all want me to say that the Chinese injected us with a potion or conducted wild experiments or some such nonsense. Or that they tortured us. But that’s just it, Doc. They weren’t like that. Oh they weren’t polite when they asked you to do a thing, but damnit, for a prisoner, we were all treated well.
The doctor leaned forward, “How do you think they did it?’
“It’s genius. But you won’t like it.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Start small and build.”
“Yup. I’ve thought it over for years. They had a definite...a set program. They began with small things and built from there.”
“How did they turn Joe? He was your cellmate right? How on. . .”
“Doc, of all of us, he should have been the hardest to turn. But he was the first! And then everyone else went like dominoes. Once we saw Joe spoutin’ their filth, well, it just didn’t seem as dirty.”
“Could you elaborate?” “Elaborate? Hell doc I could write a book.” Sgt. Freeman rubbed the back of his neck. “I’d like some water first.” Within a breath, the door opened and a man in a white coat rushed over with a glass of water.
“Well funded aren’t you?” Asked Sgt Freeman.
“The book you promised, Sgt?”
With a smile Sgt Freeman said, “I arrived to the camp five days prior to Joe. My platoon was… well that’s not important. Joe, on the other hand had been hit in the head with a rock after attacking 10 Chinese soldiers, single-handedly.
“No need going through every detail of our initiation into prison life. The strangest thing was how damn fair they were to us. You know, you go into these things with an image of a hardened guard who beats you and calls you a dog. Not there. They were strict, but as long as you followed the rules, you were all right.
“Information. The only challenges to our health were when those commies wanted information. Looking back, I realize they didn’t care too much about the info. They wanted something more basic.”
“What was that?”
As though expecting the answer, Calhoon nodded and then indicated the Sergeant to continue.
“So three weeks after Joe’s arrival they wanted information. They took him to the interrogation room—which was our name for the broom closet they threw us in whenever they wanted something. The odd thing was that the commies didn’t want info about troop movements or tactics, but on his views. After he returned to our cell, Joe just laughed at their stupidity. He told me what the interrogator had asked him:
“‘Do you believe that America is perfect?’
‘No of course it’s not perfect,’ "Joe said.
‘Our beliefs may differ, but we can both agree on that. And, to be fair, we can both agree that Communist China is imperfect.’
‘Have we been fair to you, our enemy?’
‘Yes I suppose so.’
‘Then do this for us. Simply write out what you believe to be imperfect about America.’
Sgt. Freeman tapped his finger on the metal table. “That’s when they had him. But how could we know? Joe made a simple list of things everyone in America would agree with: Wall Street. Cronyism. Unemployment. Things like that.
“The interrogator took the list, looked it over with care and said: ‘Thank you. I believe this is fair.’
“And that was that. At least for the time. Three days go by and we were summoned into a discussion group with eight other prisoners. On occasion we were forced to go to these and read some communist literature. There are worse fates in prison, of course. But in this discussion the interrogator surprised us.
“He said, ‘we are enemies, but now we are here. True?’
“Everyone just nodded dully. No one wanted to challenge the delicate balance of an unspoken treaty of no-torture.
“‘Would it then hurt to gain a better understanding of one another?’ “He asked.
“Again, we all shook our heads.”
‘That is fair. Let us discuss then. Whatever you believe our faults, one thing is undeniably true about China. We have no unemployment. Everyone contributes and everyone receives. Now we all can agree that neither China nor America is perfect. Here are a few things Private Joe has said is imperfect about America.’
“Joe was visibly shaken. But it seemed so innocent. He read his little list. It was all so… reasonable. Worse, we all agreed with his statements. He wasn’t really condemning America, just stating a few facts about unemployment and corruption. Who could disagree?”
“There must have been a master magician guiding the communists’ actions, because what occurred next was pure genius. I’ll never forget it. I walked into the ‘treen and looked up to see a big white sign plastered to the wall. It said it in dripping black ink: Political Essay Contest. Top Essay Wins 5 cigarettes. ALL viewpoints can win.
“I remember that as clear as day. The all was really stressed. They were saying that pro-American views could win. No one believed it of course. Still, they said it and it was time to put them to the test.
“Joe walked into the bathroom and shot me a glance after reading the sign. He smiled and winked, those cigs are mine brother. He was right. Yeah, sad to say, but he was right.
“We all wrote essays about America’s greatness. Yet, we all had some desire to win, so we capitulated a few small points that we’d heard in the discussion group. You know, America isn’t absolutely perfect, and obviously China has some things going for it. Saying that aloud seems ridiculous to me now. We were at war! But, it was just all so reasonable.
“About a week after we had submitted our essays it happened. Their final step.
“Out over the speaker system came the soft effeminate voice of our warden. It announced the winner—Joe. Then, to my horror, the warden read the essay aloud. And he read it so slowly and so clearly. I know Joe hadn’t even written the most pro-communist paper. Joe’s views were staunchly pro-American.
“Over the loudspeaker, we hear this Chinaman reading Joe’s essay, saying things like ‘Capitalism provides much for those who work hard. It is true that not everyone can work, but for those who can, they have many opportunities.’ He wrote about the beautiful land, our families and our freedoms. Most of all he spoke of freedom; our freedom to marry the girl we wanted and to take the job we wanted. But then. . . then he said that none of us here really chose to be here in this war. And, that sometimes a few men back in America got away with fraud and ripping off millions of Americans. But, though it wasn’t perfect it was perfect for America.
“The clincher was his ending. He said China was an ancient land he had come to respect more than he would have back home in his little town of Fort Worth, Texas. China was not America. Their ideals not ours. And—get ready!—Communism was perfect for China!
“Man-o-man! The thing was we all pretty much agreed. And hearing it from Mr. G.I. Joe himself. Most of us had written something similar, so we just sat there in silence.
“Think about it. Joe, an American patriot, a prisoner of war, a war where his country’s ideals are pitted against his enemy’s ideals is quoted as saying Oh those guys are right to be Communist. That means Communism is not evil. It’s not the plague of the earth requiring the cleansing power of America. Then what the hell were we fighting for?
“After that the Chinaman owned him body and soul. Once it was spoken aloud, Joe began to see himself as someone who sympathized with China and Korea. They were still his enemies, but he became more open to their arguments. When they began asking questions—he answered. We all did. Not a rod was unleashed against our skin when asked to do a thing. One day an American escaped and the warden came to our quarters with a small bowl of rice for anyone who spoke up.
“We did. My God, we did!
“And why not? China’s not so bad. Neither is their ideology. Who did he think he was fleeing a place where we were treated so fairly? We convinced each other that we should just shut up and get through this bloody experience in one piece.
“Boy oh boy, Joe though. He kept going down his original line of reasoning. He started chatting with the guards. Eventually he learned their language. Once they took him into town. Can you believe that? Returning, he spoke of an Asian Angel. More and more he was entering into their world. Communism works, he began to say.
‘Like hell,’ “I said.” ‘Maybe for the ants of the dirt, but not for us.’
“And he stated it with such glee.
“He was taken to town many times. I learned he met a woman and was acclimating himself to their culture. He began speaking admiringly about their discipline and hard work and respect for their elders. It reminded him of home, but better.
“I knew he was lost when he said ‘if our values aren’t that different, and communism can work in China, maybe it really can work in America.”
Sergeant Freeman rubbed his palms back and forth over his thighs. Catching himself, he stopped. “Hsi Nao they call it. Brainwashing. It took me five years of racking mine, but now I understand how it was done.”
The scientists were all rapidly taking notes. Calhoon shifted in his seat. After a long pause, he asked “And how do you think it was done?”
“It’s all there, doc. First, they got Joe to make a banal statement ‘America is not perfect.’ Who would not say that? Second, they got him to elaborate. Joe wrote a simple list of issues like unemployment, cronyism, Wall Street. Third, they got him to put it in writing. Fourth, in the discussion group, they got him to read it aloud. Once he did that he began to realize that he believed in these reasonable objections to America. Fifth, offer a small incentive to explicate the ideas in essay form. This was the genius part. I can see now that had they offered a huge award, like unlimited mailing privilege or several hours of outside free time, then we would likely have not bought into the ideas. In prison, five cigarettes is not incredible, but it’s just enough to get us to want to win. Once we did write down our ideas, we began to see that what we had written we had written. After all, we wanted the five cigs, but it was just five! Then sixth, the clincher, simply read the essay aloud.
“The public has a powerful effect on the self. Joe had written those words. He did it and no one had forced him. And no one could say he did it just for the reward, since the incentive was so little. His essay was pro-American, but he also had to own the little attacks he had made on America. From there, the guards and interrogators merely had to speak to him like any damn tourist to China. They explained their culture, which enthralled him. They talked about the beautiful women, and then he met and married one.”
Sgt Freeman had been rocking forward and backward as he tried to explain all he had concluded over the past five years. Dr. Calhoon waited for more. He indicated for Freeman to continue.
At first bewildered, then comprehending Freeman began visibly shaking. “You want to know about experiments, wild concoctions and the black magic they used?”
“Yes yes. Tell me about the experiments.” Calhoon said eagerly.
In a fury, Freeman kicked the chair back, grabbed the water and threw it at the two-way mirror—startling those behind it. And he stormed out of the room.