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So What Would We Have Done?
By Dale Brown
2 April 2001

The recent mid-air collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries II spy plane and a Communist Chinese fighter, the EP-3's emergency landing at a Chinese military base, and the way the American plane's crew is being treated by the Chinese prompts the obvious question: what would the U.S. do if the situation was reversed? What if a super-secret Chinese plane unexpectedly landed on Okinawa, or Guam, or Hawaii? Although Western nations treat captured peacetime military men differently than Eastern nations do, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that the U.S. would be doing much the same as the Chinese military is doing:

The first concern would be safety. What if the plane's mission was sabotage or terrorism and was rigged with a nuclear device? The plane should immediately be searched from top to bottom looking for explosives, chemical or biological weapons, or other immediate hazards. Yes, this might look like an aggressive move, but it's a necessary one. The crew should also be taken into custody, separated, and secured so they couldn't trigger a device or try to hurt anyone else. The second concern is safety and security of the crew. What if the flight crew wanted to defect? Each crewmember should be individually searched, photographed, examined, questioned, and given the opportunity to ask for asylum. An intelligence-trained doctor is the perfect person to bring in here, because military men often trust and confide in physicians and nurses in times of stress or crisis.

[IMAGE] If no one on the crew appears to want to defect—this assessment may take several days—then it would be a good idea to reunite a few of them. Naturally, the room should be bugged. Two or more crewmen will eventually start talking, and the information might be useful. Give them plenty of food and water, and they will talk even more as they relax. Never put the older men in with the younger ones, because the older military men will quickly educate the younger troops in how to behave when in enemy custody. Always put men of equal rank together—it is more difficult to rebuild a chain of command and re-establish discipline than if an obviously higher-ranking officer is present.

The plane should get a thorough examination by trained intelligence officers and engineers, even if it means dismantling it. Yes, the plane is some other nation's property, but possession is always nine-tenths of the law. I would expect the classified information to be erased and the secret boxes smashed long before the plane landed, but there are ways to extract information out of even the most thoroughly smashed boxes—and of course you hope that the crew in their panic, excitement, or injury didn't have time or forgot to destroy some key piece of equipment or memory bank. Every book, manual, scrap of paper, or piece of equipment on board the plane has intelligence value. Even the tiniest bit of information is considered a piece of a gigantic puzzle—and you never know if the tiny piece you're holding is the key piece that makes the whole puzzle come together. It may even be the key piece of a puzzle someone else has been working on, or one started years ago, or one that has yet to be started.

The EP-3 spy plane in Chinese hands now is several generations more sophisticated than anything in that country, so we can expect that our plane will be taken apart piece by piece and studied with great interest. It is indeed an intelligence bonanza for the Chinese.

Of course, the diplomats will be clamoring to get involved. In China, the military's influence in matters of state is considerably higher than in the West, so the fate of our EP-3 and its crew may not be resolved for quite some time. In the West, the diplomats can exert far more influence on the military, so the push would be on quickly for a peaceful resolution. In the East, the military can demand as much time as they require collecting information before succumbing to diplomatic pressure.

Rarely will any Western nation even suggest criminal prosecution for a captured crew; the crew would be quickly repatriated with only cursory interrogations. The propaganda value of a captured crew is much lower in the West than in countries like China, so there would be little value in the West to use a captured crewman for propaganda purposes, even if the crewman wanted to defect. But in the East, state-controlled media would use every opportunity to show their public the "evil, belligerent, imperialistic" enemy's face. A trial and successful "prosecution" should be expected.

But eventually, diplomatic pressure would steadily increase, and the bargaining value of the captured crewmen would greatly increase as well. In the West, we would simply hand over the crewmen to the nearest embassy. In the East, the captured EP-3 crewmembers would likely be made pawns in many different espionage and diplomatic chess matches. The combination of the West's desire to get their people back, and the East's desire to get the upper hand in some unrelated concession or deal, gives them an advantage. They have something we want; we have something they want.

How will the captured men be treated? What about physical abuse or even torture? Here is where the differences in cultures between East and West really show:

Even though we live in what might be considered a violent culture, few Western governments or military services would resort to torture or drugs to interrogate a captured soldier in peacetime. Although we would certainly interrogate the captured crew and may even employ tricks or psychological techniques to try to entice a crewman to talk—and once they talk, even a little bit, it's more likely they will talk more afterwards—torture except in the case of extreme emergency or time-critical need is not usually condoned. We might try some sleep deprivation, body-clock disruptions, good guy-bad guy, or even Red Cross deceptions, but more intensive tricks are saved for real wartime situations where the fate of friendly soldiers is at risk.

Eastern cultures do not have such attitudes. A captured military man is a threat, a source of information, a propaganda tool--and if he is none of these things, then he is a worthless burden that must be eliminated. A captured soldier is not worthy of any sort of respect. He is considered a killer, like a wild animal, and if he cannot work or supply information, he must be destroyed before he can break loose and kill again. Even in peacetime, treatment of captured military men has always been poor in Eastern countries.

Spies, even unarmed aircrewmen sitting behind consoles many miles from enemy shores, are considered the lowest form of human military scum by Eastern cultures. Spies have always been considered a deadly threat to even the strongest Eastern regimes, and therefore the fate of a captured spy is always bleak. Even in peacetime or in this age of global communications and interchange, or despite how much a nation even with the size and strength of the United States can bribe or threaten a nation, a captured spy in the East has almost no chance of returning home unscathed. Although such an "electronic" spy probably wouldn't be summarily executed in this day and age, physical, psychological, or chemical interrogation can always be expected or assumed.

The seriousness of the EP-3 incident is a great concern to all Americans. Although we would certainly take every advantage of such a situation to collect every scrap of data possible, the difference between our races and cultures means that the value we place on every human life is far greater than the value the Chinese place on our captured American flyers.

The wounds we will suffer because of this incident will go much deeper than the simple loss of a spy plane.

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