Francis Pollini’s Night was published by Olympia Press around fifty years ago and deals with the Korean War, but it is still relevant for all that. It concerns the Communist brain-washing techniques used by the Maoist Chinese forces on American prisoners of war during that conflict. These were based on various behaviorist ideas which were very much in the air at that time and were used extensively by the KGB, CIA , MI6, the French secret services, and other parallel or adjacent bodies.
The novel deals with a triumvirate of main characters over a two hundred page span. The first is the Italian-American GI Marty Landi, the one serviceman who does not break as a result of the Chinese questioning; Phillips, the leader of the Resistance in the prison camp; and Ching, the diabolical Chinese interrogator.
These Maoist techniques were based on certain Chinese conceptions about the plasticity of consciousness. Man’s mentality — particularly that of a prisoner of war — was considered to be extremely malleable and susceptible to toxic influences. The first thing to do was to remove all available authority figures. First, all of the accredited officers were taken away and put in other camps. Second, this went double for the non-commissioned officers who were technically closer to the men as raw recruits.
Once these nodal points for leadership had been silenced, the natural leaders were disposed of. These were individuals from amongst the general miscellany of men who evinced any capacity for independent judgment, creative tension or flair, ability to hold an audience, etc. They were then sent to the “Reactionaries” camp or compound.
What was left was an undifferentiated MASS that could be attacked with behaviorist techniques. A considerable number of GIs — as admitted to by the Americans after the war — learned Communist slogans in a lemming-like way and became inveterate enemies of Uncle Sam. A counter-cultural ideology of anti-American blame and defamation was built up by the Chinese to replace the pre-existing bonds of society and community.
It must have been something to see quite large numbers of Americans in these camps denouncing President Truman, America the war-monger, and the CAPITALIST BIG PIGS (sic), while unleashing paeans of praise toward Communist China and North Korea. After the war — on the release of these individuals — they were uneasily rehabilitated back into the United States, where an understandable desire to bury bad news prevented these stories from emerging.
These behaviorist techniques — mass persuasion, better rations and conditions, mutual group pressure, isolation from different or contesting viewpoints — all have a register on the individual level as well. These were brain-washing techniques used by all sides in the middle of the twentieth century. Such torture trials were often carried out against spies, lone individuals, or people who had betrayed their own side.
One example is that afforded by Doctor Alexander Kennedy at SIME in the early 1940s in North Africa. SIME was Secret Intelligence Middle East (based in Cairo) and an essential hub for M16 activity throughout the war. Several Axis spies — mostly Arabs — were subjected to behavioral conditioning and other forms of desensitization.
This involved isolation, being masked and forced to wear goggles as well as gloves of a specialist type, white noise experimentation, effective refusal to visit the bathroom, sleep deprivation, and high anxiety states induced by the use of amphetamines like Thyroxin. These were injected directly into the brain.
The purpose, according to a clinical sadist like Kennedy, was to achieve “a total breakdown in personality.” The individual concerned would then be handed over to “normal” examiners or interviewers to provide them with whatever information they required.
Now these Maoist experiments in the early 1950s were on a much cruder and wider scale, but detailed relationships grew up between the GI submitted to torment (Landi) and the interrogator (Ching). Umberto Eco in his medieval novel The Name of the Rose talks about an insidious bond that develops between the inquisitor and his victim, and the same thing occurs here.
Initially, Landi manfully resists the Maoist techniques of entrapment with considerable courage and tenacity. He is determined to prove himself a Reactionary rather than a Progressive, but over time a kinship grows up between himself and Ching (unnatural as this may appear at first sight).
Ching attempts to exploit a personal debility in Landi, possibly a deep if buried reservoir of depression, and use it for his own purposes. What he basically wants to obtain is information about who has subtly organized the reactionaries in their camp. This spills over into attacks on the pro-captor Progressives by those forces which Phillips, a reserve officer, has marshalled in America’s defence.
There is no actual collusion. Landi never gives into Ching. Certainly there is no textual basis for this in the book, but the imputation is that the insidiousness of the brain-washing gets to Landi in the end. This, on release and return to the United States at the end of the book, leads to his presumed suicide.
Phillips, on the other hand, enacts a terrible vengeance on the Progressives by stealing down from his camp, amid the extreme cold of an Asian winter, and murdering seven of them with his bare hands. This includes Slater, the ring-leader of the pro-Chinese and North Korean Americans among the progressive faction. He — not atypically — happens to be Ching’s favourite amongst the prisoners, with the sole exception of Marty Landi.
Landi, and a few of the others, seek shelter with the Chinese against the bitterness of the weather in the Reactionaries’ compound. Yet Ching must be led to Phillips by a reductio ad absurdum at the end, given that he is left alone in the Reactionaries camp suffering from an acute fever after his forays in the icy cold. Phillips is later beheaded and his severed head delivered to the surviving men of the reactionary compound in a box.
The interesting thing about the novel is that it offers no hope, no way out, and no effective refutation of the Communist strategies. It is also written in a heavily demotic style, involving stream of consciousness and a lot of swearing, although, given the context, hardly any of this is gratuitous. I also don’t think that there’s been a mainstream edition since the New English Library one in the early 1970s. In any event, this novel is a poignant if grim epitaph to a pretty deplorable American episode.