Communication as “Theater of the Mind” Reply

By Chris Simmons

In April 2004, the disgraceful abuse of detainees by a small number of US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison made international headlines. Just weeks later, I arrived in Iraq to lead the interrogation operations of a Special Mission Unit. The timing could not be worse. The Abu Ghraib fiasco lead to the Pentagon’s long-term and exhaustive scrutiny of the interrogation operations of every US unit. Over the next year, our detainee screening center was subjected to 17 separate inspections.

My element received additional attention because our success rate far exceeded anyone else in country. Time and time again, I explained to our inspectors the simple differences that made us so unique. The most important distinction was that I had complete hiring and firing authority over every augmentee sent to us for potential assignment. Newly arrived candidates underwent a series of highly invasive interviews. The grueling process screened out innumerable aspirants, to include almost half of all interrogators sent to us.

A few other key distinctions made us special. Two of those – which all my personnel understood – were that:

1). ALL communication is theatre, and

2). Every interrogation occurred exclusively in the mind.

I illustrated my point to the inspectors by telling them that every personal interaction they had ever experienced – and would ever experience — was a distinct performance.

I told them to think of the best movie or theater show they’d ever seen. I then told them to strip away the setting, the costumes, the sound effects, the lighting, the acting – everything, until all they had left was the dialogue. I asked them to imagine those words recited by a robotic voice with no change in speed, inflection, pitch, tone, or volume. In doing so, they learned that in removing all of those multi-sensory facets of the communicative production, they’d removed the ability for the message sender to emotionally connect with the recipient. Without the emotional core, they’d also lost all impact and retention.

We were able to glean intelligence from almost everyone we interrogated. Our success was based, in large measure, on a keen understanding of both the nuances of communication and basic human nature. Arguably, these skill sets are every bit as important to you in your daily life as it was to us on the battlefields of Iraq. After all, everything one achieves evolves solely from their ability to communicate.


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