Maddox highlights value of listening

Robert Smith
Former U.S. military interrogator and War in Iraq veteran Eric Maddox speaks during Friday’s Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce Gala at the Pawhuska Elks Lodge. Robert Smith/Journal-Capital

The featured speaker last Friday at the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce’s annual gala gave an illustration of how actually listening to people can change the world.

Eric Maddox, a former U.S. military interrogator, gave the keynote address for the Chamber’s gala, and shared an account of his experiences in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Maddox’s work proved instrumental in the capture of the Iraqi strongman. The theme for the gala program was “Pawhuska’s Night of the Patriot.”

The gift Maddox gave his listeners Friday was much more than a heartwarming account of one man’s opportunity to contribute to the defense of his country’s interests in the world; he recounted how the power of the underappreciated art of listening to other human beings enabled him to learn details of the Iraqi post-invasion resistance that might never otherwise have been revealed to U.S. forces.

Maddox recalled his surprise and confusion when ordered to report to Iraq. He was a trained interrogator, but he was primarily a Mandarin Chinese linguist working for the military from an office in Los Angeles. He asked repeatedly why he had been chosen for an assignment in Iraq. What he learned was that U.S. special forces troops had specifically asked for an interrogator with a combat-arms background like his own.

Before becoming a Mandarin Chinese linguist, Maddox had spent three years as a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He had been to Ranger School. The special forces soldiers asked for a soldier with a particular background and Maddox’s name was the only one that came up.

When Maddox arrived in Iraq and began to carry out his duties as an interrogator of prisoners taken by U.S. troops, he quickly learned that the interrogation methods he had learned from the military didn’t work. The prisoners weren’t telling him anything. He was frustrated and resolved to just keep them talking. He listened carefully to what his subjects had to say, and that was the key to the breakthrough.

“I sat there and just listened to them,” Maddox said, explaining he tried to mentally put himself in the place of the prisoners, attempting to understand what it meant to be an Iraqi insurgent in the so-called Sunni Triangle. His efforts led to conversations with prisoners that ultimately yielded the intelligence needed to find Saddam Hussein and take him into custody.

The larger-picture result was that Maddox departed the enlisted ranks of the Army and became a civilian interrogator for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was deployed eight times and has conducted more than 2,700 prisoner interrogations; and the entire thing was based on an interrogation method that highlighted listening to and trying to identify with prisoners.