This story was in an anthology of military SF, mass-market paperback, approx. 1975-85 – after the Vietnam War ended, but before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A long-running war is being fought between two alliances: a NATO analog and a Warsaw Pact analog (neither one is named as such). A young soldier on the quasi-NATO side is captured by the enemy. He breaks under questioning and is held prisoner for an extended time.

On regaining his freedom, the soldier resumes military service. Most of his fellows distrust him. Some are aware of his POW history, and he is too old for his ranking, suggesting incompetence. To his surprise, he is chosen as aide-de-camp to one of the generals directing the war effort. At first this gives other soldiers an extra reason to dislike him, since the blue-and-white cord at his shoulder marks him out as errand boy for the higher-ups. He struggles to follow his orders and retain his dignity. Fortunately the general he serves is reasonably humane, trusting him with sensitive information and including him at briefing meetings.

The soldier is beginning to feel comfortable in his role when once again he is captured by the enemy and wrung out under interrogation. Shattered and suffering, he is eventually released – and learns the horrible truth. His commanding officers have carried out an elaborate charade to fill him with false intel. Then they've let him fall into enemy hands in the certain knowledge that he would reveal what he knew.

If my (failing) memory serves, the stories in the anthology were sourced not only from genre magazines, but also from mainstream publications. Playboy might have been one. The editors acknowledged that this particular piece might not have been pure-quill SF, but they thought it too good to be left out. I'd have to agree, seeing that I still remember it, decades later.

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    What makes this science fiction or fantasy?
    – Lexible
    Dec 15, 2021 at 18:29
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    I would think, as it's not exactly NATO and not exactly Warsaw Pact, that's it's set in some kind of alt.universe and therefore is SF
    – Danny Mc G
    Dec 15, 2021 at 22:36
  • The anthology was advertised as mil-SF, and the other stories fulfilled the brief, no question. The story I’m hoping to identify had no magical or supernatural elements, therefore wasn’t fantasy. Equally, no unusual or extrapolated tech, cultural practices, etc. Therefore not SF by strict definition. In today’s terms, speculative fiction and alt-history (or alt-universe as Danny Mc G suggests) would be more accurate labels I suspect.
    – user147074
    Dec 16, 2021 at 5:10
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    I have read this story. I vaguely remember there was some reference to a "wooden cannon", and in the end the general(?) told the soldier that they had chosen him exactly because they were certain he would break again under interrogation. And also supplied him with a notebook with the plans, which was fortunate because the soldier this time decided he wouldn't break, and actually didn't (only to learn it was all for naught).
    – LSerni
    Dec 17, 2021 at 20:36
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    @Lexible the story takes place during a future war between a US/Western Europe alliance and a China/Russia alliance. The China/Russia alliance uses sensory deprivation to torture its prisoners. At least for now, all this places it firmly in the realm of sf. Dec 18, 2021 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


The Quaker Cannon by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth.

John Kramer was in disgrace and, at thirty-eight, well on his way to becoming the oldest first lieutenant in the North American (and Allied) Army. He had been captured in '82 as an aftermath of the confused fighting around Tsingtao. A few exquisitely unpleasant months passed and he then delivered three TV lectures for the yutes. In them he announced his total conversion to Neo-Utilitarianism, denounced the North American (and Allied) military command as a loathesome pack of war-waging, anti-utilitarian mad dogs, and personally admitted the waging of viral warfare against the United Utilitarian Republics

... [later]

General Grote looked meditatively at his former aide. "John," he said after a moment, "didn't you ever wonder why the card-sorters pulled you out for my staff? A man who was sure to crack in the Blank Tanks, because he already had?"

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    Interestingly, I do not see the mil-sf anthology referenced in the question on isfdb. Fortunately, the story id question is about the story itself. Dec 18, 2021 at 18:23

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