Torturous education

>> Friday, January 30, 2009

Slate has an interesting piece up this week from a former Marine, David J. Morris, suggesting we close SERE that's well worth a read.

SERE, if you don't know by now, is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program that was created after the Korean War to give American servicemen a taste of what POWs in that conflict had endured. The idea is generally presented as one of training a serviceman not to break under torture and reveal vital intelligence, but the bigger problem in the Korean and Vietnam Wars seems to have been one of propaganda: tortured Americans being coerced into participating in fake confessions and similarly-rigged presentations meant to suggest to naïve audiences that the captors weren't such bad actors and indeed treated prisoners better than Americans allegedly would have. I'm skeptical that such presentations were persuasive or demoralizing to anybody who didn't already have their head in their ass, but there's no doubt they were a problem.

SERE became a bit of a public embarrassment over the past few years not because of the way airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines who volunteered for the program were treated, but because the program was reverse-engineered for the purposes of inventing "coercive investigation" techniques for the CIA and other intelligence specialists operating at Guantánamo Bay. In effect, what the United States did in the wake of 9/11 and the establishment of "Gitmo" was to create a parody of the techniques used by the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korea conflict: they tortured our boys, so we created a training program based on their techniques, then we created an "interrogation" program based on our training program based on North Korean torture methods. Nice stuff, becoming what we hated and found unacceptable like that.

David Morris adds a bit more embarrassment to our pot with this observation:

The question is especially pertinent because America's enemies haven't used SERE's techniques of "mind control" since the Korean War. No doubt some military officials will argue that SERE has never been more necessary than it is today, given that there is no front line in the war on terrorism. Our troops are in constant danger of being captured, as in the kidnapping of two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division near Yousifiyah, Iraq, in May 2007.

But a review of the experiences of American servicemen captured in Iraq and Somalia shows that our enemies don't water-board their captives. Nor do they have the resources to mount a program of systematic sensory deprivation and humiliation, as we did in Guantanamo and in the American prison at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base. In fact, our soldiers need training from SERE based on an entirely different premise, as illustrated by the experience of Michael Durant, the helicopter pilot who spent several weeks in captivity when he was captured by Somali fighters during the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" raid. Durant survived by befriending his captors and forcing them to see him as a fellow human being. SERE conditions servicemen to expect nothing but the worst from their captors; Durant's life depended on his ability to understand his captors and find ways to manipulate them psychologically.

In other words, we're not merely as bad as North Korean communists, we're arguably worse than al-Qaeda. Lovely. And not only do our enemies not treat us the way we treat them, but it appears that a sound technique of survival is to reverse-engineer the interrogation techniques that worked on al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah1 and others: establishing a rapport and applying subtle manipulation.

Morris goes on to describe his own experiences at SERE--he's a graduate--and to suggest that the program is inherently harmful because it encourages a "it's not so bad" mentality in graduates.2

He may be right, though there is at least one flaw in his argument that may or may not invalidate it (I'm not sure). I believe it has to be accepted as a given that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. Inmates at Tuol Sleng confessed to utter absurdities under torture. So did victims of torture at Salem, in the Massachusetts Colony, in 1692. But torture has frequently been successful at extracting unreliable evidence--and both of the links in this paragraph provide abundant evidence of that: John Dewhirst wasn't coerced into confessing he joined the CIA at age 12 because the Khmer Rouge were trying to determine how American intelligence programs were structured--the purpose of his confession was (depending on how batshit insane you believe the Khmer Rouge really were) for propaganda or to satiate their paranoia3 or both. Similarly, the Salem interrogators didn't torture people they thought might be witches--they tortured people they knew were witches, they just needed to hear them say it because the confession legitimized the persecution tautologically: "I was right to accuse this witch and to torture her, because it was only after I accused and tortured her that she finally admitted she was a witch!"

The point being, of course, that while America's enemies are unlikely to torture for intelligence, they might still torture for propaganda or similar purposes. In which case, one has to evaluate which is more harmful: an embarrassing video of an American soldier admitting he was a murderous infidel until he "converted" to Islam4 or a tacit prodding and enabling of a mentality that is receptive to violations of the Geneva Conventions and the principles on which this nation was founded.

Now, that's personally interesting, and one of the things I enjoy about writing: when I put the question like that, the way I did in the previous paragraph, the answer seems fairly self-evident, although I had no idea that would be my conclusion. It seemed to me, frankly, that Morris might be wrong, not about the harms SERE training may do to Americans in the armed forces, but about the productivity of training Americans to resist such harsh treatment justifying the program. It seemed to me the program might still be worthwhile, in other words, if risky. But if the first set of harms outweighs the second set by such an evil weight, then it seems to me the SERE program can't be worth it. My nation can easily survive a bogus confession or conversion of one of our own--but I fear we've lost something that should have been enduring when we began turning those vicious and circular methodologies upon others.

Anyway, read the Morris piece and consider it for yourselves--is SERE a tough but necessary preparation for a captured American's worst nightmares, or a dangerous and archaic vestige of the fifties and sixties that has ruptured like an appendix and poisoned the patient, necessitating removal? Thoughts, anyone?

1From the Vanity Fair article linked to above, "Rorschach And Awe":

Zubaydah was stabilized at the nearest hospital, and the F.B.I. continued its questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. An agent showed him photographs of suspected al-Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that "Moktar," or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11. He then proceeded to lay out the details of the plot. America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.

These are the techniques that law-enforcement professionals use with serial killers and spree-murderers, and that routinely work not only to extract useful information, but information that continues to be legally useful once alleged exigencies have passed and you're having to decide what to do with a captive alleged terrorist once the threat is gone.

2Morris' speculation could have been addressed with a Google search. A pseudonymous alleged airman using the alias "Cdr. Frank 'Spig' Wead" wrote a piece for Human Events where he makes precisely that claim, arguing that using the techniques he claims to have endured "is what is protecting our country today" before basically accusing Congress of murder. It's a nice piece of specious reasoning that some people, based on the few comments I could stomach, find "persuasive"--by which they really mean "Wead" confirms their prejudices.

3I.e. it is quite possible the Khmer Rouge leadership were so divorced from reality by the end of the '70s that they actually believed the CIA was training twelve-year-old English boys into master spies to eventually be inserted into Kampuchea for whatever fucked-up reason the Khmer Rouge might have imagined in their blood-besotted fever dreams. At some point, Kampuchea didn't become "crazy" the way Stalinist Russia became "crazy"; at some point Democratic Kampuchea became clinically, collectively insane, sincerely and devoutly believing in impossibilities like a schizophrenic hearing demonic voices and simultaneously knowing the voices are real and that they are not and he has gotten very, very sick and broken.

4I'm assuming this is the new "I was a capitalist running dog but now I understand proper socialist thought."


mattw Friday, January 30, 2009 at 8:42:00 AM EST  

After reading your post, and the article at Slate, it seems to me that SERE is archaic and, at the very least, should be revised to more accurately match what soldiers might face were they to be captured.

I understand the need to make our troops prepared for any eventuality, but at what point is SERE going to far? One wonders what the mindset of the "instructors" at SERE is.

Anonymous,  Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 1:46:00 PM EDT  

We have SERE school because we haven't figured out how to train our military to resist having their heads cut off with a dull knife in from of a video camera.

Eric Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 4:03:00 PM EDT  

Um... no, Anonymous: whether right or wrong, legal or illegal, good idea or lousy, relevant or product of a time long gone, that isn't why the SERE program exists. I'm not sure which way you were trying to aim that sarcasm, but I think you may have taken off your own toes with it: if you're attacking SERE, there's excellent grounds for it, and if you're defening SERE there are certainly plausible arguments.

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