This post is in response to Bill’s comments regarding waterboarding and if it’s torture. Somewhere in here I’m going to post a Youtube video of writer Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded, but before you see it, I’d like to make a few points.
First of all, as Bill points out about a discussion he’d had with his friend who’d been waterboarded, each session of waterboarding got easier and easier to withstand. No surprises there. That goes for anything really. Also, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. In the video of Hitchens being waterboarded, there’s a mysterious air created by the waterboarders themselves. They’re wearing black balaclavas, they move with keen proficiency and you sense their confidence in what they’re doing. This is all intentional and they’re trained to act exactly like this. The stage is set and the question looms in the prone person’s mind: What happens next?
I can tell you, that my experiences in military training show that not knowing what’s coming next is very difficult to deal with. There are some very black operations in the US defense system whose entire assessment course is basically built around keeping its potential members in the dark at all times. The cadre take all timepieces from the soldiers. They’re never told what they will be asked to do from hour to hour, day to day.
Basic Combat Training was almost all theatre. I found my self asking: ” Where’s the combat part?” From day one, the Drill Sergeants act like they hate you. The yell and scream and tell you you’re the worst Soldier they’ve even seen. You stand in formation for hours at a time wondering when the DSs will release you. The unknown kills you in Basic, not the known. Nothing else is difficult except the lack of sleep.
So, the person about to be waterboarded doesn’t really know what he’s about to experience. The men around him seem so powerful, all knowing and in control. The balaclavas are a part of SWAT and special operations for a few reasons. One of them is intimidation.
The stage is set. The person waterboarded has been psychologically “softened.” He’s already lost this battle before the water is poured over him. His ego won’t allow him to spill his information quite yet, but in his own mind he’s already willing to talk, but he has to protect his own self-worth by holding out, by not being the guy who broke just by seeing plain old water.
When the water begins to spill, it’s now as if the person’s being led to the gallows. At least that’s what he thinks. There’s a growing sense of discomfort, agitation and smothering. But always, always, there’s the question: What next? When will it stop? Will I die?
Now Bill’s friend says the fact that Soldiers are waterboarded in SERE school, this proves it’s torture. This argument avoids the fact that torture is a word of gradation and we accept certain levels of torture, especially of the psychological variety. For instance, let us look at a vignette….
We capture a mid-level al-Qaeda operative and have set about interrogating him. we want to know what his cell is planning to do next. We don’t plan on waterboarding him, because we don’t think we have to; we almost never have to and we almost never do. But we do use psychological torture. The interrogator will get a feel for the psychological makeup of the operative. The interrogator knows a lot about Arabic culture and will use any tool available to pry the information out. Iraqi men like young, blond men. (True) So the interrogator may be young and blond. Arabic men are extremely jealous and protective of their women. Perhaps we have information that the cell’s leader is having sex with the man’s wife. Maybe we don’t but maybe we’ll lie and tell him that right now, as we speak, the man’s wife is doing things with the cell leader that she should only do to her husband… We see a reaction, so we keep going with it. We give him details. Perhaps we’ve pre-planned and have a fake prisoner who will come in and say he saw the cell leader with the man’s wife. After a time, the man is in a rage, and in typical Arabic fashion, is yelling and clawing at his own face in jealous frustration. After a few hours of this, combined with the sleep deprivation, and the consolations of the interrogator, the man is ready to tell all–just so he can see the cell leader dead, even if by America hands.
Was this not psychological torture? Ask the man what he would prefer, 14 second of water being poured on him, or the conviction that his wife is displaying her acrobatic skills with another man. I’m sure the choice would be easy for him. And yet people would rather have us destroy his domestic bliss.
We know that Soldiers who have been captured in the first Gulf war for instance were subjected to intense torture by the Iraqis. Their teeth were pulled out. They were beaten until they suffered severe physical damage, including permanent nerve damage. Read Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab for a brilliant account. Why don’t we do these things to our Soldiers to toughen them and ready them? Because that’s real torture.
Waterboarding is torture. But it’s the torture of a lie. It isn’t what the person being waterboarded thinks it is. If the person knew with all certainty that he was safe, if he had been told that he will not die or be damaged, it would have little effect. After all, to my knowledge the CIA hasn’t killed anyone while waterboarding them. It would be uncomfortable, but not very effective.
Here’s the Hitchens waterboarding video.
So yes, it is torture. And it does work. It leaves no marks, or damage other than scaring the individual. Hitches says that it does not simulate drowning, it is drowning, if slowly. But we know that they person will not drown. It’s torture of the most inane sort. It seems many have no stomach for it, though. They’d have even less stomach for the other things that go on in war, mostly at the hands of Islamic extremists, things that can’t be simulated by journalists in order to make a point. They’d be dead if they simulated these things.