Waterboarding: Is it torture?

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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.


6 thoughts on “Waterboarding: Is it torture?

    Bill said:
    May 26, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Hey Doug:

    Thanks for this post – it really clears up a lot. I guess the thing I kept missing (hence that feelign like I was missing something important) is that it’s a gradation issue as you point out The media and pols speak of torture all the time without defining it.

    On the psychological torture stuff though – do we still do that? I only ask b/c I remember all the bruhaha over supposedly flushign Korans down the toilet or having menstrating females do the interrogation- as PC as we’ve gotten, I figured we’d have cut of anything of that sort (particularly b/c it’s effective).

    One last thing – when you made the comment about “liking” tall blonde young men.. is “liking” used in the sexual sense or simply an affinity? I’m guessing its the former…. I guess that would explain a lot of the homophopia over there huh?

    Thanks again for this post – I think my buddy I was having the discussion with will really like it too.

    kernunos said:
    May 26, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Excellent post.

    magus71 responded:
    May 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm


    Bill, there are limits to the psychological torture we’re allowed to use. Koran flushing would probably be counterproductive, and we’ve decided it goes over the line, since some Muslims will wreak havoc on entire cities over the depiction of Muhammed in a cartoon. Yes we do lie to them. Cops lie in interviews all the time, too.

    Yes, many Iraqi men like blond men or boys, sexually. Homosexuality is a well guarded secret (it’s guarded by reporters for whatever reason, not really Iraqi society). Many Arab men do not consider sexual acts with other men to be homosexual until they have reached the age of 30.

    Michael LaBossiere said:
    May 28, 2009 at 12:33 am

    I have been thinking about the psychological basis of my moral aversion to things like waterboarding. On reflection, I suspect it goes back to when I was a kid. If someone got into a fight and beat the other kid down, only a real ass would keep beating on the downed kid. Or maybe it was seeing kids pinning other kids down and spitting on their faces when they could no longer fight back. I didn’t think very highly of that. Water boarding people feels the same way-taken a beaten person and doing something cruel to him when he can’t fight back.

    I suspect many people who have an aversion to the use of waterboarding are also motivated by a similar psychology: doing cruel things to helpless people goes against our natural human sympathy (or the sympathy we should have). This can, of course, be overcome by anger or hatred.

    This is just psychological speculation, not an argument.

    magus71 responded:
    May 28, 2009 at 5:44 am


    I have an aversion to waterboarding too. And I’m a well know hater of bullies. When i was younger, I think I stood up to bullies even when it was not on my direct interest.

    The wildcard though, is the protection of other humans. It’s a tough call, and I understand people’s revulsion to waterboarding. You’re right–it is kicking someone when they’re down.

    I just want to point out, just as Dick Cheney did, that this techniques was not used indiscriminately. I read your post in which you address this argument that this doesn’t make it right, but we should at least admit this removes the idea that we were doing it merely to be cruel or that we got enjoyment from this. If we liked doing it, we’d have done it to more prisoners. And they never went right to waterboarding or other enhanced techniques. It’s a step system, and it’s also a psychological analysis.

    Some argue that we could be waterboarding people who know nothing so they’ll say whatever just to make it stop. This assumes that we’re waterboarding all prisoners. We didn’t. Anyone would know that KSM had tons of information in regards to al-Qaeda’s methods and whereabouts. The same goes for the other high level al-Qaeda operative we used this technique on.

    So I think this should also remove the idea that Cheney and others who believe waterboarding is the right thing to do, are cruel and evil and just like seeing helpless people suffer.

    kernunos said:
    May 28, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    It is not like we are just randomly picking innocent people off of the street and water boarding them. There were a long line of choices when joined in a certain pattern lead the detainees to this point. Any conscious deviation off of that path may have changed their fate. My point is that the terrorists put themselves in this position. They are not powerless and helpless. They have choice on their side. I’ve never been water boarded and I’ve never been a terrorist. Oh those pesky choices.

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