To Torture or Not to Torture? Are We Seriously Still Asking this Question?

News Abroad
tags: election 2016, torture, Trump

James Stejskal served 35 years as a US Army Special Forces soldier and senior CIA operations officer. He now writes about history, conflict archaeology and unconventional warfare. His latest book is: Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956-1990 (Casemate, 2017).

Inside the small, wooden cabin, the heat is unbearable. A stove is roaring and belching out smoke and flame, the air is thick with the acrid smells of burning wood, sweat, and fear.

Three big men, stripped to their t-shirts, stand over a crate not much larger than an ice box lying on the floor. Inside the crate sits a man, dirty, pathetically disheveled, almost in tears. He is wearing the shreds of a USAF flight suit, the same one he was captured in days before.

“I ask you one more time,” roars one of the men, “what is your squadron number?” The pilot looks up and finally shows a bit of defiance, as he reels off his name, rank, and serial number, no more.

“Enough!” The men push the pilot down into the box and slam the lid on his back. The pilot feels like a sardine being baked in a tin. The air is thin and he tries to suck it in, but his chest is restricted by the tiny confines of the box. He is near panic and pushes up on the lid. It doesn’t budge. It is locked in place with a steel bar. He screams to be let out. They beat on the box with wooden sticks drowning out his cries. They laugh.

One of the interrogators looks at his watch and nods to the others. It’s time.

Suddenly, the thumping noise of a helicopter permeates through the cabin. The sound of explosions and machine gun fire rips through the air outside. The door bursts open and the steel rod is slid out of the locks. Arms reach in and pull the airman from the box.

“We’re Americans. We’ve got you.” The pilot nearly collapses, but is held up by his rescuers. He is safe.

Outside, other prisoners, some thirty soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen are assembled in a rough formation. A voice comes over the camp’s loudspeaker, “The camp is liberated! Good job, the exercise is over.” The men are exhausted but jubilant despite the knowledge that it was not real. It felt real - the stress, the pain, and the fear were all there. But now they are free.

That story came from my experience at one of the four SERE courses I “volunteered” for during my service in the army. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and evasion. The courses are meant to teach military men and women what to expect if the enemy captures them. This includes everything from how to survive on nuts and berries, fishing with an improvised hook, evading pursuers, to resisting hostile “enhanced” interrogation and escaping captivity. The experience simulates the interrogation tactics used by America’s enemies from Nazi Germany to North Korea. The courses range in length from several days to several weeks; none of them are fun.

I was impressed with the instructors. Many were former POWs who had been interrogated under the meanest of conditions. Colonel Nick Rowe was one. He survived five years as a prisoner in the hands of the Viet Cong before he escaped and made his way back to friendly lines. There were others who spent time in the Hanoi Hilton and some in the basements of security service headquarters in unnamed countries. They cited the military’s Code of Conduct as key to surviving their ordeal. Other instructors were professional interrogators.

What impressed me most was that they all agreed on one thing; torture is not effective. They pointed to the failure of the North Vietnamese to extract information using the cruelest of methods (ask John McCain). As an instructional point, they described Hanns Scharff, a German air force sergeant in World War II who excelled in eliciting information without physical abuse. He talked with his prisoners and gained their confidence by becoming their advocate. It was not a quick method, but it was very effective. His methods were adopted by the U.S. military after the war.

Jack Bauer on the other hand, would have us believe the harsh techniques he used in his television show “24” actually work. Most of his subjects are dead, however, so we can’t prove it.

Which brings me to what happened 155 years ago. In 1862, the General in Chief of the Union Armies, Henry Halleck, asked Francis Lieber to write a set of rules for the conduct of the Union’s operations. Lieber, a German-born lawyer, came up with what would become “General Order 100: Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field.” The instructions, known since as the Lieber Code, incorporated just war traditions to guide and balance the principles of “justice, honor, and humanity” with the necessities and ends of war.

Importantly, Lieber outlined the status of prisoners of war (POW) and how they were to be treated. And although General Order 100 came with some fractious tenets, its basics were later adopted into the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Among these was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty.” General Orders 100 specifically addressed the subject of torture, saying “that it was unlawful to use violence against prisoners in order to extort the desired information.”

Despite the existence of GO 100, the question of torture arose again in the Philippine Insurrection - a guerrilla war with eerie parallels to today’s conflicts. A method known as the “water cure” - an explanation of its how it works is most likely unnecessary - was used by American troops on captured Filipino insurgents. Its results were disputed, but its usage was not. It was declared illegal.

Wars of long duration often provoke leaders and military men alike to come up with solutions that produce results. Torture is one method often resorted to when the answers desired are not forthcoming. Some would argue, as General James Bell did, that “a short and severe war, was better than a benevolent war indefinitely prolonged.”

That, however, is not a justification for its use. Beyond the concerns that if the United States practices torture U.S. POWs can be expect the same (notwithstanding our current president’s view on captured Americans), or that it is ineffective, it is a question of morality. Just because our enemy is “bad” America should never resort to the same base behavior. It causes backlash, increases terrorist recruitment, and it debases democratic institutions. Another argument: “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway,” fails on so many levels. The main reason is that it is banned by U.S. law and international conventions.

Now is a fitting time to remember that the man who most supported General Order 100, was a Republican President, one of America’s fiercest defenders of humility and justice, named Abraham Lincoln