Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

(A volunteer undergoes waterboarding. Photo:

This isn't at all the first time I've turned the concept of torture around in my mind. I do think it is the first post I'll have written about it. I'm also near certain it will be the last as I generally find the subject to be vapid and almost always intellectually illogical, inconsistent and even dishonest.

The proponents toss out sensational nonsense to this tune: "well it's necessary 'cause what if there were this, like, bomb and it was gonna, like go off in 48 hours and this one dude knew where it was and...blah, blah, blah" and so it goes, the invocation of the great Fictional Hero, Jack Bauer, blasting out some poor bastard's knee caps and in so doing, fitting in that last crucial piece of the puzzle to save America. Makes for great television, no doubt, but what's the reality? I suspect such occasions are very rare. Indeed if such events were common place we'd be arguing about blasting kneecaps and not water boarding. I feel such sensational fiction along with media fear mongering is responsible for the general acceptance of torture in our society and gives no credence to its literal effectiveness.

The proponents at least maintain a semblance of tangible cause, however superfluous and fantastic. The opponents, however, rely on the more metaphysical foundation for their windy indignation. The essence of Morality. Given that the debate regarding torture takes place within the context of waging war I find this shiny, golden and righteous principle to be the logical equivalent of a pregnant pole vaulter. In short, it doesn't fit. No, it's quite antithetical to the concept of warfare as the American military wages it. Why?

Our military doctrine, strategies and tactics go to great lengths to protect the lives of non-combatants. However, we also realize and fully accept the certainty of collateral damage, or in plain speak, the damage to private property and more pertinent, the acceptance of non-combatant casualties. In short, while the US military strives to focus it's efforts in a most narrow and constricted fashion against enemy combatants, we realize the tragic reality of war. Our actions, inadvertently, end the lives of men, women and children who have nothing to do with war beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong side. And we accept that.

And yet some of the most outspoken opponents of torture (like John McCain; and yes I know full well his personal connection to this subject, but being CiC means putting aside subjectivity at times) fully accept the ideally inadvertent and yet realistically acceptable loss of life as "moral" but the concept of torture is somehow taboo. We're willing to kill children (inadvertently) but water boarding is unacceptable, no, immoral. Maybe my cynicism outweighs my understanding of morality but that concept is dichotomous at best and simply ridiculous otherwise. I get the acceptance of "collateral damage." It's a horrible reality of war. I don't get the sudden, strident morality when it comes to torture.

Here's how I see it. Torture is a potential method of intelligence gathering. The debate shouldn't be about morality (remember we regularly accept dead women and children as collateral damage) rather should be about it's effectiveness. If it doesn't work (and from what I've read, other less extreme methods produce better results) then we shouldn't do it.

The concept of arguing the morality of water boarding a captive while we're generally comfortable accepting the killing of non-combatants is patently ridiculous from my perspective.

Just to add: The concept of waterboarding for the actual enemy combatant and the concept of being voluntarily waterboarded are, very likely, night and day. As this video at Coming Anarchy illustrates, Christopher Hitchens is given three fail safe stop's to his voluntary endeavor. And he very quickly uses one, ending the experience. An actual combatant doesn't retain such comforts. And so Hitchens (and others) experience lacks a very poignant mental facet of this practice. Watch the video and imagine the guy on the bench isn't a journalist who can stop the whole deal anytime he wants but an actual enemy combatant at the mercy of his hooded "interrogators." Now you can laugh at all the drooling dullards that would claim water boarding isn't torture but "coercive interrogation."


M1 said...

Go get 'em, Cowboy. (You're right)

Dan tdaxp said...

An excellent post.

Most discussions of torture are cartoonish, either taking place in a fantasy world or in a world of great Ideals.

But in a world where we accept that we kill innocent people in order to achieve political objectives, the real issue is technical.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Though I agree with your larger point, you compare apples and oranges. The accidental (or accepted as part of killing the bad guy(s) we're aiming for) killing of civilians occurs in war or at least an operational context.

Waterboarding would occur in a holding cell or reasonably secure area away from the battlefield. Therein lies the rub, both for matters of law and for military tradition.

There are reservations stemming from (a) centuries of tradition of not torturing (going even beyond Washington's admonishment of the tactic) (b) decades of military experience with a slippery slope of discipline once things like torture and abuse (the far more common event) are authorized or tolerated and (c) that nasty precedent of prosecution within the military and civilian sectors for torture like waterboarding.

Get beyond all that, as apparently the Bush Administration did, and you're left with questions of it working better than the legal options. Exhaustive research in several recent books shows it has no more higher success rate than other interrogation methods. Personal stories from those who have experienced it firsthand (like McCain) tell of people saying anything, lie or otherwise, to make it stop.

Leave aside even that and you have the consequences to our image abroad. Can the US maintain its status as the defender of human rights when it engages in tactics like waterboarding it deplores other countries for on a regular basis with its human rights reports and Congressional hearings? The CIA and military have been unable to keep such waterboarding incidents out of the news, with the details spreading through whistleblowers, engaged private individuals (like the guys who figured out the CIA rendition plane schedules and details) and an aggressive global media presence no longer very afraid of Uncle Sam's protest or influence.

The military ethos is important as well. Waterboarding not only tears at the fabric of that ethos by challenging traditions long held and practiced (albeit imperfectly) of prisoner treatment but raises disturbing questions that inspire cognitive dissonance in service members. At SERE school and elsewhere, waterboarding and other forms of torture are held up as things others do, not the US.

Two last bits. take it or leave it on this one in particular.

The pilots and intel goofs I talked to about this while I was still in the Navy last year said SERE instructors and intel school types were crystal clear on this not happening within the military again. The phrase "unlawful order" was bandied about often, as well as mentions of the UCMJ and of politicians having immunity but not you.

The last is this. I SUPPORT the availability of the waterboarding option as well as other torture methods as a last resort. This goes back to no firm evidence we have available showing these work better than other methods but recognizing that if a particular tough nut won't crack, and we need intel that we think can be valuable, the individual in question may be tortured.

Given the moral and ethical ethos seeded within military personnel from boot camp onwards, I also believe it must be the CIA or specially trained civilians from another agency who utilize the torture method.

And for Pete's sake, if we're going to torture someone, let us not be dumb enough to let him go and talk about it, or do it so flagrantly people know about it outside the circle of trust within weeks or months.

Exceptional post. I find your point still of great import.

Dick Stanley said...

The ultimate tragedy of torture is that it doesn't work. It merely elicites lies.

Anonymous said...

Of course, I should have noted we don't know what the people with top secret clearances know. Yet those in the military at least seem to still think its a bad idea (at least for the military to get involved with it). That would be Petreaus, Mullen and before that Abiziad and Fallon, who all testified or volunteered at some point or another their opposition. Also your top secret clearance having vets... McCain, Graham, Reed, Hagel, Webb, Warner, etc.

It seems the more you read about this the more it seems it belongs in the hands of intelligence agencies, not the military.

Ymarsakar said...

Do people then deny that KSM didn't spill his guts, thus breaking apart various other terrorist attacks on the US as a partial consequence?

Ymarsakar said...

Now you can laugh at all the drooling dullards that would claim water boarding isn't torture but "coercive interrogation."

Define torture then, if you don't want to be one of those "drooling dullards".

Jay@Soob said...

Ymarsakar: Apologies if you took exception to the flippant remark. Allow me to engage your comment: Define child abuse, alcoholism, terrorism, vulgarity or sex (a certain ex-President had some difficulty with this one...)

Each of these are, to a degree, reliant on individual subjectivity. One mans spanking is another man's abused child; one man's beer everyday after work is another's alcoholic; one man's hummer in the oval office is another man's...

However, even subjectivity has, on the whole, it's limits. Few would disagree that whipping a child with a coat hanger is child abuse or that drinking oneself blind daily is obvious alcoholism.

In this respect the concept of torture is subject to interpretation in similar fashion. In the case of water boarding I suspect few would balk at thinking it torture at a time of peace. However the combination of two ongoing wars, the messy evolution of both war strategy and it's very concept (gradient/generation) and the general ignorance of citizens regarding the former two (as well as media proxies selling fear) have paved firm ground for such vernacular hoodwinking as "coercive interrogation." It's the verbal act of putting lipstick on a pig in an effort to lesson public scrutiny and make the act seem "less immoral," which brings us back to the core message of my post.

Quit the slippery terminology nonsense, it only makes us look foolish.

Stop arguing the "morality" of it and start arguing the effectiveness. If it works, do it. If it doesn't, don't.

Jay@Soob said...

Eddie, thanks for the insightful comment. I would disagree that I'm comparing apples to oranges as I view the use of torture as being part of the operational context of war; i.e. a means of gathering intelligence. Some more points:

"decades of military experience with a slippery slope of discipline once things like torture and abuse (the far more common event) are authorized or tolerated and (c) that nasty precedent of prosecution within the military and civilian sectors for torture like waterboarding."

The cognitive dissonance angle is an interesting one, but so far as I know we've yet to see it bleed onto the battlefield in any remarkable (or reportable) fashion in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan. Correct me if I'm wrong.

In terms of civilian sectors, torture clearly violates the constitution. Even a sniff of wartime techniques (waterboarding, etc.) conflating with civilian LE (as policy, anomaly's aside) would create a public firestorm. Think Rodney King (an anomaly.)

Regarding SERE: Eddie I'm a bit conflicted here, much of what I've read/heard indicates SERE as a propagator of torture techniques. How far off base am I here?

"Given the moral and ethical ethos seeded within military personnel from boot camp onwards, I also believe it must be the CIA or specially trained civilians from another agency who utilize the torture method."

Agreed 100%. Great point.

Jay@Soob said...

dick stanley,

if you're correct than by all means abandon the principle. Ymarsakars point regarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed begs to differ. I'm not privy to the info regarding the effectiveness of torture (beyond some general reading that would seem to indicate that other alternatives are more effective) nor it's effect on KSM and so I can't comment on this in depth.

Jay@Soob said...

Dan, feel free to jam on any post anytime!

Spherical Object of Ground Bovine with a Delicious Swedish Gravy One, thanks.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Besides torture being immoral and not working for its declared purpose (eliciting info), there is another aspect - it gives some people with sadistic tendencies a carte blanche to pursue their hobby "lawfully".

But again, it's a technicality, and a clear - cut decision to stop it would be useful.

Anonymous said...

The point of those tactics being utilized on SERE students is to expose them to the tactics the enemy could use against them, not to teach them or anybody else which tactics to use on suspects.

That’s why SERE instructors like former SEAL Malcolm Nance spoke out over people deliberately misusing the lessons of SERE in an offensive manner and without perquisite background or study.

Andrew Sullivan described the problem of torture spreading and being corrosive on military discipline and bearing three years ago…

"What the hundreds of abuse and torture incidents have shown is that, once you permit torture for someone somewhere, it has a habit of spreading. Remember that torture was originally sanctioned in administration memos only for use against illegal combatants in rare cases. Within months of that decision, abuse and torture had become endemic throughout Iraq, a theater of war in which, even Bush officials agree, the Geneva Conventions apply. The extremely coercive interrogation tactics used at Guantánamo Bay "migrated" to Abu Ghraib. In fact, General Geoffrey Miller was sent to Abu Ghraib specifically to replicate Guantánamo's techniques. According to former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who had original responsibility for the prison, Miller ordered her to treat all detainees "like dogs." When Captain Ian Fishback, a West Point graduate and member of the 82nd Airborne, witnessed routine beatings and abuse of detainees at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, often for sport, he tried to stop it. It took him a year and a half to get any response from the military command, and he had to go to Senator John McCain to make his case.
In short, what was originally supposed to be safe, sanctioned, and rare became endemic, disorganized, and brutal. The lesson is that it is impossible to quarantine torture in a hermetic box; it will inevitably contaminate the military as a whole. Once you have declared that some enemies are subhuman, you have told every soldier that every potential detainee he comes across might be exactly that kind of prisoner--and that anything can therefore be done to him. That is what the disgrace at Abu Ghraib proved. And Abu Ghraib produced a tiny fraction of the number of abuse, torture, and murder cases that have been subsequently revealed. The only way to control torture is to ban it outright. Everywhere. Even then, in wartime, some "bad apples" will always commit abuse. But at least we will have done all we can to constrain it. "

This is a big reason McCain & Lindsay Graham (a reserve JAG judge) pushed hard for crystal clear, strict legislation on the issue within the military at least. It had taken such a toll that officers like Captain Fishback were asking the chain of command for clarification and leadership, getting nothing because VP Cheney & Rumsfeld had turned what should have been a clear issue of do and don’t into a freaking mess of doublespeak.

Again I would support it being an option for specially identified agents, but certainly not in the military. In reality, I would prefer it be illegal but for common sense to prevail. For example, police officers have been known to break the law to rescue a child in danger, whether that means beating information out of a definite suspect, raiding a place without a warrant or eavesdropping, etc. They accept that they will be tried and charged in a court of law and judged by their peers for their transgression. There is probably a degree of confidence they would be found not guilty or slapped on the wrist in such a case. Intelligence officers and others facing a real “ticking” time bomb scenario or something similar should have that same confidence.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

Jay@Soob said...

Thank you, Tony