Air-Minded: SERE & Torture

People keep saying torture can’t be all that bad … after all, we torture our own aviators and special operations forces at a super-secret training facility so they’ll be able to stand up to it if they’re ever captured by the enemy …. and you don’t hear any of them complaining, do you?

The acronym for this specialized training is SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. When I went through the training in January 1979, the different services operated their own survival schools, but today it appears an organization called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency conducts SERE training for all the services at a facility located on Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington. It just so happens that’s the old USAF survival school I went to, and from all I read, the course of training there hasn’t changed significantly from what I experienced.

pow camp
POW camp at the Fairchild AFB SERE training facility

The basic idea behind SERE training is spelled out in the name: you learn to live off the land while evading capture if forced down behind enemy lines. You learn that if captured, the enemy will torture you in an attempt to extract information or coerce you into making propaganda statements. You learn resistance techniques to help you live up to the military code of conduct for as long as you can. You learn how previous generations of POWs communicated with one another in prison camps, and how to make or take advantage of escape opportunities.

The really cool thing about the training is that it’s not classroom stuff. You’re out in the woods and mountains for two days, literally living off the land while navigating from your simulated crash position to an area where partisan resistance fighters might help you get back to friendly lines. You make your own shelters, hide from pursuing enemies, dig up edible roots and rig snares to catch your dinner, and trek across rugged terrain. Mostly you starve, but at the end, the partisans feed you.

The other half of the training is resistance and escape. You’re captured by the enemy, tortured and interrogated, then finally thrown into a POW camp with other Americans. This too goes on for two days, or at least it did when I went through the training: 24 hours of torture and interrogation, 24 hours of POW camp.

When I went through SERE school the curriculum, if that’s the word for it, was based on the recent experiences of our POWs in Vietnam. A USAF major, himself a long-term Vietnam POW, ran the school, and other POWs helped design the training. Before that the school taught lessons learned from the Korean War; before that, WWII. Presumably, today’s training incorporates what we’ve learned from the Persian Gulf wars.

The torture? It’s primarily sleep deprivation, accompanied by contrasting bouts of sensory deprivation and overload, plus physical pain brought on by being forced to maintain “stress positions” for lengthy periods of time. You’re forced into a cramped little box with adjustable floors and walls so that short or tall, you can’t stand straight or squat down for relief, and left there for hours while screechy music and propaganda speeches blare from loudspeakers. It’s black inside and you can’t see a thing. Guards open the peepholes every few minutes and scream at you. Just about the time the good sensory deprivation hallucinations start they drag you out and force you into a horizontal cage, down on your hands and knees, and leave you there for hours. They they drag you out for interrogation and torture, forcing you to stand on one foot while they insult you and scream some more. Then it’s back to the standing box. If you have to pee (or, god forbid, shit), there’s a coffee can at your feet, oh so easy to accidentally kick over in the dark. They clean the coffee cans with an industrial-strength solution I can still smell today. It’s a singularly unpleasant experience.

But it isn’t torture, not even close. Here’s the thing: they can’t actually harm you, and you know it’s going to end. No matter how realistic they make it, no matter how deep into it you allow yourself to get, you never forget it’s just training. By the time you’re with your fellow captives in the POW camp, it’s actually kind of fun.

It wasn’t like that for the captives we tortured in Afghanistan, Iraq, the black sites, or Guantanamo. When we threatened to harm or kill, they knew we meant it (and yes, we did kill a few). They didn’t (and don’t) know that what they were (and still are) going through would ever end. Standing like a stork on one foot for 45 minutes is painful … try it … but it’s not torture.

Torture is being waterboarded, hanging naked from shackles for days on end, having your dinner pureed and forced up your ass, being caged for years in an isolation cell.

Torture is what the Vietnamese did to our POWs, and why we aren’t listening to John McCain rather than that draft dodger Dick Cheney is a mystery for the ages.

Next time some authoritarian chickenhawk tells you we torture our own troops in training and therefore it ain’t no big thing, you have my permission to puree their dinner and force it up their ass. Be sure to toss a couple of habañeros into the Cuisinart first.

© 2014 – 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


10 thoughts on “Air-Minded: SERE & Torture

  • Excellent essay. I think you’ve outdone even yourself. We’ve all been waiting for your follow-up discussion on torture, and you’ve made some superb points. Being able to speak from experience certainly brings a new perspective to the issue. I would, however, still like to see you address the issue of why we use techniques we know don’t produce any reliable information. Hmmmmmm?
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  • Well, I know something about this aspect of it. I don’t know why we keep coming back to torture, though. We know from our own experiences of torturing and being tortured it doesn’t work. The CIA tortured a former Soviet agent for years in the 1960s before finally deciding he didn’t know anything worth telling about Lee Harvey Oswald, and in the 1980s officially renounced torture as an interrogation technique, only to come back to it after 9/11. Cheney and all the rest of them are simply lying when they say it works and produces actionable intelligence. And they know they’re lying. So why do they like torture so much? I can only conclude the real reason is they get off on it.

  • Great piece. DM used to work with a guy who was an interrogator in SERE for SAC he told me he stopped because he never met anyone that couldn’t be broken but a lot who couldn’t be put back together.

  • Paul, would you mind if I linked this article on my FB page? I have family who just doesn’t get it, and I think you have eloquently argued the point.

  • I cross-posted this entry on Daily Kos (link:, where a commenter informed me that the two psychologists in the news, the ones who got that sweetheart $80 million dollar contract to reverse engineer SERE school torture techniques for the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, were active at the Fairchild school as far back as 1979, when he and I went through the training. You don’t have to look very hard to connect the dots on this torture story, do you?

  • “No matter how realistic they make it, it’s fun and just training”.

    Umm, no. If they actually made it realistic like true torture, you would be disfigured. Even stuff the USA does to people in torture facilities in Iraq and Guantanamo are several times worse than even the worst thing you will ever experience at SERE.

    They don’t even punch you in the face at SERE, and since 2007 they stopped even doing waterboarding.
    Sorry but this is nothing close to real torture. In real torture you will have things done to you so extreme that you may even die in the process. Talking about stuff like rubbing sandpaper on your genitals until your genitals are fully mutilated, talking about stuff like shoving nails in your gum, being sprayed every day in the eyes with pepper spray, having your foot slowly burned over a fire and then later amputated, causing intense infections that cause pain in healing wounds etc.

    No buddy, you didn’t experience “realistic torture”. You experienced something at SERE that was not torture, but more like a Hazing ritual.

    The only real cases of actual torture at SERE, are causes where guidlines were not followed, such as the girl who was raped and beaten to a pulp and chocked unconscious and unable to sleep for multiple days and starved. That girl’s treatment amounted to what is real torture (even though it’s still not as intense as what would happen to you if you got caught by a real enemy). As a result of what happened to her being real torture, she was traumatised and had psychological issues and depression for the rest of her life after this. That’s the result of actual torture.

    You however, and the average SERE trainee, doesn’t undergo actual torture.
    It’s as ignorant as letting your wife tie you up for kinky sex and then claiming that you have experienced actual rape……….just no.

  • Thank you for the macho posturing. You quote part of what I said, and left this out:

    “But it isn’t torture, not even close. Here’s the thing: they can’t actually harm you, and you know it’s going to end.”

    I think I made the point you’re so outraged about abundantly clear in my post.

  • It wasn’t macho posturing, it was just pointing out a correct position that many critical of this have pointed out. SERE fake torture doesn’t prepare a person for actual torture, therefore it’s quite pointless. The levels of severity are what make a person break, these are simply things you cannot prepare anyone for.

    It’s like trying to make a program to prepare a woman for being raped, when we see actual rape victims, they are not toughened up, they are permanently traumatised.

    This is the same with torture, both of these are so traumatic that they break people, you can’t be prepared for them or toughened up for them by doing minor things that don’t amount to these things.

    In real life the torture is going to be so extreme that you will talk, however the government would rather you die than to talk (because state information is more important than a lowly soldier’s life), so the entire goal of SERE and general humiliation during the military environment is in the Pentagon’s own words “strip soldiers of their identities”.
    This is why they always talk down to you in the military and call you names, the goal is to make you think of yourself as worthless and that even the idea of standing up for yourself is conceited.

    Often captured soldiers are more scared of what their own government is going to do to them when returned if they let out state information, usually you will end up being tortured again (this time by your own government in a CIA black site), and then you will be sent to prison for being a traitor and revealing state secrets, this is also done to make an example of people who talked.

    Essentially if you are captured by the enemy, the US government would rather you resist until you are killed during torture, instead of talk to survive and stay alive.
    If you think the government actually respect random soldier’s lives, or that the military is meant to be positive for a person’s self, you are thoroughly brainwashed.

    Men in the military are 1.53x more likely to commit suicide than men outside of the military, and women in the military are a whopping 5.5x more likely to commit suicide than women outside of the military (this is largely due to a lot of rape and no justice for women in the military), it treats people like trash deliberately, and most of the recruits come from lower class backgrounds, people who joined because they really didn’t see too many other options in life for themselves.

    This is what your government thinks about you, don’t get it twisted in your brainwashed head.
    “Military Men Are Dumb, Stupid Animals To Be Used As Pawns For Foreign Policy.” – Kissinger -National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.

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