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.
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.