Anyone who has served in the military for any length of time ends up with a handful of ribbons, medals and other symbols of recognition or accomplishment. One that I value very highly is a small patch showing a small loop of barbed wire and the letters SERE — search, evasion, resistance and escape. The SERE (pronounced “sear”) patch represents an experience that I’ll never forget.
SERE starts with three days in classroom sessions followed by two cold, wet days and nights on an isolated part of a Pacific Coast beach with no food or shelter. We students made up a weak soup of clams, crabs, seaweed and other items we thought might be remotely edible. After that, we were bused 150 miles to a camp in the San Bernardino Mountains for five more days. That camp started with another cold night and another weak soup of bugs, roots, snakes and leaves — and then the real fun began.
We were told to get from our camp in the woods to a cabin about 5 miles away. If we got there without being captured, we would get a hot meal and a bed to sleep on. What they didn’t tell us was that no one ever gets to the cabin. I managed to evade capture for about five hours.
The POW portion of the school tries to make your experience as real as possible. We were told that the acting guards would not break character and that everything is intended to be a lesson. The only rule was that we were forbidden to fight back. We were told that if we had any ideas of how we would act in a real situation, now was the time to try it out because this will be as real as it gets without being an actual POW. I was anxious about whether I would weaken and give up under pressure and vowed to try to act like Rambo. Besides, I figured they would never get as rough as the real thing. That was a big mistake.
Within 30 minutes of capture, I was waterboarded. For failure to return a deep bow correctly, I was tied, face up, lying on a bench. Then a towel was pressed over my face and water was poured onto the towel. The effect was ingenious, immediate and very effective. I was convinced I was drowning, but I swallowed very little water. As soon as I agreed to bow properly, they stopped.
I recovered very quickly after the towel was taken away. By the time I was untied, I felt good enough to be defiant again. The head guard gave me a deep bow at the waist and then demanded I return the gesture. I nodded my head up and down about an inch. This enraged the guard, and I was waterboarded again. This sequence repeated three more times before we were all rushed off on buses and taken to our POW camp.
In the POW camp, we were kept in small boxes, interrogated, indoctrinated and subjected to various unpleasant physical coercions — what some would call torture. In the post-camp debrief, I was told to tone down the macho act — in a real POW camp, I would have been shot. I left the camp four days later, very hungry and tired with a lot of soreness and bruises and a few cuts and scrapes. I was waterboarded 13 times, but I would not classify what I experienced as torture.
Torture is what the North Vietnamese did to our POWs — like John McCain and James Stockdale — that inflicted permanent bodily damage. Torture is what they did during the Spanish Inquisition. Torture is not the unpleasant discomfort of loud music, meager meals or physical exhaustion. These forms of coercion just don’t seem to be bad when compared with saving lives.
I would certainly agree with Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, when he said, “If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used — and will be used — to obtain the information. ... No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.”
A more modest statement was offered by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “Under certain circumstances, most morally sensitive persons would surely allow interrogators to yell at prisoners and to use psychological intimidation, sleep deprivation, and the removal of creature comforts for purposes of obtaining vital information. In increasingly serious cases, most would likely allow some use of pharmaceuticals and more intensive and manipulative psychological techniques. In the most extreme of conceivable cases, most would also allow the use of far more serious mechanisms of coercion — even what we would all agree should be labeled as torture.”
I agree and would not hesitate to use waterboarding and other physical coercion techniques if I were convinced that it would result in getting information that would save lives. Ah, but therein lies the dilemma. It works often enough that most nations still do it, but research shows that more often than not, physical coercion results in false information. Any honest and objective analysis shows that the benefits are usually not justified. Usually, but not always.
Tom Watkins is a retired Navy officer and former business consultant. He lives in Montpelier.
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