This article was first posted on April, 22 2009.
Since George Bush’s book has waterboarding back in the news, I thought I would bump this classic article and its long train of comments back to the top of the Revo.
I was a U.S. Army SERE Instructor. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. I graduated from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center SERE Instructor Course at Camp Mackall in 1984 when COL Rowe was still the commandant and was still teaching classes there. COL Rowe was held POW in Vietnam under the worst conditions for five years until, on a work detail, he managed to kill his guard and escape. Sadly, COL Rowe was assassinated in February 1989 by communist insurgents while serving as chief of the Army division of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in the Philippines.* He was a great man and I am proud to have served under him.
Over at Slate, William Saletan is discussing the fact that Khalid Sheik Mohammad was not subjected to any torture technique that U.S. military personnel are not routinely subjected to. The pain and discomfort Mohammad experienced was no worse than the pain and discomfort thousands of U.S. military personnel have experienced over the decades. Saletan, however, tells us that SERE training is akin to S&M but the same techniques used on al Qaeda constitute rape. Well.
Saletan argues that, since soldiers know it is training and terrorists know it isn’t, it is therefore psychologically far worse for terrorists. A psychologist points out that SERE students are being trained to defeat interrogation, not succumb. They also state that trainees know it will end on graduation day. They point out several ways that torture is psychologically easier on trainees that al Qaeda.
For the most part I don’t disagree. Knowing the guys pouring water on your face are fellow soldiers and trainers has to make it somewhat easier. He goes on to claim, however, that the most important difference is that students can quit if they so choose.
Fifth and most important, SERE is voluntary. “Students can withdraw from training,” Ogrisseg noted. In a report issued four months ago, the Armed Services Committee added that in SERE, “students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop” any ordeal.
I disagree with this point. First and most obviously, the terrorists being interrogated can quit too. They can choose to start talking and the procedure will end. In fact, that is the very point of the exercise: talk and the water boarding will end. Terrorists, of course, don’t want to quit. I didn’t want to quit either.
As a matter of fact, SERE School is a very exclusive course. I went to great lengths to be allowed to apply for the course, to get accepted to the course and to pass the course. In the Army, voluntarily quitting a military schools is a very, very bad thing. Back in the 1980s when I served, quitting would get you what was called a “lack of motivation discharge” from the school. Woe be to the soldier who returned to his unit with an LOM discharge.
First would come the written counseling statements for your permanent record. That alone might very well bar you from reenlistment effectively ending your military career.
Secondly, you could forget having any and all good things to happen to you and expect many bad things to start happening. Once you are an LOM you are permanently a “shit bird” and shit birds get treated like, well, shit. You might never pass a field equipment inspection again causing “remedial training” exercises with the rest of the shit birds on Saturday mornings. You could expect your name to come up for nasty extra duty assignments way more often than can be explained by random chance. Essentially, life in the Army sucks for an LOM. It sucks to be you if you are deemed a shit bird.
By far the worst result of quitting would be the loss of social stature among your fellow soldiers. You would be seen forever more as a “non-hacker” who couldn’t be trusted when the shit gets deep. LOMs actually lose friends and are ostracized within their units. It is a special kind of hell that can make a soldier suffer in ways that are hard to explain and extremely hurtful. An LOM can change the trajectory of a young man’s life.
When I was subjected to the worst the trainers had to offer, I couldn’t quit. No way. Quitting would mean humiliation in front of my fellow soldiers: men from whom I wanted respect more than anyone else in the world. There was no way I could do the walk of shame into my unit headquarters carrying a lack of motivation discharge. I was a young man in my twenties and, at that point in my life, I am certain that I would have let them kill me before I would quit. Quitting was absolutely, positively out of the question. I have seen the same determination in hundreds of soldiers facing intense, harsh training.
The interrogations are no more physically painful for terrorists than for military trainees. The techniques are the same. You can argue, I suppose, that knowing that it is a training situation makes it easier on military trainees than it is on terrorist being interrogated. I do not believe, however, that for most military members who have been deemed proficient enough warriors to attend SERE training would find it any easier to quit than did Khalid Sheik Mohammad. At that time, at that age, I would have preferred death to failure. Quitting was a mortal sin that could not be contemplated. I didn’t quit. Mohammad did eventually quit.
I guess the final point I want to make from this former SERE Instructor’s perspective is this: I don’t really give a damn if KSM gets a little PSD if it saves American lives. If I could take harsh interrogation techniques, that pussy can too.
Read more here: A Narrative of JFK Special Warfare Center SERE Instructor School
*I was corrected in the comments below. When he escaped captivity, Col. Rowe was not, as I stated, out of camp in a work detail. He was being moved by the enemy. I stated that Rowe killed his captor when he escaped. He didn’t, he merely incapacitated him. Finally , I stated that Rowe was killed in February, 1989. The actual date was April, 1989. The intent of this post was not to discuss Rowe’s life but to discuss the timely issue of Bush era enhanced interrogation techniques. Because of that, I did not double check the details regarding Rowe’s life but rather went by my obviously flawed 25 year old memories. I regret the errors.