Lessons of the SERE School

…he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

His looks shewing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.

Captain Benwick listened attentively, and seemed grateful for the interest implied; and though with a shake of the head, and sighs which declared his little faith in the efficacy of any books on grief like his, noted down the names of those she recommended, and promised to procure and read them.

Persuasion, Chapter 11

The passage is pithier in the Amanda Root movie, but there’s something cool about the original Austen, if you can manage to slow yourself down long enough to understand what she’s saying. Anyway, I bring this up by way of introducing a completely different book, one that Linda says is making me too serious, like Captain Benwick. “You should perhaps include a greater allowance in your reading of something other than these depressing Bush critiques,” she told me the other night, and we both smiled at the reference.

But the book really is amazingly good. It’s Takeover, by Charlie Savage, and I encourage you all to procure and read it.

It’s great because Savage takes his role as a journalist seriously, which I guess makes him something of a dying breed. He offers scrupulously researched detail, never straying into opinion or editorializing, trusting the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And while much of the information he presents isn’t new, there’s power in the way he ties it into a coherent narrative.

And some of it is is new, at least to me. Like the part about Bush’s use of torture, and the roots of the particular techniques that have been employed in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the CIA black sites, and the Navy brig in Virginia where Jose Padilla was held for years before being charged.

The techniques the Bush-Cheney administration approved after 9/11 included a range of disorienting and debilitating ordeals, including stripping prisoners naked; subjecting them to prolonged isolation and sleep disruption and deprivation; bombarding cells for long periods with very loud music and grating sounds; leaving bright lights on in a cell twenty-four hours a day; keeping cells stifling hot or freezing cold; shackling prisoners in painful “stress” positions for many hours; exploiting prisoners’ phobias by such means as menacing them with fierce dogs; and — in the case of the CIA — water-boarding.

As Savage explains, these techniques had a very specific origin. They emerged from a type of US military training called SERE (for “Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion”).

SERE School was a by-product of the Korean War. During the war, Communist forces began producing elaborate propaganda films of American pilots who had been shot down and captured “confessing” to such heinous crimes as deliberately targeting civilians with chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. government knew that the confessions were false and that they had been coerced, but the prisoners of war did not seem to have been physically abused before making the “confessions.” After the war, when the pilots were returned, they all told the same story: Chinese interrogators, working with the North Koreans, had put them through a series of sustained torments — the same list described above — until their minds had bent and they had made false confessions.

The point of SERE training is to help air crews and Special Forces members prepare themselves to better resist that sort of treatment should they be captured by a country that doesn’t respect the Geneva Conventions. But the people who play the role of interrogators in SERE training are not real interrogators. Real interrogators, people trained to obtain useful, actionable intelligence, view the coercive techniques of the SERE curriculum as the worst possible approach, since all it does is manipulate the captive into telling you whatever it is he thinks you want to hear, regardless of the truth. Yet this is the approach the Bush administration has systematically employed in dealing with the threat of terrorism.

Once I saw the situation in that context, it all snapped into focus. Of course the Bush administration is employing illegal techniques to coerce false confessions as part of the War on Terror. They’re not interested in the truth. They’re only interested in getting the answers that they’ve already decided will help them the most. So: Public fears of imminent terror boost your level of public support? Great. Subject a few captured al Qaeda fighters (or even just random guys turned in for the $5,000 bounty you’re paying in Afghanistan) to waterboarding, and presto: You get a constant stream of “information” about scary plots that keep the public on edge and the terror alert level high. You’re taking public heat because you can’t catch the actual people running al Qaeda? Some bright lights, rock music, and smacky-face later, you get a string of “confessions” from the people you actually can catch, all of whom turn out to be key, high-level figures in the organization. (How many #2′s does al Qaeda actually have, anyway?)

It’s exactly the same approach they used in the run-up to the Iraq war, when they twisted the intelligence process to produce conclusions (that Saddam had WMD, was in bed with al Qaeda, and had an active campaign to acquire nuclear weapons) that supported the a priori decision to invade. For that matter, it’s the same approach they used during the Florida recount in 2000, when they didn’t care about finding the truth about who had received the most votes, but only about producing the outcome they wanted. It isn’t about truth. It’s about what they can get away with, what they can get people to believe, once “truth” as a goal has been dispensed with. It’s about politics, a game they’ve learned to win by being more ruthless than the next guy, more willing to run roughshod over any objection — rational, ethical, legal — that stands between them and the thing they want.

At its core, the Bush administration is founded on a lie: That George W. Bush is the sort of person that anyone in his right mind would pick to run a country. From the earliest days of the 2000 campaign they’ve been focused like a laser on maintaining that fiction. Everything that has followed — the incompetent loyalists in positions of authority, the lies, the coverups, the lawbreaking, and yes, the torture — all have their roots in the essential dishonesty that is at the heart of the Bush presidency.

5 Responses to “Lessons of the SERE School”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    I feel a little guilty as a Canadian devoting so much time to observing what is happening in America, and had been thinking it is about time to reconnect with what is happening here in my home and native land. However, I am willing to put that off just long enough to read Takeover on the condition that you, jbc, read merely the Introduction, Part 3 amd Part 4 of David Ray Griffin’s DEBUNKING 9/11 DEBUNKING An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory. Deal?

  2. jbc Says:

    Heh. Shew me not pained, but pleased, at the thought that you might read Takeover, and, despite sighs declaring my little faith in its efficacy, dutifully noting down the name Debunking 9/11 Debunking.

  3. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    One of the protagonists in William Gibson’s last novel Spook Country mentioned the SERE school. I knew I had heard that from somewhere

  4. leftbehind Says:

    The techniques employed under the Bush Administration have been in practice for at least fifty years, and are all text book procedures taught in torture classes at the School for the Americas, which has operated for how many years with the full knowledge and co-operation of just how many Presidents? How many of those Presidents were Democrat, again? (yes, I realize Jimmy Carter made noise to curb the SOA, but wasn’t that while his own administration was in cahoots with myriad SOA graduates involved in the US Sponsored Operation Condor?) Not excusing Bush, but the idea some people have that we were running a clean show until he took office and that everything will be okay when the good guys come back is short-sighted and naive. We’ve been dirty as shit for a long time, even when it wasn’t politically expedient to notice and the next bunch will be as bad as the previous, although they certainly won’t be as sloppy. The problem is more intrinsic to the system than can be even understood through the prism of partisan politics.

    “Apparently forgetting everything they once knew about US cold war misadventures, a startling number have begun to subscribe to an antihistorical narrative in which the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials on September 11, 2001, at which point the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo apparently emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s brains. Up until that moment, we are told, America fought its enemies while keeping its humanity intact.The principal propagator of this narrative (what Garry Wills termed “original sinlessness”) is Senator John McCain. Writing recently in Newsweek on the need for a ban on torture, McCain says that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, he held fast to the knowledge “that we were different from our enemies…that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.” It is a stunning historical distortion. By the time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had already launched the Phoenix program and, as McCoy writes, “its agents were operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam that killed more than twenty thousand suspects and tortured thousands more,” a claim he backs up with pages of quotes from press reports as well as Congressional and Senate probes.

    Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the US government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents–that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, at home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8 Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that “America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now.” Molly Ivins, expressing her shock that the United States is running a prison gulag, wrote that “it’s just this one administration…and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney.” And in the November issue of Harper’s, William Pfaff argues that what truly sets the Bush Administration apart from its predecessors is “its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations.” Pfaff acknowledges that long before Abu Ghraib, there were those who claimed that the School of the Americas was a “torture school,” but he says that he was “inclined to doubt that it was really so.” Perhaps it’s time for Pfaff to have a look at the SOA textbooks coaching illegal torture techniques, all readily available in both Spanish and English, as well as the hair-raising list of SOA grads… ”

    More at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051226/klein

    http://www.counterpunch.org/hodge11032004.html

    http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_5.3/borzutzky_mcsherry.htm

  5. leftbehind Says:

    “It’s not only apologists for torture who ignore this history when they blame abuses on “a few bad apples”–so too do many of torture’s most prominent opponents. Apparently forgetting everything they once knew about US cold war misadventures, a startling number have begun to subscribe to an antihistorical narrative in which the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials on September 11, 2001, at which point the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo apparently emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s brains. Up until that moment, we are told, America fought its enemies while keeping its humanity intact.

    The principal propagator of this narrative (what Garry Wills termed “original sinlessness”) is Senator John McCain. Writing recently in Newsweek on the need for a ban on torture, McCain says that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, he held fast to the knowledge “that we were different from our enemies…that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.” It is a stunning historical distortion. By the time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had already launched the Phoenix program and, as McCoy writes, “its agents were operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam that killed more than twenty thousand suspects and tortured thousands more,” a claim he backs up with pages of quotes from press reports as well as Congressional and Senate probes.

    Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the US government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents–that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, at home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8 Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that “America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now.” Molly Ivins, expressing her shock that the United States is running a prison gulag, wrote that “it’s just this one administration…and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney.” And in the November issue of Harper’s, William Pfaff argues that what truly sets the Bush Administration apart from its predecessors is “its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations.” Pfaff acknowledges that long before Abu Ghraib, there were those who claimed that the School of the Americas was a “torture school,” but he says that he was “inclined to doubt that it was really so.” Perhaps it’s time for Pfaff to have a look at the SOA textbooks coaching illegal torture techniques, all readily available in both Spanish and English, as well as the hair-raising list of SOA grads.

    Other cultures deal with a legacy of torture by declaring “Never again!” Why do so many Americans insist on dealing with the current torture crisis by crying “Never Before”? I suspect it has to do with a sincere desire to convey the seriousness of this Administration’s crimes. And the Bush Administration’s open embrace of torture is indeed unprecedented–but let’s be clear about what is unprecedented about it: not the torture but the openness. Past administrations tactfully kept their “black ops” secret; the crimes were sanctioned but they were practiced in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush Administration has broken this deal: Post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new definitions and new laws…”

    thenation.com/doc/20051226/klein

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