Defining Torture

For several months now a furious debate has raged between Christian bloggers about the Bush Administration's use of "aggressive interrogation techniques" in the war on terror. You can get a flavor for it here, here, and here.

Some of the discussions in comment boxes have become quite angry. In one corner are those who say we face such a dire threat that dire means, and even torture, may be necessary and justified to protect lives. In the other corner are those who argue that torture in intrinsically evil and can never be allowed.

One reason the discussion is so heated is that it is, we are told by some, hard to define "torture." The Bush Administration claims it uses "aggressive" interrogation methods but does not condone torture. The president has persistently refused to define these terms, however, leaving many wondering exactly what is being done to prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Please understand, I do not deny the U.S. is in a perilous position and we need to acquire information to prosecute the war on terror. We must do so, however, without becoming the very same evil we are trying to defeat. This is what distinguishes us from Saddam Hussein and other despots of the world.

I happen to have a little bit of expert knowledge about interrogation, since I spent eight years as a military intelligence officer in the Army. I never actually interrogated anyone - my specialty was electronic warfare - but I did go through the general training that all MI officers get, which includes interrogation techniques. I was also trained in how to resist hostile interrogation since I possessed a lot of sensitive information. Nonetheless, seeing how vituperative the topic can be I've stayed out of it on this blog until now.

Recently while digging around in the attic I found some of my old army field manuals. One in particular has a lot to say about the topic of torture and interrogation. It is FM 27-2, "Your Conduct In Combat Under The Law Of War," and the date is November 1984. This small booklet tells soldiers how they are supposed to treat prisoners, at least as of 1984.

Page 13 informs the troops they must "Let enemy soldiers surrender."

You do not have to kill the enemy to accomplish your mission. Enemy soldiers may reach the point where they would rather surrender than fight...

Once enemy soldiers surrender to you, they are under your control. Their safety is your responsibility until you are relieved of them. Enemy soldiers who surrender are a source of valuable information. Moreover, other enemy soldiers may surrender if they see how well you treat captives.

Page 14 is titled "Treat all captives and detainees humanely."

When you capture enemy soldiers or detain any noncombatants or civilians during combat, you must treat them humanely according to the laws of war. , This includes civilians, whether organized guerrillas or local inhabitants who commit combat acts against you in support of the enemy...

Attacks upon personal dignity or other humiliating or degrading treatment are strictly forbidden by the law of war. It is particularly important to treat every captured or detained female with appropriate respect.

We all recognize that full compliance with the Geneva Conventions is not always easy for the combat soldier, especially in the heat and passion of battle. For instance, you might be extremely angry and upset because your unit has taken a lot of casualties from enemy booby traps or hit-and-run tactics. But you must never engage in reprisals or acts of revenge against any persons, enemy or civilian, whom you capture or detain in combat. Remember that you are responsible for the safety, security, and welfare of any persons you capture or detain. If you treat them as you would like to be treated were you captured or detained, then you will be treating them humanely.

Does this seem hard to understand? That last sentence I have placed in italics sums it up very well. Would you like to be waterboarded? Hung by your shoulders for hours? Kept in extreme cold conditions? If not, then you should avoid using these practices on prisoners.

On page 16 we come to the part about interrogation:

If you suspect a captured or detained person is an enemy soldier or spy, you do not know that you are correct. That determination is made by specified personnel at a higher headquarters. You may question captives and detainees for military information of immediate value to your mission, but never use threats, torture, or other forms of coercion. An enemy captive is required to give you only his name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

Combat experience has proven that useful information has been gained from captives who have been treated humanely, while information gained through torture or coercion is unreliable.

Again, this is official Army doctrine. It was developed from years of experience in various conflicts. It is proven effective and worked fine for decades. The Bush Administration would like us to believe that it's different now. Is it? I don't think so. Without saying anything about the morality of torture, hard-won experience tells us to avoid it because it doesn't work.

I haven't seen any current manuals on this subject, but I feel confident our current military leadership has not changed in this regard. To the extent torture tactics are being used, it is probably by the CIA and other non-military organizations. I do not know if the same laws of war apply to them, but the reality remains: torture is simply not an effective means of acquiring useful information from prisoners. Ethically, it is questionable at best. Therefore we as citizens should insist that agents of our government not torture people. I don't see why this is so hard to understand.

Now some will try to draw a distinction between "inhumane treatment" and "torture." FM 27-2 says it doesn't matter. If you don't want it done to yourself, you can't do it to prisoners. Following the Golden Rule is still the best practice, and is the best way to get the information we need.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Welcome, Mark Shea readers. Your interest in this post is driving my readership stats to unprecedented levels. Please come back often.