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SERE Training and Torture

One distressing meme that has spread with respect to the idea that because some of the techniques employed against captives in American detention camps are the same as those used in SERE training, these techniques must somehow “not be torture.” This is not a well-founded assertion. For those making that claim, I would highly recommend that they review the testimony of Dr. Jerald Ogrisseg, who is the former head of Psychological Services for the Air Force SERE School. In this testimony, he outlines the fundamental differences between SERE training and what occurs in real world settings.

For one thing, he notes that he advised against waterboarding members of the SERE class, because it creates permanent psychological damage:

However, that wasn’t the point, as psychologically the waterboard produced capitulation and compliance with instructor demands 100 percent of the time. During debriefings following training, students who had experienced the waterboard expressed extreme avoidance attitudes such as a likelihood to further comply with any demands made of them if brought near the waterboard again.

It’s worth noting that not only is this type of psychological damage strictly forbidden by law, the 100 percent capitulation rate makes it useless as an interrogation technique. If someone would say anything to avoid being waterboarded, he’ll say what his captives want to hear. Which is precisely why the KGB used this technique to elicit false confessions. Indeed, Ogrisseg himself notes when questions that waterboarding would not be a means of obtaining reliable information.

For another, Dr. Ogrisseg notes that with SERE training, all of the trainees are screened multiple times for psychological conditions:

Military SERE training students are screened multiple times prior to participating in training to ensure that they are physically and psychologically healthy. They get screened prior to entering the service to ensure that they don’t have certain disorders. Students are required to get screened by military doctors at their home bases prior to traveling for SERE training to ensure that they meet the physical and psychological standards for participating in training. Most SERE schools also mandate that students complete screening questionnaires after they arrive at SERE school as a final safety check and for additional help or interventions if needed, to include being restricted from experiencing particular training procedures. Furthermore, the students arrive with their medical records in hand or available electronically to document their entire medical history, and indications of prior psychological diagnoses since their original military-entry physicals.

In other words, the military pre-selects trainees for SERE schools based on their ability to stay psychologically healthy. Trainees for whom the techniques would cause psychological damage aren’t allowed in. Detainees, obviously, are not screened in the same way.

A third difference that Ogrisseg notes is that SERE is geared towards enabling the students to resist torture. Real world interrogations are not geared the same way:

Real world interrogation and detention facilities exist to elicit information from the enemy that will be used to shape future and ongoing military operations and provide our troops with tactical, operational, and strategic advantages. As such, the detention environment is another form of the conflict between adversaries. Unlike in SERE training where the goal is not to defeat the student, the real world interrogator wants to win.

In other words, while the techniques might seem similar prima facie, the goals of the interrogator are different in the two contexts.

A fourth difference noted is that with SERE, there are active efforts made to avoid dehumanizing the subject of interrogation in order to prevent abuses from occurring. This is not as prevalent in the real world:

When dealing with non-country personnel, as in the case of detainee handling, there is greater risk of dehumanization of these personnel, and thus a greater likelihood of worse treatment that exceeds the limits of operational instructions.

Which appears to be exactly what happened in Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, et. al.

A fifth difference is that during SERE training, the trainees receive regular debriefings after interrogations which come coupled with advice and instruction as to how to resist further techniques. As Ogrisseg states, “[t]hese debriefings are obviously not available to real world
detainees like they are to our students.”

A sixth difference is that SERE training is, ultimately, voluntary:

SERE training, to an extent, is a voluntary experience. Students can withdraw from training. It is not entirely voluntary, in that completing training is a job requirement for many military specialties. Failing to complete training can result in administrative consequences, disqualification from worldwide deployment, and possibly retraining into a different career specialty if students aren’t ultimately able to complete training. Nonetheless, students may terminate the training experience if they desire to.

Being a detainee, like being incarcerated in the criminal prison system, is not voluntary. Detainees cannot choose to withdraw from their detention.

Trainees are even capable of stopping an interrogation with a “safe word” if the experience becomes too much to handle. Detainees, of course, have no such recourse.

Oggrisseg demarks several other distinctions between SERE training and the abusive techniques deployed in the real world, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. The bottom line, though, is this: SERE is specifically designed to prevent its students from experiencing permanent psychological damage. What makes what happened at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and other places torture is that the intent of the interrogators was to inflict physical and psychological damage to its subjects. That is the very definition of torture as enshrined in the laws of the United States.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Clovis says:

    You’re absolutely correct. Perhaps we should train our guys to have their heads cut off with rusty kukras, seeing as that’s the sort of reception they normally get.

    P.S. Shave. Pull up your pants. Turn your hat around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 7

  2. davod says:

    “Abu Ghraib”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  3. An Interested Party says:

    re: Clovis | May 22, 2009 | 04:24 am

    How impressive…that was such a brilliant way to advance your argument…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  4. steve says:

    Good post Alex. Who does the waterboarding where and when all make a difference. The amateur waterboarding that people have undertaken to prove it is not torture, are nothing like the real thing. To make it equivalent, they need to have it done by some al Qaeda operative. There should be no time limits on their custody. It should be proceeded by 24 hours in a stress position.

    Since SERE was designed to help troops cope with torture, it stands to reason that the actual experience is torture. It’s as if a boxer trained to fight, but once in the ring claimed he really was not fighting.

    I wonder how many of those who went through SERE realize how closely they were being watched and how carefully they were screened?

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  5. Boyd says:

    Pardon me if I presume you bring this up in response to my comment on your earlier post. If so, this whole post is a strawman argument, and you’re still ignoring what I actually said in order to impute the argument that you want to knock down.

    Again, I’m calling you on your lack of respect for those of us who have actually been the recipients of these activities and what we think about them (except for those who already agree with you, of course — their opinions are very important to you).

    Why are our opinions of lesser value than those of people, like you, who have never experienced these things? Why do you discount us out of hand, Alex?

    Why do you not give us the respect we deserve?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. Boyd says:

    By the way, much of Dr Ogrisseg’s testimony is a crock of shit. Many things he says about SERE training certainly wasn’t true when I attended the Navy’s SERE training.

    Of course, my opinions, which are counter to yours, just prove that I’m brain-damaged. No surprise, since I was “tortured,” eh?

    Do you discount the possibility he had an agenda that he wanted to promote with his testimony?

    And finally…safe word? You’ve just proved that you post nonsense. You have no idea what you’re talking about here, Alex. Since you have no context, you have no clue whether what you post is true or not.

    But hey, you know better than us! We should count ourselves lucky that we have you to tell us what’s true, what’s the law, and who are criminals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Steve do you imagine no one was monitoring the procedure KSM endured? Until you know what was learned, you can have no idea of how effective or ineffective the technique was. I observed the water boarding of a volunteer. It was a lot of things, but torture it was not. I think if his hands were tied behind him and with those hands tied behind him he was pulled up overhead until his shoulders came out of their sockets, and he was beaten in that position. Like John McCain was treated by the adherents of the Geneva Convention, the North Vietnamese, I will be willing to call that torture. Using electrodes on sensitive parts of the body, burning, drilling of holes with power drills. Many things are torture. Tipping someone, on an inclined board, placing a cloth over their face and pouring a little water on it is not, and I repeat, not torture. Doesn’t even leave a mark. Real torture leaves marks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  8. Anon says:

    There’s also the point that waterboarding is something where the amount of suffering depends very much on how it is done.

    As an analogy, if someone pushes my head down in water for 30 seconds at a time, with a .5 second warning before doing so to let me get my breath, then it’s probably tolerable.

    If someone pushes my head down in water till I am just about ready to black out, or just about ready to suck water into my lungs, that’s an order of magnitude more distressing.

    Yet, superficially, both can be described in similar words.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  9. Brian Knapp says:

    Doesn’t even leave a mark. Real torture leaves marks.

    What size to the marks have to be?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Brian Knapp says:

    “What size DO the marks have to be.”

    Bad editor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. steve says:

    ” Real torture leaves marks.”

    So having to watch someone drown your child would be an acceptable enhanced interrogation technique? Done carefully it would leave no marks on prisoner or child. This definition leaves lots of room for fun with drugs, stress techniques that rip tendons and ligaments, techniques that cause internal injuries without leaving a mark. Would causing pulmonary edema count?

    This is a technique invented by the Spanish Inquisition. Men were men back then. They thought it was torture. Interesting that regimes we would not want to identify with, keep coming back to this as an interrogation tool.

    Boyd- As a fellow vet (Corpsman) I respect your opinion. However, I disagree. I think context matters a lot. There are any number of physical acts which are acceptable, even pleasurable, under some circumstances and not in others. The question then is whether it rises to the level of torture. Prior to our recent usage of this technique, we had prosecuted as a war crime Japanese for waterboarding. We had put in jail a law enforcement officer who waterboarded a prisoner. There seemed to be a pretty solid consensus that this was torture. Then we used it and there seems to be a post hoc attempt at justification by those who implemented the technique. Maybe there were people like you who thought all along it was not torture. Maybe you would have opposed prosecuting those who used it on our soldiers. We will never know, as your voice was not heard before. Having read over the Geneva Conventions, some of the Convention Against Torture and relevant sections of FM 3-24, I find it hard to see waterboarding as acceptable. As a practical matter, I also find it awful strategy and hurts in our larger efforts against the jihadists of the world. (Read Cavguy’s recent post in SWJ).

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Boyd says:

    Thanks for responding, Steve. Finally someone responds to what I actually wrote, rather than the argument they find easy to win.

    My original point was that Alex wants to prosecute interrogators who performed waterboarding, despite the fact that the practice was cleared for use. He wants to say “they knew, or should have known, that the practice was torture.” I contend that it’s not as clear-cut as he wants to pretend it to be. Also, he discounts the input of some people who have actual experience in this vein (the ones who disagree with him — but the ones who agree with him are golden).

    That’s all I’m trying to say. He’s trying to characterize the dispute as settled, that there are no valid arguments against his position.

    That’s what I’m talking about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. cian says:

    Tipping someone, on an inclined board, placing a cloth over their face and pouring a little water on it is not, and I repeat, not torture.

    The purpose of waterboarding is to induce the sensation of drowning. The prisoner must believe he is about to die. Reducing this to ‘pouring a little water on a cloth’ is typical of torture apologists whose moral cowardice will not allow them to acknowledge the true brutality of what they espouse. Cheney is a particularly sickening example of this kind of personality. Tough in the abstract far from the action, but when his country called on him to serve on the battlefield he hid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. Alex Knapp says:

    By the way, much of Dr Ogrisseg’s testimony is a crock of shit. Many things he says about SERE training certainly wasn’t true when I attended the Navy’s SERE training.

    So you’re claiming that the man who ran Psychological Services for the Air Force SERE doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

    Of course, my opinions, which are counter to yours, just prove that I’m brain-damaged. No surprise, since I was “tortured,” eh?

    No, you weren’t tortured. That’s the point. The context of SERE training is vastly different from what happens to detainees, as the testimony noted above indicates.

    Do you discount the possibility he had an agenda that he wanted to promote with his testimony?

    His agenda was to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God.” I imagine that this was in the context of his oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

    And finally…safe word? You’ve just proved that you post nonsense. You have no idea what you’re talking about here, Alex. Since you have no context, you have no clue whether what you post is true or not.

    That was found in the testimony of the officers in charge of running the Air Force SERE. Do you mean to imply that you are more familiar with SERE methods than the officers in charge SERE training? Why won’t you give them any respect?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  15. anjin-san says:

    My original point was that Alex wants to prosecute interrogators who performed waterboarding, despite the fact that the practice was cleared for use.

    “I was just following orders”. Where have we heard that before?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  16. Tlaloc says:

    Why are our opinions of lesser value than those of people, like you, who have never experienced these things? Why do you discount us out of hand, Alex?

    Why do you not give us the respect we deserve?

    I can take a stab at it:
    1) You are an anonymous internet poster and consequently none of us have any idea if you are even remotely what you claim to be
    2) The people who we do know who are educated on the matter don’t agree with you (see for instance Ogrisseg’s testimony in this post)
    3) You are clearly heavily partisan and thus its not like you can be considered an impartial observer in the matter

    I think that covers it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    Detainees, of course, have no such recourse.
    .

    lol, did you mean 3 top terrorist leaders with vital information on coming attacks of mass destruction?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    “I was just following orders”. Where have we heard that before?

    When you were asked why you voted DarthObama the 666. it was an echo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  19. An Interested Party says:

    How ironic that Boyd is whining about the fact that he isn’t receiving the proper respect that he thinks he is due but he doesn’t seem to show much respect to those who have undergone SERE training and believe waterboarding to be torture…I wonder how valid their opinion is to him…it is amazing that we are even having this discussion…how is it possible for anyone to actually believe that simulated drowning is not torture…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. anjin-san says:

    Tipping someone, on an inclined board, placing a cloth over their face and pouring a little water on it is not, and I repeat, not torture.

    Hmmm. You strap someone down and do things to them that are designed to break their will and make them talk… thats not torture?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. Clovis says:

    re: Clovis | May 22, 2009 | 04:24 am

    Exactly what argument do you think I’m advancing?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0