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.