Boot Camp as Torture

Max Boot argues that those overly concerned about “torture” have apparently never been to boot camp:

HOLD THE PRESSES. I’ve discovered that the use of torture by the U.S. government is far more pervasive than previously believed. There are major facilities all over the country where thousands of men and women who have not committed any crime are held for prolonged periods while subjected to physical and psychological coercion that violates every tenet of the Geneva Convention.

They are routinely made to stand for long periods in uncomfortable positions. They are made to walk for hours while wearing heavy loads on their backs. They are bullied by martinets who get in their faces and yell insults at them. They are hit and often knocked down with clubs known as pugil sticks. They are denied sleep for more than a day at a time. They are forced to inhale tear gas. They are prevented from seeing friends or family. Some are traumatized by this treatment. Others are injured. A few even die.

Should Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross want to investigate these human-rights abuses, they could visit Parris Island, S.C., Camp Pendleton, Calif., Ft. Benning, Ga., Ft. Jackson, S.C., and other bases where the Army and Marines train recruits. It’s worth keeping in mind how roughly the U.S. government treats its own defenders before we get too worked up over the treatment of captured terrorists.

It’s an amusing point but, as Kevin Drum observes, rather strained. As with comparisons to fraternity initiations, pointing out ways in which acceptable things are unlike unacceptable things obscures the ways they are different.

For one thing, military recruits and fraternity pledges undergo their rituals willingly.

More importantly, the approved techniques employed on prisoners goes well beyond those used in tolerated “weeding out” rituals.

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Mild variations of the some of these techniques are used in hazing rituals and certainly, military training often involves being cold and wet but that’s because combat operations often take place in cold, rainy conditions. In the case of the military, such rigorous training is carefully monitored by trained professionals who have the well being of the recruit in highest regard. In the case of college initiations, they’re often handled by immature sadists and the subject of increasing controversy.

Further, as Boot admits later in the article, much harsher techniques have been used in some cases–and not just by the amateurs at Abu Ghraib.

Update: Glenn Reynolds has an excellent roundup of articles on the subject. His argument that we should be precise and discriminating in the use of the emotionally charged term “torture” is right, although we both agree that things that fall short of that standard may still be morally questionable and counterproductive.

This OpinionJournal op-ed is worth reading as well.


FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    If we go down the road Bush wants to take us on and become a nation that condones torture, we might as well pack it in, the terrorists have won…

  2. Fersboo says:

    Holy Jeebus!!!!

    Can we please move on? The argument has been skewed since the beginning by those whom wish to use a broad brush in defining torture.

    I have a better idea, why don’t those who do not want the US to ‘condone’ torture define what the US may do to interrogate prisoners.

  3. McGehee says:

    Now, Fersboo, don’t you go calling Anjin-san’s bluff. He’s liable to get mad and say something nasty about “101st Fighting Keyboardists.”

    And then you’ll be sorry.

  4. Herb says:


    Right on, but in the mind of Anjin, the terrorists his buddies, have already won and the US is doomed.


    Tell us again how Bush lied, or how bad the US is, or how you are a true blue American, or any other of your Hate America thoughts.

  5. Jay Cline says:

    It’s an amusing point but, as Kevin Drum observes, rather strained.
    For one thing, military recruits and fraternity pledges undergo their rituals willingly.

    What is straining the argument is the thusly implied conclusion that pre-1970s American boot camps must have been illegal torture.

    Apparently, some people here haven’t been around long enough to remember when military service was not voluntary.

    Max Boot’s arguments still stands.

  6. anjin-san says:


    I am still waiting for you to show a post of mine where I said Bush was AWOL, as you claim I did, or hear your response do my documentation of his early exit from the guard to go to Harvard while there was a shooting war going on.

    Oh yea, for that matter you did not comment after your claim that Salman Pak was used by Al Queda was shredded. What a suprise.

  7. Herb says:


    For everyones sake, GET OUT OF THE PAST.

    You are a broken record. You never, never come with anything origional and only consistantly and constantly dwell on the past.

    Are you a Dinosaur, or a Neanderthal? Or Both

  8. Anderson says:

    Herb, I am puzzled: what would you prefer Anjin-san complain about? Things that haven’t happened yet?

  9. McGehee says:

    I am still waiting for you to show a post of mine where I said Bush was AWOL

    That would be the one right before I first called you Bill Burkett. Jeez, do try to keep up, will you?

    Oh yea, for that matter you did not comment after your claim that Salman Pak was used by Al Queda was shredded.

    Your definition of “shredded” is non-standard.

  10. McGehee says:

    Herb, I am puzzled: what would you prefer Anjin-san complain about?

    I think Anjin could probably do a nice riff on the stretch-marks he gets under his armpits when he wears his belt too tight.

  11. anjin-san says:


    Just show us where I said Bush was AWOL. Simple request. Don’t talk about it, show us. Or are you lying about what I said?

  12. Boyd says:

    Forgive me for commenting on the original post, but the comparison to boot camp (which I was honored to attend in the mid-70s) reminded me of another school where military members are subjected to “torture:” SERE school.

    Since it’s a simulation of an enemy POW camp (in addition to other stuff), they get pretty rough.

    Attention slap? Yup.

    Belly slap? Not that I can recall.

    Attention grab? Only about every 2 seconds.

    Long time standing? Well, we had to do something while we were waiting for the next Attention Slap.

    Cold cell? I don’t think so, but one of my classmates spent an extended amount of time wearing nothing but his underwear, sitting in a shallow pond. In Maine. In November.

    Water boarding? Nope, definitely not.

    But there were a few others that I haven’t heard mentioned under the “torture” appellation. Like being folded into a wooden box in an extremely uncomfortable position for an extended period, while the guards would periodically walk by and beat the box with a bat or something similar.

    Or having my face shoved into the bowl of a pipe containing the most rancid tobacco I’ve ever come across, while an interrogator blew hard through the pipe and into my face.

    Or watching while a Bible was destroyed.

    Or being forced to shine the interrogator’s shoes with the US flag.

    There were probably some others that I’ve forgotten. But that’s just a sample. SERE school was fun.

  13. anjin-san says:


    What do you call a shredding? In the PBS article you cite as “proof” Al Queda was in Iraq before the war, the editor notes that there has been no verification of any of his claims and that they consider his claims to be suspect, a matter he has refused to discuss in the years since the original interview.

    I mean, this stuff would get you laughed out of a high school debate club.

    Editors response to McGhee’s “proof”:

    >Editor’s Note, November 2005: More than two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there has been no verification of Khodada’s account of the activities at Salman Pak. In fact, U.S. officials have now concluded that Salman Pak was most likely used to train Iraqi counter-terrorism units in anti-hijacking techniques.


  14. Herb says:


    The answer is NO, I wouldn’t want him to be like you. But then again, you both have a lot in common. You both know everything and are the Worlds foremost authority here on OTB.

  15. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: Yep, SERE school and, to a lesser extent, Ranger school and SEAL BUDS are at least as brutal as the “approved” techniques. At least there, though, people can wash out and go home.

  16. Boyd says:

    I suppose it must have been possible to wash out of a SERE class, but I can’t recall ever hearing about that happening, certainly not for the Prison Camp portion (I’m sure there must have been grunches of people who broke a leg or something during the survival/evasion phase).

    I think one thing that keeps students from dropping while in Prison Camp is the (intended) psychological stress they’re under. Many, many students very quickly start believing that what they’re experiencing is real.

    Since I have no imagination, I knew I had orders to leave for my next school on Saturday, so it couldn’t go on any longer than that. At least that one time, my shortcoming did me a favor. 🙂