On his first day in office, President Obama kept his most important campaign promise and began the process of closing Guantanamo. But this eliminates only the most visible part of the U.S. torture bureaucracy. In order to ensure that the atrocities of Guantanamo aren’t visited upon the world by future administrations, Obama must also eviscerate the structures that enabled and supported torture. At the top of a long list is the U.S. military’s secretive torture school, known as SERE, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape.
Founded in the aftermath of the Korean War to train U.S. servicemen to withstand enemy interrogation, the school was central to the development of the notorious “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo. It was the SERE program that sent instructors and staff psychologists to Guantanamo shortly after 9/11 and provided the technical expertise on tactics like water-boarding. As Jane Mayer put it in her study of U.S. torture policy, The Dark Side, “SERE is a repository of the world’s knowledge about torture, the military equivalent, in a sense, of the lethal specimens of obsolete plagues kept in the deep-freeze laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control.”
I served in the Marine Corps in the 1990s, and I attended SERE as a young lieutenant in November 1995. I have since been to Iraq three times (as a reporter), and I can attest that the school isn’t relevant to the threats American soldiers face abroad. It resembles more of an elaborate hazing ritual than actual training.
While I was in the school, I lived like an animal. I was hooded, beaten, starved, stripped naked, and hosed down in the December air until I became hypothermic. At one point, I couldn’t speak because I was shivering so hard. Thrown into a 3-by-3-foot cage with only a rusted coffee can to piss into, I was told that the worst had yet to come. I was violently interrogated three times. When I forgot my prisoner number, I was strapped to a gurney and made to watch as a fellow prisoner was water-boarded a foot away from me. I will never forget the sound of that young sailor choking, seemingly near death, paying for my mistake. I remember only the sound because, try as I might, I couldn’t force myself to look at his face. I was next. But for some reason, the guards just dropped the hose on my chest, the water soaking my uniform.
I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp. Training had stopped, from my point of view. We had crossed over into some murky shadow land where the regulations no longer applied. I was sure that my captors, who wore Warsaw Pact-style uniforms and spoke with thick Slavic accents, would go all the way if the need arose.
Based on my conversations with recent graduates of SERE, it’s clear that the school continues to inflict on trainees the techniques I experienced, such as sensory deprivation, extreme confinement, and exposure to loud music and recordings of wailing babies. According to congressional testimony given in November 2007 by Malcolm Nance, a former SERE instructor, they still water-board at SERE. If water-boarding is torture, then why are we still doing it to U.S. servicemen? Yes, enlistment in the units that attend SERE is a voluntary act, but must it entail the signing away of basic human rights?
The question is especially pertinent because America’s enemies haven’t used SERE’s techniques of “mind control” since the Korean War. No doubt some military officials will argue that SERE has never been more necessary than it is today, given that there is no front line in the war on terrorism. Our troops are in constant danger of being captured, as in the kidnapping of two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division near Yousifiyah, Iraq, in May 2007.
But a review of the experiences of American servicemen captured in Iraq and Somalia shows that our enemies don’t water-board their captives. Nor do they have the resources to mount a program of systematic sensory deprivation and humiliation, as we did in Guantanamo and in the American prison at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base. In fact, our soldiers need training from SERE based on an entirely different premise, as illustrated by the experience of Michael Durant, the helicopter pilot who spent several weeks in captivity when he was captured by Somali fighters during the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” raid. Durant survived by befriending his captors and forcing them to see him as a fellow human being. SERE conditions servicemen to expect nothing but the worst from their captors; Durant’s life depended on his ability to understand his captors and find ways to manipulate them psychologically.
At the same time, the problem with SERE extends far beyond its questionable relevance to the threats that the war on terrorism pose to American soldiers. The school, which all pilots and special-forces soldiers attend, unintentionally serves to legitimize the use of torture by U.S. personnel in the field. In at least one documented case, special-forces soldiers in Afghanistan modeled their interrogations on the SERE training they received. The unit, the “20th Special Force Group,” forced prisoners to kneel outside in wet clothing and repeatedly kicked and punched prisoners in the kidneys, knees, and nose if they moved, resulting in the death of one detainee, according to Mayer’s book.
The experience of torture at SERE surely plays a role in the minds of the graduates who go on to be interrogators, and it must on some level help them rationalize their actions. It’s not hard to imagine them thinking, Well, if I survived this, then it’s OK to do it to this guy. This acceptance of abuse from up high down to the lowest levels is the root of our military’s torture problem. Unlike other Western militaries (Britain’s, for example), ours thrives on sometimes-cartoonish authoritarianism and contrived rites of passage (like those hazing scandals that continually plague all the service academies). To young, impressionable soldiers, it is a too-short mental leap to the depredations of Abu Ghraib, as evidenced by a 2007 Army Times poll showing that 44 percent of enlisted Marines thought torturing a detainee was OK under certain circumstances. As John McCain said of torture in 2005, “It’s not about them—it’s about us.”
Because the operation of SERE is entirely a military matter, its role hasn’t received anything like the attention of the legal machinations that licensed the Bush administration’s abuses at Guantanamo. But unless we stop torturing our own servicemen and training them how to torture others, unless we close SERE and retrain its instructors, Guantanamo could happen again.