Friday, November 10, 2006

Coercion and torture in time of war

Blogger Paul Hsieh contemplates the ethics of torturing enemy prisoners at Noodlefood, sparked by a recent video in which Fox News reporter Steve Harrigan volunteered to undergo the controversial water-boarding interrogation procedure.

My view is that any form of coercion is not pretty, but is nevertheless often justified and necessary. I remember when I was in the Marines and had to play hostage in an abandoned jail cell for an exercise. Being locked up in a claustrophobic cage with nothing to do for several hours but count the seconds was seriously un-fun. I personally have spent untold hours in confined spaces without ever suffering any worrisome effect, but once that element of personal freedom is removed, even a short stint can be a trial.

In other Marine training, I had to endure several days of play as a captured prisoner of war where cold, damp, hunger and being commanded to sing a bizarre bar song were each used as a means of inflicting discomfort. At 3 AM when you are violently shivering from hypothermia and have to sing the same #$%% song that you've sang for the last 24 hours, life can feel pretty miserable. While I saw the exercise though to its end, I was shocked by the number of men in my unit who didn't. Even relatively mild discomfort can break down a man’s resistance.

Yet ultimately, if making the enemy feel scared, miserable, or even horrified for his life saves American lives and achieves victory, I say let the deed be done. There is only one thing that an enemy can do to save himself from our wrath, and that is surrender completely and totally. If he fails to yield in any way, he continues to wage war against us, and in my view, remains fair game for war to be waged back upon him.

3 comments:

Myrhaf said...

Because I was airborne in the USAF I had to go through POW training. It's funny -- I went through it without a problem at the age of 19. It was just another thing I had to do, like filling out paperwork.

But now I look back at what I went through and I shiver. I could not do it now.

Mario said...

Not that this is any way to spend one's lunch break, but what Mr. Harrigan went through looks to me like playtime.

Let's see, as soon as he cried uncle, his friends in the L.L. Bean ski masks stopped. Now we all know what waterboarding looks like, right?

This stunt illustrates nothing.

It is in no way immoral to torture terrorists. The point is that it is crazy to allow your own government to include torture techniques in its arsenal, and to train men in torture, give them a tour of duty to warp their minds with it, and then release these men back into society. And these objections do not even begin to touch on the issue of how such a policy erodes the high-minded image the U.S. should be cultivating to "win the hearts and minds" of the world.

By contrast, outright killing is entirely clean and defensible. Torture will come back to bite us.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

Mario brings up two points worthy of consideration:

>The point is that it is crazy to allow your own government to include torture techniques in its arsenal, and to train men in torture, give them a tour of duty to warp their minds with it, and then release these men back into society.

I would agree, being an instrument of torture in war is not for everyone; but neither is being an instrument of death. Torture against the enemy in time of war and for the sole purpose of saving American lives would have to be explicitly deliberate, precisely focused and appropriately restrained. It would have to be part of a deliberate program to win victory against a ruthless enemy, and be limited only to captured enemy of important intelligence value who refuse complete and total surrender. At root, this is a choice between the comfort of an enemy, or the lives of our own. For clear moral reason, I choose the lives of our own.

Unfortunately, that is not how it has always been. My revulsion over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal was not so much that the enemy was mistreated, but that his mistreatment was wanton and purposeless, save for aggrandizing the whims of a few low-ranking sadists.

>And these objections do not even begin to touch on the issue of how such a policy erodes the high-minded image the U.S. should be cultivating to "win the hearts and minds" of the world.

I respectfully disagree; we would signal to the world that we are willing to do what is necessary to win, and that we will not tolerate an enemy who acts against us in any way, even as a prisoner. War is hell, and the torture of high value prisoners until they reveal all their knowledge to us lets the world know that we intend to make our enemy’s lives hell until they choose to yield and take a path of peace.