Some arguments are so pernicious, wrong headed, and simply thoughtless that you don’t want to spend too much time thinking about them. At the same time, you want to address them, because they are so pernicious, wrong headed, and simply thoughtless. That goes for the argument, “Well, we use these enhanced interrogation techniques on our own soldiers, so why are you making such a big deal that we use them on our enemies?” The reference is to Navy and Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.
Let’s leave aside the obvious response, that Navy and Air Force pilots have entered their training programs voluntarily. How can you compare training techniques with cruel treatment that can and did result in death? You can’t.
Even more significant is the way the SERE techniques found their way into the interrogators’ toolkits. After the Vietnam war, our military trainers heard stories from returning prisoners of war about how their captors treated them. The trainers said, “Man, we need to give our pilots better preparation.” So they copied the torture techniques the North Vietnamese used against our prisoners, in order to give our pilots realistic training. Thus SERE techniques came across the vast Pacific Ocean to our military bases.
Now the CIA needs what they call aggressive or enhanced techniques to extract information from detainees captured in the GWOT (Global War on Terror). They look around and say, “Those techniques they’re using to train our pilots look pretty good.” They’ve been sanitized by now – long time since they were used at the Hanoi Hilton. So the CIA starts to treat our prisoners the same way the North Vietnamese treated theirs.
Waterboarding has been around for many years; it was practiced by intelligence officers in Vietnam on a routine basis – despite the caption that appears on the photo.
Needless to say, our current enemies will follow our example just as readily as we imported torture techniques from Vietnam. The Islamic State shows no hesitation about that. The Islamic State practices cruelty without our example to encourage them, to be sure, but it helps their recruitment to say that they aim to give back to us what we gave to them.
So when you hear people argue that the SERE techniques are not torture because we use them to train our own pilots, think again. The way we have treated our prisoners is a war crime, and always has been.