An argument against SERE torture resistance training

February 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

I haven’t taken a position on whether waterboard resistance training as done by SERE is or is not immoral. That there are factual, objective, morally pertinent differences between waterboard resistance training and waterboarding prisoners to gather intelligence is obvious: the trainee enters into the procedure voluntarily, he knows it is a finite training exercise and will not be continued indefinitely, he knows it isn’t being done in order to make him betray his conscience or his comerades, etc. None of that makes it the case that waterboard resistance training is definitely morally acceptable, mind you. It does establish that even when we stipulate the moral liciety of waterboard resistance training, that doesn’t imply anything in particular about the morality of waterboarding prisoners.

But one reasonable prudential argument against treating our own troops to even a simulated dehumanization in training – and of course it is only morally licit if it is in fact a simulated dehumanization, not an actual one – is that such a program encourages the actual dehumanization of prisoners. So much rhetorical hay is made of the claim “we did waterboard resistance training on our troops, therefore waterboarding prisoners for intelligence is OK” that it may be immoral simply as a matter of imprudence to do this to our troops.

It is one of many ironies in the torture debates that training to resist dehumanization of our troops is being used as rhetorical cover for actual dehumanization of prisoners.

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§ 3 Responses to An argument against SERE torture resistance training

  • Tom says:

    This is, as you say, a prudential argument against doing it.

    At the time the program was started, the argument could probably have been easily countered by pointing out that interrogation training made it explicit that such treatment directed at prisoners constitutes a war crime. I mean, it's not like the U.S. waterboards its prisoners.

    In hindsight, though, there may be something to it.

    At the very least, we shouldn't train our troops to think that the only thing that makes a war crime bad is that it's a crime.

  • Anonymous says:

    RE: “This Kind of War” byTR Fehrenbach

    This was perhaps the most influential book on the military regarding the Korean War. It also addressed the POW question. Thousands of captured Americans collaborated with their Communist captors even going so far as to betray their fellow Americans who did not collaborate. The US accused the Communist's of “brain washing” their prisoners because the Communists did not abuse their prisoners for intelligence purposes but to change their value systems and to convent the prisoners to Communism.

    However Muslim prisoners (principally Turks) resisted the Communists, maintained their solidarity and came home relatively unscathed. The Turks credited their strong religious faith for their performance.

    In order to prepare Americans for captivity by Communists the US issued a “Code of Conduct” and provided SERE (Survival Escape Resistance Evasion) training to high likelihood of capture personnel (Special Forces, Combat Air Crew, Etc.) COL Nick Rowe, who had been a POW of the VC developed the program during the late 70's at Fort Bragg. Guys from my unit were sometimes volunteered as “wind dummies” to help. I still have thousands of pages of original lesson plans in my attic. COL Rowe was KIA by a Communist terrorist in the PI. A great American soldier. May he rest in honored peace.

    After his death the SERE program vastly expanded and went into several directions. Charges were made (I think correctly) that in some cases the training degenerated into little more than dangerous frat house hazing.

    The Turks did not undergo SERE training prior to capture and their successful resistance. A huge debate used to rage in my day about the value of the post Rowe SERE Program. (I was deeply impressed with what I saw of the original program.)

    Whether the present SERE training is useful is debatable but as is in all human events the basic rule for conducting this training should be respect for Human Dignity and charity.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • […] we waterboarded SERE trainees. Omitting facts in an analogy, equivocation. Furthermore, our own government has expressly said that “the SERE waterboard experience is so […]

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