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Waterboarding, Torture, and Me Print E-mail
By Dennis Bartlett   
Wednesday, 20 May 2009

During the Vietnam Era, I received a commission as a U.S. Naval intelligence officer. Part of my training involved a SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) episode at the euphemistically named Resistance Training Laboratory (RTL), then located at Warner Springs in the mountains east of San Diego. The RTL was basically a simulated POW camp to prep its pupils on what to expect if downed over North Vietnam and captured. As Yogi Berra says, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." A case in point: We received about a week of instruction in the class room about what to do if captured, and took it all in like other class material. Then, when we were exposed to the real thing, it all went to hell in about a nanosecond. But that was part of the training, too. There is no substitute for experience.

Even knowing that the whole exercise would only last about thirty hours and that it was really just POW theater – and that we would be back at the club at NAS North Island for happy hour on Saturday night – it was quite frightening. After getting captured and for openers having all preconceptions kicked out of us, (one JAG commander never hit the ground for about five minutes as they tossed him back and forth like a medicine ball), we went through marathon waterboarding to effect “positive attitude changes.” If you resisted interrogation in any way, some guy (all carefully trained Navy guys with a Navy doc in attendance) would do an impersonation of an NVA guard: "You bad attitude. You numba 10, air pirate! You go wata-bowd. Ha, Ha Haaa!" Anyway, I remember being hauled out of my box (3’X3’X3’) about 0200 in 40-degree weather, stripped to the waist, pummeled to the ground (no reasonable arguments here!), lashed to the board, and then having a towel put over my face and, of course, the water.

They only did it in about three second intervals, during which the disturbing knowledge comes to you that, basically, you are a coward at heart. At any rate, this went on through the night, the only relief being that there were so many "clients" that it took time for the interrogator impersonators to get back around to you. During the interim, we were housed in the above mentioned confined boxes or dragged out and slammed against the wall (double pieces of corrugated iron – made a heck of racket, but gave when you hit it). And the thought that if you could only hold out until you got back to the O Club for the ten-cent margaritas was no consolation.

My take on water boarding? It's very effective, and equally harmless. I wouldn't recommend this as a therapy, but up until that night I had suffered from severe and chronic sinus infections. So damn much water flushed through my head during the ordeal that the last screaming virus in my sinuses was washed out on its way to oblivion. I have not had a sinus problem since. (O thank you, U.S. Navy!).

Furthermore, nobody even questioned the procedure at the time. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Navy personnel headed for Lyndon’s Tour of Southeast Asia were subjected to waterboarding at the RTL. I don’t recall any complaints. It came with the territory. Most guys quickly laughed it off.

Of course, the question of whether waterboarding should be used against captured enemies of the United States quickly falls afoul of political complexities. Is it worth all the political turmoil at home and abroad? You could argue it several ways. And most Catholics and other serious believers will rightly hear a lot from the clergy about respecting the intrinsic dignity of others, including enemy captives. But as someone who has gone through the procedure and reflected on it, I am somewhat amazed at all the hype about waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a clearcut case of torture. Torture is much easier to identify – for instance, when some enemy agent takes your eye out with a soldering iron, or a session in the ropes such as John McCain was subjected to in Hanoi. Real torture would never be used in this country as a training technique.

When I look at the profile of some of the politicians who are most prominent in the opposition to waterboarding, I find that many have no military experience. And those who did probably never had any stress training (or even, if truth be told, known how to handle themselves in the school yard). It’s easy to indulge in moral outrage about things you have never experienced, especially when the media will make you look brave and principled for doing so. Whether that is really the moral or wise thing to do when it may lead to putting others in danger is another thing entirely.

Dennis Bartlett, who holds an Ed.D from the University of San Francisco, currently is the executive director of the American Bail Coalition. He was part of the Saint Ignatius Institute administrative staff for almost a decade, helped founding Ignatius Press, and has served in the Department of Justice as liaison with INTERPOL.

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Comments (21)Add Comment
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A Thought
written by William Dennis, May 20, 2009
Very good indeed.  This potrays well the extent to which waterboarding has been politicized. Perhaps some of our soft, good-hearted politicians who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag should be waterboarded?  I wonder if they would start telling the truth?  It is interesting how few of our public officials these days were in the military.
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Magister
written by Abelard, May 20, 2009
For Bartlett to suggest that his 3 second intervals of waterboarding approximates the practice of waterboarding being discussed currently in the media is utterly fallacious. It is precisely the extended time frame of the practice that creates the extreme psychological duress and severe emotional fear. To suggest that such prolonged conduct is not a form of torture, because he experienced 3 seconds of it unharmed is irrelevant. I guess psychological torture doesn't count for him.
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An 'umble Mr.
written by Mack Hall, May 20, 2009
As a Navy Corpsman I went through the classroom SERE, but was for some reason spared the camp drill. Whew! But I was posted to Viet-Nam in several locations, and witnessed -- I picked up the pieces -- that what the Communists did to the people they claimed to be liberating was obscene in every way, torture followed by executions.
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...
written by Tom Cabeen, May 20, 2009
Of two of the big issues currently in the spotlight, torture and abortion, one is on a continuum, the other is not. There is no "partial" abortion. If the target is killed, the abortion is successful. Torture is not like that. For some people, sitting through an opera might qualify. Equating waterboarding with crucifixion, by using the same term and talking about it as if both were the same thing, masks reality. Thanks for adding some perspective to this matter.
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Sage advice
written by Pio, May 20, 2009
The author writes: "It’s easy to indulge in moral outrage about things you have never experienced..." Perhaps the bishops of the Church should ponder this advice and delegate much of the teaching about abortion to the faithful lay and religious women of the Catholic Church.
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written by Maureen Mullarkey, May 20, 2009
Thank you for Dennis Bartlett's commentary on waterboarding and the reckless misuse of language that terms severe discomfort "torture." It seems not to occur to many of our clerics that respecting the "intrinsic dignity of others"---the potential victims of terror, for example--places an obligation on the state to use coercion in certain situations. Moral vanity provides cover for shallow, irresponsible pronouncements.
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written by WJ, May 20, 2009
In fact, the US Government approved "stress-positions" that were as damaging to the prisoner as those suffered by McCain in Vietnam. In fact, we know of at least three prisoners who *died* because of these interrogation techniques, and one other (an American citizen) who was rendered legally insane by them. In fact, precisely the practice of waterboarding and stress positions here being discussed are routinely described and condemned as torture *by our government*, when others commit them.
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written by Raymond Barry, May 20, 2009
I guess it's not very Christian of me, but I would do a lot worse than waterboarding to captured terrorists who might have vital information. Any objections I might have would center around the utilitarian: would it work. Otherwise it seems to me they have already disqualified themselves from being members of the human race.
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written by JDS, May 20, 2009
WJ,
There are 2 articles on torture posted yesterday, May 19, 2009, that you should read. One is by Tommy de Seno at the Justified Right and the other is by Andrew McCarthy at National Review.
Thank you, Mr. Bartlett, for your reasonable perspective on this issue.
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...
written by Andrew, May 20, 2009
I agree... but we run a fine line, one Raymond Barry is alluding to, which should be avoided at all costs; namely, utilitarianism. Once we start to consider the cost benefit analyses of ethical conduct there is nothing IN PRINCIPLE from distinguishing getting information from a terrorist (via non-lethal torture) in order to save a few lives and getting info from a terrorist (via lethal torture) in order to save lives. Once the end is what justifies our actions, all hope is lost for ethics.
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...
written by Bruce, May 20, 2009
If the intent of water boarding at SERE is to train personnel to withstand torture, then it seems a stretch to argue that it isn’t torture.
Plus, consider:
After World War II, the US tried Japanese for war crimes which included water boarding. (one example: in 1947, Yukio Asano, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for water boarding a civilian.)
In 1968, Army investigated and court-martialed a soldier who appeared in a newspaper story water boarding a Vietnamese soldier.
In 1983,
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...
written by G.R. Mead, May 20, 2009
Ditto and amen. Warner Springs freezes your butt off even in mid spring (1989), and waterboarding ain't pleasant --but it is HIGHLY effective -- though not torture. The best measure I have yet heard is that if lefty journalists and protesting students will willingly subject themselves to it as a political stunt -- it is, ipso facto, not torture.
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Response to Pio
written by RB, May 20, 2009
Pio, your parallel is twisted. Who among us has experienced death by abortion? Until the unborn can speak for themselves, we are called as Christians to give them voice. It is not a women's issue, but an issue for all, and we all suffer as a result. Besides, the "faithful lay and religious women of the Catholic Church" are those who support the teachings of Christ and live them out daily in their lives; they don't work against God's plan for life on earth.
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To RB
written by Pio, May 20, 2009
The Church's teaching to protect life is indeed an issue for all. Yet it is largely proclaimed in public by males, while it is women who make the ultimate decision that precedes every abortion. My point is simply that Catholic women (perhaps even some who have had abortions and repented) could better understand and reach other women who are desperate and contemplating this sinful act. Put someone like MAGlendon on TV as often as the bishops were during the ND debacle.
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...
written by SC Phelan, May 20, 2009
Pio: You've retreated from a very bad parallel to a simply weak and uninformed position. Many leaders of the pro-life movement are now women. They don't get a much mainstream media access because putting, for example, Glendon or Janet Smith in the "pro-life" seat in any debate immediately disrupts the "It's what women want" meme that informs every mainstream media handling of the issue. To be an effective pro-life female is to be ignored by anti-life media.
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...
written by Tom B, May 21, 2009
Sen McCain understands - viscerally - more about torture than the other 99 Senators added together. And he's against its use, no?
A point of moral calculus I haven't seen raised: given that waterboarding IS torture, and agreeing that ends don't justify means, still isn't it right that given a forced choice of two evils, we may and must select the lesser one?
Isn't this what is represented by the "ticking time bomb" argument for the use of waterboarding?
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...
written by Reyes C, May 21, 2009
Thank you Dennis, we really need a man of reason on this debate. I do think the media is hyping this up out of proportion to defame the Bush administration. Is not about torture, it's about Bush.
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...
written by dan, May 23, 2009
So waterboarding being used to train people to resist torture proves that waterboarding... isn't torture. Hmmm.
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a question of distinction
written by johnny, May 25, 2009
How does Waterboarding compare with the infamous Chinese Water Torture?

By the way, real torture is used as a training technique for government agents -- that is, causing it, not enduring it.

I find torture to be against human dignity. If someone wants to be an uncooperative martyr, just shoot him.
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waterboarding
written by vesey, January 24, 2010
When you hate a president as much as the left hated Bush, reality flies out the door about as fast as a beam of light. These people hated Bush , the Iraq invasion, defending America, the Bush admin not accepting how much evil America deserved 9/11 and the "fact" that Iraq was all about Bush and Cheney taking Iraq's oil and putting it in their back yard storage bins. If it was'nt waterboarding it would have been something else to mobilize dissent...
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...
written by Robert Johnson, January 26, 2013
Sen. John McCain was waterboarded in 'Nam and said it's torture, and he knows whereof he speaks. Dr. Jerald Ogrisseg, former chief psychologist for SERE, said before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that waterboarding teaches POWs that resistence is futile, the exact opposite of what the SERE C-Level program is all about.

Why continue to waterboard at Warner Springs (the Navy is the only service that uses it, and only at Warner Springs)? Maybe the Interrogators get-off on damaging othe men? And there are statistics about both physical and psychological damages that occur, and they're not inconsequential.

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