Waterboarding, Torture, and Me

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.