I purposely don’t get into political debates on this forum, but I’ve grown a little weary of the current debate surrounding waterboarding and torture, as if the entire discussion was a referendum on who’s going to be “tougher” on terrorism. Today, the director of the CIA said he’d never allow his men to waterboard. From that came a bunch of talking heads opining about his comments – none of whom have ever heard a shot fired in anger, and all of whom seem to believe that being savage is, in some way, helpful to our national goals.
I’ve watched the waterboarding debate for months now, and I honestly think it shows a glaring lack of knowledge on the purpose of the technique. Succinctly, it’s designed to gather information, period. We didn’t do it because someone flew a plane into the twin towers, and we shouldn’t use it in the future because ISIS is lopping off heads. We don’t use enhanced interrogation techniques to be “tough”, which is something apparently lost on the current crop of political candidates. The entire discussion is bordering on the Twilight Zone.
In an interview, Donald Trump, the current front-runner, maintains that we “can’t win against ISIS” because they “drown people in cages and cut off heads”, and our hands are tied because we don’t use the same tactics. I watched that interview and wondered, what have we become? This idea is patently false and absolutely shows a complete lack of knowledge of the decisions a commander in chief should make. Ramping up our savagery will in no way increase our ability to defeat ISIS. All it will do is drag us into the gutter with them.
Every single time I hear someone say this – and make no mistake, it’s not just Trump – the first thing I want to ask is, “Will you hold the bucket? Will you pull out the fingernails? Will you place the electrodes?” Before you think I’m exaggerating what candidates have said, remember this: Trump’s said repeatedly he would do “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding. And then he always backs up his assertion with the atrocities that ISIS does, as if that justifies it. Which is ridiculous.
We didn’t used enhanced interrogation techniques because we wanted revenge. We wanted information. Period. I’m honestly still unsure in my own mind where I stand on the specific technique of waterboarding, as applied, because I know the extreme controls that were used to ensure the safety of the detainee. However, I will say, I still have my doubts – and by the way, I’m sick of the trope about “We do it to our own SOF forces. How bad can it be?” excuse. I have been through several different SERE schools, one of them the harshest and at the pinnacle of SOF. I have never been waterboarded. I’m not saying it’s never happened, just that it’s not something that “every SOF guy” goes through like the news would have you believe. Using ANY technique because the “other side did” is tantamount to admitting you have no idea how to win, and are participating in a tit-for-tat because you have no idea what serious military strategy entails. It’s literally like devolving into a gang-war between drug dealers and shows a strategic skill at the same level.
According to Trump, we can’t win against ISIS because we won’t lower ourselves to its savagery. In his words, we can’t “compete” because we aren’t playing by “their rules”. Maybe he’d like to behead some people, I don’t know, but the notion is steeped in stupidity. He asks his massive rallies if Patton or MacArthur were alive now, how long would ISIS exist, implying that there are no military men today of their caliber. I have a news flash for him: We defeated the Nazi machine and the Japanese imperial army without resorting to their inhumane tactics.
According to Trump’s current doctrine, there is no way we could have won World War II unless we’d created our own gas chambers and flushed all of the German soldiers we’d captured through them. Or maybe we should have beheaded or burned alive every Japanese soldier we captured like they did to us. Can you imagine him running against Roosevelt in 1944? “We aren’t winning! We should be gassing every single German we catch! We can’t win this war unless we reduce the playing field to their level. We are TOO SOFT!” That isn’t hyperbole. It’s almost exactly what he said in an interview on ISIS. He literally thinks that because we don’t torture, ISIS is going home and “laughing at us.” It is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard. Luckily, we didn’t have Trump in 1944. And when we were done, the defeated nations allowed us to work with them precisely because we were viewed as fair and just.
War isn’t based on a tit-for-tat response, and defeating ISIS has absolutely nothing to do with the level of savagery we can perpetuate against captured individuals, using a justification that they did the same. Nothing. Well, there is something. The people a president orders do such things are forever damaged. Of course, as the president is far removed from such action, he doesn’t have to deal with the fallout. Only the adulation from a bunch of other people far removed from the battlefield.
If you are one of the one’s cheering this doctrine, if you think that torturing terrorists is within our values, and wish it to happen, then by all means, go to the nearest recruiting station and sign up as an interrogator. You’ll be able to get your Johnny Jihad on at will if one of the one’s espousing this doctrine is elected. If you’re not willing to do so, like this guy, then don’t force it on another who only wants to serve a country with values enshrined by our founding fathers.
The problem with torture is that you never know if the guy you’ve caught is, in fact, Doctor Evil. You suspect it, but you don’t know. There have been plenty of times when captured ‘insurgents’ have actually been innocent. If the people espousing this doctrine had their way, we’d have tortured the hell out of them just because they happened to be on the battlefield. And before you accuse me of extending Trump’s doctrine – HE is the one who says it. He’s the one that says we should go “much worse”, not based on collection of information, but solely based on what activities our enemy chooses to use. He clearly doesn’t understand – or care – that on the battlefield, you don’t know what you don’t know. According to him, this guy from the Boston bombings would have been under the knife. Luckily, he wasn’t. Because you figure that out through interrogation – not torture.
Winning a war isn’t predicated on what atrocities you can inflict on the population based on what the other side does. Warfare is much more complex, and creating a platform of torture, as a method of success – to me – is something making me glad I retired from the military. All the candidates claim to support the veteran, without even realizing the damage they’re doing to the entire military with their wild boasts. I served in the finest military on earth – and that military wasn’t the finest based on satellites, tanks or ballistic missiles. It was based on values and a moral compass I was proud to uphold.
The next guy that enlists will not. He’ll be told that the intrinsic values espoused by our founding fathers don’t matter, that our very founding documents don’t matter, and that whatever the enemy does is how we’ll conduct ourselves. In essence, we’ll sacrifice our own moral code to the enemy we’re fighting based on an idiotic notion that such savagery should subsume rational strategic thought.
Guess what? It won’t help one iota in winning a war.
Update 12 April 2016
I’ve received a few comments via email and social media on this topic that basically assert that the writer has no problem with torturing known terrorists. While I certainly don’t have any sympathy for some blood soaked savage, and would willingly send him to “paradise”, I thought maybe I should expand on the reality when making a statement about using “torture” on a “known” “terrorist”. It’s a black and white statement, but the world isn’t black and white.
A. What do we mean by “known” terrorist? The truth is, outside of UBL or Zawahiri, we’re just guessing. For one, terrorist names are usually Kunyas they have chosen, and they are used both by evil doers and by normal citizens. Abu Bakr is used all over the place, and it’s almost impossible to determine if you’re holding THE Abu Bakr, or if the guy really IS a mechanic from down the street. For another, even with a real name, once it’s translated from Arabic to English, it gets somewhat mutilated, meaning you end up rounding up the wrong guy because of a bad spelling. The “hat guy” in Brussels had three different names – and was at one point confused with someone who’d actually blown himself up at the airport – before he was finally captured. We actually held a guy in GITMO for over a decade before we finally admitted it was a case of mistaken identity. How much certainty would one use to get to the “known” portion of the statement? 25% 50% or does it need to be 100%?
B. What does one mean by “terrorist”? What level is eligible for torture? Is it a guy you know has blood on his hands? Like the shooter in Paris? What about the guy who built the bombs but didn’t use them? Is he eligible? If so, what about the guy in Syria producing the fake passports that allow the terrorists entry into the country? He has done nothing violent, but without him, they can’t succeed. Is he eligible? What if the passport guy is actually a Russian mobster who’s selling passports to anyone who wants one on the deep web? He didn’t even know they were terrorists, but he accomplished the same thing as the dedicated guy in Syria. Is he eligible? Going further, what about a chemical engineer in Raqqa that’s simply teaching future terrorists to build improvised explosives? Does he reach the threshold? What if he was doing it against his will? What threshold should we use to reach eligibility for torture?
C. What are we defining as “torture”? Everyone has a different idea. Is it simply waterboarding? Or can we pull out fingernails? What about flaying the flesh and applying salt? Can we do that? What about applying a car battery to genitals? Is that too much? All of those techniques (including a much more harsh form of waterboarding) were used by the Japanese on us in World War II (and were convicted of war crimes because of it). What level of coercion is the limit?
Completely ignoring the moral dimension, a problem set still exists. In the end, the ROE has to be strict, and all of those questions need to be written in stone. If they’re not, and it’s simply based on the man on the ground, we devolve into a land like the Lord of the Flies (or Abu Ghraib). We have a strict ROE now, in accordance with international law, and it’s simple: Nobody ever rises to the threshold of torture.
Sir, you can provide more food for thought than all of the talking heads I have ever listened to. In 1966, I was classified as 1Y for the draft, so I have zero experience. If I understand correctly, you assert that the path to success against ISIS involves a well planned series of actions and not the ruthless techniques that Trump suggests or the carpet bombing that Mr Cruz suggests. I guess my question to you is, do you think Mr Obama’s actions have helped or hurt ISIS? Please help me understand enough to sift the reality of what i hear from the media. I hope you continue this blog to give more insight into this. By the way, I consider Mr Trump a huge source of hot air and very scary because he is incredibly uninformed.
Thank you for the blogs. Wonderfully informative reading.
Good Afternoon Mr. Brad,
Your blog post is spot on! American candidates solutions to the so called ISIS Problem appear to be to superficial. Is that strategic? Are those just talking points? Honestly, I do not understand. In my opinion, a good strategy would be similar to that adopted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a given taskforce, which he describes in his memoirs (a fantastic read!). But that also begs the question: terrorist organizations do not operate in a vacuum, and they probably adjust their strategy and tactical procedures to the organizations that hunt them. Then again, that is probably no problem if the good organizations can adapt themselves and think outside the box.
I would listen (and vote) in a leader who presented a detailed plan. He should not specify certain things, obviously, but he should put forward a plan and develop it along the way in his mandate. And, from my perspective, here in Europe things are even worse, since we did not have (apart from two or three countries) America know-how and experience given to her in the Stan and Iraq. And now we have a very big gap to bridge, with the recent events, and in my opinion we should start by sharing: the armed forces and security forces in a given country should cooperate more, and they also should cooperate with other EU countries forces. But instead of this, we see that even inside the different security forces in a given country, there is not cooperation, there is not information sharing, and there is micromanagement and compartmentalization. That sucks and reality strikes us in the face one and other time.
I’ve been waiting on a warrior to weigh in on this. As always, you have proven to be the strategic cream. You stay on top of the big picture. I frankly wasn’t expecting your particular view on the concept of enhanced interrogation, but your comparison to the Germans and Japanese savagery during WWII is spot on. We, the US, can not be them, or like them, ever. We aren’t those people. We must all stay on the moral high road and not be drawn into the ditch where the savages are except to hasten their departure from this mortal plane. As you said, there are certainly those on the battlefield that have no other information other than they are conscripted or corrupted into the fight. US military there on the battlefield are there to fight for the greater good and to protect their buddies. Top down, it has to stay that way, no doubt. Thanks for keeping it real. As always.
Most of the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques I have no problem with at all. They don’t amount to torture, and I think we threw the baby out with the bath water. And I’m not convinced that water boarding, if done the way we did, is torture either – but I’m not convinced it’s not as well.
I agree with your reply. The whole debate in the press revolves around this one technique. It seems (I am not there to know first hand) that we no longer capture and interrogate for fear of being accused of torture. However, we will send an armed predator to kill suspected terrorist. So, where does that leave us? I sincerely hope that the ROE’s for interrogation have been written and those who are in the mix can define torture. However, I get the feeling this definition is fluid.
Actually, it’s now written in stone. The last NDAA included language that stipulated we can only use the techniques in the US Army field manual on HUMINT collection. So basically, what all the candidates are proposing is against US law (never mind that going beyond EIT is against international law), and getting congress to change said law will never happen.
This is the most rational and qualified statement on torture/waterboarding that I have ever heard. I wish that the talking heads would let you expound on this reality in the face of the candidates who have never served one day in a uniform.
Having many warriors in my own family, I know that I would not want them having the job of the bucket or the hose. Why would any responsible Commander in Chief expect to be able to ruin the lives of our young troops just for the political fodder he/she could gain? Having PTSD, I can attest to the fact that you don’t just put the past “into the past”. The effects last a lifetime and weigh heavy on family and friends.
Part of the problem with all this is that our nation has forgotten the lessons of the past. Our education has broken down and we are repeating sins of nations that we have already conquered. To drag our military heroes into this conversation thinking one knows their minds on the issue is a great insult to America’s military. We have ROE and international laws for this very reason. We do not need to sink to the depths of hell to meet the tribulations of the day. Thank you for this blog. I hope you continue.
Thank you, Brad, for your logical take on this debate. I retired in 2004 and am grateful that the Army I was in had values that we were expected to live by. I’d hate to see any of these politicians destroy that, for they will destroy the fabric of our military.
Brian Thiem, LTC, US Army, Ret.
Your post is a perfect example of my disappointment with the current crop of Presidential candidates…not one of them has served in any branch of the military. My son was a Corpsman with the 5th Marines in Iraq and where I tend to go off on a tangent he is much more thoughtful and level headed…sure his father and I had much to do with that, but I believe the Navy and Marines instilled ethical and moral values which serve him to this day.
Thank you for a deliberate, well-thought-out blog. As always, I have learned by reading this and learning is very important.
We seem caught up in movie and TV episodes as depicting ” reality” as the reference by certain political types who never served or participated in real world reallities. Remember all the raves about Jack Bauer in 24? He was proclaimed as the model for counter terrorism. Each terror event was perceived as having that famous declining digital clock with one suspect capable of disclosing, if only we beat the timetable out of him or shot his kneecaps. The idea of loosely connected ” lone worf” cells are not considered. Until politicos get out of Hollywood fantasy, they will keep believing a hacked off finger or electric shock with jumper cables yields the locations of lit fuses. The idea of cultivating a relationship to extract ongoing, deep, information willingly is ” no fun” and the way Bauer would work. Heven help us!
excuse me, the way Jack would not work
Thank you for your blog, I thought that everyone was losing their minds. Nice to know there is some sanity around. Have you thought of running for president? You’d get my vote.