Did torture lead us to bin Laden?
You may recall the media frenzy over “torture” during the first Obama campaign, with TV talking heads dousing each other self-righteously in personal indignation on a subject they know nothing about. That didn’t stop the masses from following suit, repeating the code words, “We don’t torture!” in dutiful parrot style, as if from their living room couch they knew all about it.
Comes now “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie dramatizing the killing of Osama bin Laden, with dissonance provided by Obama’s ardent defenders. They object to the movie’s portrayed rough interrogation of an al Qaeda prisoner, including waterboarding and other unpleasant methods.
That a movie is the subject of considerable scrutiny and criticism from our government is highly unusual, which normally would mobilize liberal activists in protest but the delicious irony this time is that liberals are on the strong-arm side of the argument.
While the moviemakers insist their presentation is fair, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) say the movie wrongly suggests torture led to finding and killing bin Laden.
Other Obama supporters, concerned for the image of torture by his Administration, are even more stridently calling for an investigation of the movie’s production and sources of information. Sounds like an ACLU dilemma.
Also sounds like that movie hit a nerve, perhaps from drilling into the right spot.
As a popcorn-and-action-movie-loving patron, I gave the movie a mental seven out of 10, pretty good but with some baggage. I admit to discomfort in the interrogation scenes which, I suppose, is intended. Besides, I’m a softy.
Our Navy SEALs did come across as tough guys, but the razor edge of murderous physical training, mission planning and execution by these extraordinary professionals was missing, a disappointing omission.
For me there was an unnecessary distraction. I don’t mind profanity where it fits but every male and female CIA character in the movie, from the director down to the lowest operative, couldn’t complete a sentence without the F-bomb, even in official meetings, an absurdity in today’s world of sexual harassment hyper-sensitivity, knee-jerk litigation by the overly sensitive, by opportunists or by the occasional genuine victim. But, such determined profanity certainly fits the Hollywood culture.
And the movie tried to dodge one brand of political discomfort by omitting Obama’s post-mission chest-beating dressed up as news that disclosed valuable information to our enemies.
Never mind my clumsy movie review, the political reaction to it is more interesting. We don’t torture because America is better than that. Besides, Sen John McCain, who was himself tortured by the North Vietnamese long ago, says torture doesn’t work. The trouble is, both notions are wrong.
We can forgive Sen McCain since he tried to calm the torture hysteria while he was a presidential candidate, enhancing his image. I can tell you many of his POW brothers don’t agree with him. One of them, a friend named Jim Warner, was a Marine jet pilot in Vietnam who was shot down and imprisoned for five and a half years, part of that in a small cell with McCain.
The North Vietnamese applied real torture to our men, not “pretend” torture like waterboarding. As part of my own 1969 pilot training before shipping out to Vietnam, the survival course we attended included waterboarding to familiarize us with potential treatment we could encounter if captured.
Luckily, I was more interested in evading that harsh treatment than benefiting from the experience, and I was a little faster than my pursuers running through the woods of Alabama near Ft. Rucker that night, so I was never waterboarded. I admit it would have seemed like torture to me.
In the North Vietnamese prison called the “Hanoi Hilton,” captors didn’t waste time with simulated torture like waterboarding. When McCain was a new POW they beat him where his bones had been broken in his ejection from the cockpit while he begged for medical care. They applied a number of torture routines during interrogations.
Jim told me about one the POWs called “the ropes” wherein their arms would be tied behind them at the elbows and wrists, then the rope run through a pulley at the ceiling, and the captors would start pulling during interrogation, ending up with POWs lifted off the ground by his arms behind him for long periods of time while they were beaten, screaming, shoulders pulled from sockets and far worse.
Jim said everyone broke, and their leader, James Stockdale, told all POWs their duty was to hold out as long as they could, every time.
When ultimately released, Stockdale himself had injured shoulders from being pulled repeatedly out of socket on “the ropes,” a shattered leg and broken back thanks to his captors. A number of men died from torture by the North Vietnamese.
Everybody breaks, and the notion torture doesn’t work is a fiction we like because it makes us feel good. Captors may get some false information, but if they know what they are doing they will often discover what their victim is hiding. That’s why unrestrained captors have used torture for thousands of years.
Jim told me a story of one rather stupid North Vietnamese guard they called “Rat” who suspected Jim knew how to communicate with POWs in other camps. He didn’t, but Rat was determined and on June 1, 1969 put Jim in a small concrete box with a metal door out in the tropical summer sun.
He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t touch the metal door since it was very hot, all he could do was crouch and balance on the balls of his feet until the next beating and interrogation. They kept him in the shack in the sun for two months, using various methods to prevent sleep.
To encourage him to talk, Rat had his ankles bound in painful steel shackles. Jim’s ankles started to swell and got worse every day, then he got dysentery. When they decided to let him rejoin the general population his ankles were swollen to the size of footballs and the guards were not gentle in prying the shackles out of his inflamed flesh.
Jim recalls his healing was very slow, especially on the starvation diet of thin soup that smelled of sewage with little pieces of swamp vegetation, and an occasional small bowl of rice with bugs. The bugs were welcome protein, but the tiny rocks the captors mixed in made the rice hard to eat, and hard to keep their teeth since a body starved of nutrients over time doesn’t maintain strong gums and teeth, made worse for Jim since the beatings had broken some of his back teeth.
That is real torture, whereas waterboarding, the focus of much American navel gazing, is minor league hazing by comparison. I do not advocate waterboarding or other harsh measures under normal circumstances, but we should grow up and realize the world is a dangerous place sometimes requiring extraordinary and uncomfortable measures.
We should let our military carry out the nasty business of war and POW interrogation without subjecting them to naive moral standards dreamed up by dummies at home who know nothing about it.
Here’s my confession. If a prisoner were in my custody, I would feel honor-bound to prevent his mistreatment. On the other hand, if the dirtbag had taken my child, and if I knew she would die within a couple of hours unless he revealed her location and how to disarm a device, I would gut him like a fish if that was required to save my child, consequences to me notwithstanding. Put yourself in that situation if you think morality is inflexible.
Did torture lead to bin Laden? I don’t know and really don’t care. But I do know when the time comes in an American city to force a terrorist to disclose what he knows about a biological or nuclear device, I fervently hope our operatives are strong enough to set aside suicidal zero tolerance policies on torture and do what is necessary. I forgive them in advance.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]