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Against Waterboarding



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I do not believe that the United States should have a policy of using waterboarding to extract information from captured combatants in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Let me explain why.

Any decent society needs to defend itself from armed aggression without becoming a society not worth defending. This is never simple to accomplish.

Restraints on war-fighting behavior can be justified by strategic considerations, ethical considerations, or some mixture of the two. In practice, actual decisions are always motivated by a mixture.

I assume that only a true ideologue would dispute that there is at least some possibility of obtaining at least some militarily-useful information if we applied this technique to many captured combatants. The fact that it keeps being reinvented or rediscovered in various wars, and used repeatedly over time in these conflicts by troops that want to win, is excellent circumstantial evidence that it provides at least some tactical benefits. It is very hard to assess rationally how much incremental tactical benefit it has provided, and by extension, could realistically be expected to provide in the future, since it is generally conducted in secret, is part of a broader intelligence and action program and many of its successes would presumably be calamities that were avoided.

Are there strategic benefits from such restraint that could more than offset any tactical benefits created by waterboarding? As I’ve tried to highlight in a previous post, this is a hard question to answer. Society is complex, so tactical efficacy does not necessarily imply strategic efficacy. What happens to military morale if we apply this technique? Will global support for U.S. objectives be lessened? The list of such realistic, if difficult to answer, questions is endless.

Are there compelling ethical reasons not to do this? As I’ve tried to highlight in a previous post, this is also a hard question to answer. More precisely, it is a question that: (i) is hard for me to answer categorically for all realistic wartime situations through the use of abstract moral principles, and (ii) seems like a question with an obvious answer to many people, but unfortunately, lots of those people think the obvious answer is “yes,” and lots of others think the obvious answer is “no.”

The simplified case that waterboarding is categorically evil goes something like this.

“Applying extreme coercion to a human being when he is entirely in your power is inherently evil. This is why, like most universally-recognized evils, torture is done in dark, hidden places. Those who skillfully do interrogations on our behalf – doing difficult work in the worst conditions – have refused to waterboard. You sit in safety, unwilling to actually pour water down the throat of a human while he gags, struggles and thrashes in agony strapped to a table 36 inches from you; instead you write words that egg on the worst among us. If you can not see that torture is wrong, you live in a different moral universe than I. You’re a monster.”

The simplified case that waterboarding is not inherently evil goes something like this.

“We live in a violent world. While there must be limits to what we do to defend ourselves, simply describing the unpleasantness of waterboarding doesn’t cut it. We must do lots of terrible things to other human beings during war in order to prevent yet-worse things from happening. Inducing fear in a manner carefully calculated not to produce physical harm is not torture, and is very, very much less severe than most things done in war. Your supposedly refined moral sentiments are vanities; failure to consider bad versus worse consequences of our actions is the real abdication of moral reasoning in an environment of extreme violence. You live in a bubble that must be protected by methods that you find distasteful, without confronting the fact that if we were to follow your scruples, evil men would rule and do far worse things. You’re a child.”

This deep moral disagreement of course creates the practical political problem of how to reconcile these conflicting views. Beyond this problem, however, I think that any thoughtful person who aggressively advocates for one position or the other surely asks himself in quiet moments: “Am I certain I’m right?” The waterboarding critic asks himself “Am I being naive?”; the waterboarding defender, “Am I losing my soul?”. Nobody’s experience of life is comprehensive. Many, many people hold each position. These facts are presumably enough to give any thoughtful person pause, even if they will not voice these doubts publicly.

So, if the deeply-entangled questions of strategic effectiveness and ethics both have non-obvious answers – and if we need to decide, not just wring our hands endlessly – how should we answer them? As I’ve also said in the prior posts, I think the starting point for our thinking should be experience and tradition.

Here are the modern conflicts in which, to my knowledge, waterboarding is believed to have been used as a widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants over a sustained period and area of operations by non-U.S. powers:

WWII-Era Japan
The German Gestapo
Various Latin American regimes (~1960 – ~1980)
Cambodian Khmer Rouge (1975-1979)
The French in the Algerian War (1954 – 1962)
The British in the Cyprus emergency (1950s)

Do you notice a pattern? These are either dictatorial regimes, or actions of basically democratic governments in arenas of imperial border occupation. For a democracy, waterboarding is a corruption of empire.

Here’s another pattern: Britain, France, Germany, and Japan have long, proud histories full of enormous accomplishment. The episodes listed here are, for all of these countries, far from their proudest moments. As I said in a prior post, while correlation is not causality, there does not seem to be a clear relationship that indicates the tactical benefits of waterboarding are associated with the conditions of strategic victory.

To my knowledge, there are two such periods of extensive use of waterboarding as a widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants over a sustained period and area of operations by the United States prior to the GWOT:

The occupation of the Philippines
The Vietnam War

For all of the individual heroism, honor, and ingenuity displayed in both of these conflicts, I don’t believe that either is thought of as a moment of triumph for the United States.

The idea that tactical efficacy doesn’t necessarily produce strategic efficacy can seem very abstract. But these examples point to an illustrative example of one way this could work. Restraining ourselves from using this technique and others like it can make it more obviously difficult to conduct limited wars in third-world countries. This may lead to behavior at the national level that reduces empire-building, and therefore enables the society to compete more successfully on the world stage in the long-run. I’m not asserting that I’ve proved this; merely that this is a plausible illustration of one of many ways that denying ourselves a tactical advantage might serve to create strategic advantages that may or may not be perceived rationally at the time.

But doesn’t this historical record show that we — for good or ill — actually have a tradition of deploying waterboarding as an instrument of state power in such situations that seem more analogous to the GWOT than does Patton’s army rolling through Europe? Not exactly.

Waterboarding was carried out in the field in the Philippines, but here is an extract from a cable sent by Elihu Root, Secretary of War, to a field general that was made public in the New York Times on April 15, 1902:

Yesterday before the Senate Committee on Philippine Affairs Sergt. Charles R. Riley and Private William Lewis Smith of the Twenty-sixth Volunteer Infantry testified that that form of torture known as the water cure was administered to the Presidente of the town of Igbarras, Iloilo Province, Island of Panay, by a detachment of the Eighteenth United States Infantry; commanded by Lieut. Arthur L. Conger, under orders of Major Edwin F. Glenn, then Captain Twenty-fifth Infantry, and that Capt. and Assistant Surgeon Palmer Lyon, at that time a contract Surgeon, was present to assist them. The officers named or such of them as are found to be responsible for the act will be tried therefor by court-martial.…

It is believed that the violations of law and humanity, of which these cases, if true, are examples [note: this refers to two cases, only one of which is the Glenn “water cure” case], will prove to be few and occasional and not to characterize the conduct of the army generally in the Philippines; but the fact that any such acts of cruelty and barbarity appear to have been done indicates the necessity of a most thorough, searching, and exhaustive investigation under the general charges preferred by Gov. Gardener, and you will spare no effort in the investigation already ordered under these charges to uncover every such case which may have occurred and bring the offenders to justice.

Major Glenn was found guilty and punished.

On January 21, 1968 The Washington Post had a picture on the front page of a U.S. soldier supervising the questioning of a captured North Vietnamese soldier who is being held down as water was poured on his face while his nose and mouth were covered by a cloth. This soldier was court-martialed within one month and drummed out of the army. Waterboarding was declared to be illegal for American troops in Vietnam.

The record is clear. Formal military and civilian authorities have refused to countenance this practice in both conflicts, and prosecuted those suspected of doing it.

Of course, this story is a little too neat. Major Glenn was given a fine and one-month suspension. More importantly, the practice was believed to be widespread in both conflicts, but there were apparently only a fairly small number of convictions for it. In private correspondence, President Roosevelt clearly indicated while he considered the water cure to be unacceptable, he thought of it as far less severe than other infractions. In neither conflict were the authorities willing to make rooting out waterboarding the overriding objective of operations. But the prosecutions, policies, and condemnation do not appear to have been merely public relations by political actors, followed by a nod and a wink to an organized torture apparatus. The American tradition has been to condemn and prosecute waterboarding, even in the most savage conflicts, and attempt to stamp it out, accepting the practical limits of control of soldiers in distant combat.

I stand with Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and the United States military, and with a 100-year tradition of our nation, against the specific practice of waterboarding captured combatants as strategically ineffective and morally repugnant. It is beneath us; beneath our dignity, and beneath our enlightened self-interest.

As per our history, this doesn’t mean that this should be the number one priority of the U.S. government, and it doesn’t mean that such a stance is without contingency. If terrorist forces were successfully detonating a large thermonuclear warhead somewhere within the continental United States every 12-18 months, and waterboarding captured combatants offered a realistic possibility of stopping this, I would reluctantly, though immediately, support its use. I strongly suspect that about 99% of Americans would agree, as would Roosevelt and Root, if we could ask them.

This also doesn’t mean that I think waterboarding is always wrong. What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.



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