Torture Works: What I Learned From Being Water Boarded


It’s springtime in the mountains near Warner Springs, California, east of San Diego. My group has had little sleep and food during the past three days. We’ve been taught what roots and berries we can and can’t safely eat, learned overland navigation, how to construct temporary shelters, how to contact potential rescuers, and the like. 

Now, we await the start of the “evasion” part of the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) School. We know that we’ll have about half an hour head start on the “enemy” soldiers who will pursue us down the evasion course. If “captured” we’ll be immediately taken to a field assembly and interrogation unit. If we evade throughout the course, we get a little rest, an orange, and then, you guessed it, a ride to the very same enemy field collection unit.

I fell into the latter group and got to ride to the collection area, and was dropped off. I sauntered towards the area but was met by a little guy in a strange uniform who demanded, “Put face in dirt, Yankee pig.” I hesitated for a second or two after which he whacked me in the solar plexus thus achieving by force the response he’d first solicited verbally.

And thus began the resistance phase.

As I recovered my breath, my captor was joined by others each making conflicting demands and serving up kicks when I didn’t respond. Then, apparently tiring of the game, they concluded that I was “unsincere Yankee pig” and loudly declared I’d be taken “ to sincerity officer” (the use of articles was not their strong suit). Thus was I pushed, shoved, slapped, and otherwise abused in the direction of a tent beside which most of my team squatted, some sans outerwear, their heads enclosed in heavy black bags which were referred to by the enemy soldiers as “hoodings.”

Shoved to a stumble into the tent, I was immediately made to kneel before a person who was obviously the guy in charge.  He asked my name, which I told him, along with my rank, service number and date of birth (required to be disclosed under the Geneva Convention).  When he asked the name of my ship I said nothing which elicited another harangue about my being an insincere Yankee pig and an order that I be "Put on board."

Grabbed by several hands I was pretty much picked up bodily and rather slammed down on the board -- which was perhaps three feet wide and seven feet long. It was positioned at an angle with feet elevated seven or eight inches above the level of my head. My arms and legs were put in heavy restraints. A similar restraint was placed across my chest and tightly secured. Then the interrogation began in earnest.

“What ship you come from, Yankee air pirate pig?” to which I responded, as I’d been trained to do, with my name, rank, service number and date of birth. However, this resulted in a canteen cup full of cold water being poured from waste high onto my upper lip. Follow-on questions elicited the same responses from me, but the water treatment escalated until there were four or five (I think) people pouring water on my upper lip. Also, someone had knelt and my taken my head and held it roughly so that I couldn’t turn it to avoid the water.

Nonetheless, I continued to recite my mantra through my gags, coughs, gurgles, spews, and other “water noises” until finally the “sincerity officer” declared that I was an insincere, war criminal, Yankee pig and ordered his minions to “drown him!”

A wet bath towel was placed over my face covering my mouth, nose and eyes and the water flowed continually. The first sensation is that of suffocation followed shortly thereafter by being unable to expel water that had saturated the towel and gotten ingested or inhaled. We were eventually told that this sensation was that of drowning. And, this is probably correct.

In any event, my ears began to ring and lights flashed in behind my unseeing eyes and my struggles abated. However, just before I lost consciousness, the sincerity officer ordered “stop” and the towel was removed. He then repeated the question I’d avoided and coughed, gagged, spluttered out “USS Guppie.” Continue, he ordered, and the process was repeated, but the next time when asked what ship I’d flown from I answered that it was the Constellation.

This was apparently a satisfactory answer (though it was a lie since I clearly hadn’t flown off any ship).  He then ordered that I be taken off the board. When the restrains were removed, I rolled off the board and onto my hands and knees. I could not have stood up if my life depended on it. And I remained there vomiting water, and gasping for breath when I was asked “You bomb peace loving people in city… you kill women and children?”  I shook my head in the affirmative.

At that point I’d have confessed to being the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper if it meant I could avoid another session on - I shiver when I say it - the infamous waterboard.

Anyway, I relate this episode as a way to establish some bona fides with respect to subject of the value of torture versus not-torture and as a way to have my opinion on the subject taken seriously.

What is my opinion? Well, as I said, I’d have confessed to whatever they wanted me to confess to after my experience on the “board.” And others who’ve experienced the water-board, and there are thousands, all pretty much say the say thing. Likewise, prisoners tortured by the North Vietnamese, which to say every single prisoner they got their hands on, confessed the same thing. And, again, the same story from prisoners taken during the Korean War. Sooner or later everyone succumbs to the torture, which doesn’t always work to the advantage of the bad guys since to act on bad information often produces worse results than taking no action at all.

But then, in many and perhaps most cases the objective isn’t to gain useful informationn but to merely subjugate the prisoner as a means of achieving good behavior. Think about it, there are usually a great many more prisoners than guards. And while most prisoners are looking to survive in order to fight another day, there’s always the possibility that they will, as  group, rise up and literally tear the bad guys apart limb from limb.

But to continue...

During the day we’d all been moved to a permanent camp and made to strip to underclothing and sprayed with water until we were thoroughly soaked. The hooding had never come off and the only water we’d been provided by ordering us to bend over, after which the hooding was filled with water. This was a traumatic, indeed terrifying, experience for those of us who’d already suffered on the waterboard.

Most of the rest of the day was spent with head enclosed in the “hooding” and sitting, more or less, in a box maybe thirty inches high, two feet wide and thirty-six inches deep. Your box is one of maybe a dozen all located in what turns out to be an underground bunker. There’s a gallon coffee can for waste.  And every half hour or so a guard comes through the area banging loudly on the top of each box demanding that we recite a “war criminal” number we’d been given earlier. Occasionally, someone is ordered out of their box and noisily “beaten” by several guards. We can hear the slaps and the grunts made by the prisoner when body blows were administered. Otherwise, we sit hunched in our boxes occasionally whispering to each other of such things as escape. We whisper because communicating with each other is forbidden.

During this time each prisoner has also been taken out of his box and returned some time later. The whispers reveal that each has been questioned by a “political officer,” and that the experience isn’t all that bad.

My turn comes, I estimate, sometime after midnight. Having been tortured, denied sleep, food, water comfort and human contact I knew I was in a weakened state. At any rate, I’m pulled, pushed, dragged along until we reach our destination and am told to remove the hooding. I’m standing in a crudely constructed sparsely furnished room with what I take to be the political officer sitting behind a desk. A desk lamp illuminates part of the room, but the officer’s face is mostly hidden in shadow.

I’m invited to sit in a chair placed in front of the desk and do so. In perfect English I’m offered a cigarette and a cup of coffee. I refuse both. And then the mind bending begins. The details are irrelevant, but the obvious intent is to make the subject question everything from the meaning of life to why he’s sitting there, a prisoner of war, while the leaders who run the war are sitting all warm and snug at various places around the globe. He is also encouraged to acknowledge the permanence of his situation and thus to try and make the best of it. And, of course, making the best of it means that the prisoner be completely cooperative.

He continues to ask why I would want to murder the peace-loving women and children of the peace loving Peoples’ Republic of Bumphuque? They had never wanted war, only the war- mongering, millionaire capitalist pigs wanted the war and benefited from it.

In every case the appropriate response is silence or a repetition of name, rank, service number, and date of birth, any of which will earn you a slap on the back of the head from a guard who’s never left the room. And, if you keep it up too long the interrogator will, in the saddest voice possible, suggest that you are insincere and are in dire need of an attitude adjustment and that they have ways to deal with that. At that point the specter of the waterboard emerges, though it turns out there were other, almost as terrifying tortures as well.

In any event, I did finally “cave” and entered into a conversation with the interrogator – a no-no of the first magnitude, but I can claim some satisfaction in that I accepted neither the cigarette, though I was a two pack a day smoker at the time, nor the coffee (I was similarly, ten plus cup a day imbiber).  The rationalizations did nothing to assuage my still persistent sense of having betrayed something or someone.

So, what did I learn in all this?

First, after Vietnam the U.S. Navy changed it’s entire approach to resistance because any knowledge you might have, that hadn’t already shown up in a newspaper somewhere, would have decayed within twenty-hour hours. For example, one of the questions they always asked was the position of the carrier. The answer of course was that it was probably (because we truly didn’t know for sure) somewhere in the South China Sea and that it could be moved so as to launch many airplanes to come and bomb the living poop out of them. But then, they’d know that anyway.

And this is where I question the repeated waterboarding of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In this it is true that the higher, more important prisoners would surely have information pertinent to long range plans and such. That is, they be privy to information that didn’t decay in twenty-four hours, and such was the case with virtually all tactical information. But it would be reasonable to presume that the boys in the Afghan mountains would be jumping through their a-holes trying to neutralize the political-military importance of anything the senior prisoners might reveal. Thus, while the value of any information gleaned from these senior people wouldn’t decay in twenty-four hours it would, nonetheless, lose value some time.

But, be that as it may, I’d have to say that the Mr. Rogers approach would probably have proved more successful than the waterboard. Indeed, my personal experience with the latter convinced me that I would not - repeat, would not - be captured.

My plan was simple. I bought an inexpensive little .380 automatic and whined until a college classmate of mine turned FBI agent put his career on the line by providing me a silencer for it. If I was shot down and injured so badly I couldn’t evade, I’d do myself in. If, however, I went down and was able to hide and evade, that’s what I’d do. I knew that I’d be hunted and when I knew my pursuers were approaching, I’d snuggle down someplace in hopes they’d move on by. But, the first little guy who poked his unfortunate head into my hiding-hole would get popped, preferably between the eyes, with the .380 at a range of maybe two feet. I’d relieve him of his AK47 and as much ammo as possible and the fight would be on in earnest. Eat your heart out, John Wayne.

I mention this to suggest that the very idea that one might experience the waterboard could inspire guys like me, with a low tolerance for torture, to fight to the finish no matter how futile the fight. On the other hand, I’ve always been a sucker for the intellectual exchange and I can see myself eventually sitting in front of the interrogator, cigarette and coffee in hand, verbally sparring as to the virtues of this or that.

Now, I put myself in the shoes of an infantry officer taking his troops into a hostile urban environment, such as exists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask what I’d do were I fortunate enough to capture some of the enemy: waterboard or Mr. Rogers? Maybe a little of both, but I suspect that my inclination to use physical torture, would be directly proportional to the urgency and level of threat to my troops. In other words, the captives might be in for a tough time. With luck though, the prisoner could be convinced that those seventy-two virgins wouldn’t be much good to him after one of my guys had removed his breeding gear with a K-Bar knife. With luck, the threat would suffice. If not, then who knows.