Torture, By Any Other Name . . .

Painting of waterboarding at Cambodia's Tuol S...

Painting of waterboarding at Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Prison, by former inmate Vann Nath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George F. Will, a columnist who arguably loves words too much, has written persuasively on the nomenclature of “enhanced interrogation techniques” which are central to the plot of a current movie, Zero Dark Thirty now playing in theaters, a movie (I haven’t seen it) which he says is “primarily about CIA operatives”. I find it an interesting subject for  a man who has veered more to the right of late because the condoned use of torture by the Bush administration was unprecedented in modern American history. It was just one more symptom of how our government, instead of seeking to calm public fear of terrorism, exploited it to enhance and expand its power and size.

Cover of "A Few Good Men (Special Edition...

Cover of A Few Good Men (Special Edition)

Ironic, is it not, that this should have been done in the name of a “conservative” political party which routinely promotes smaller and less-intrusive government? (I am speaking here of the creation of “Top Secret America“, including the expansion of the Homeland Security and Directorate of National Intelligence bureaucracies.) Will incisively refers to the movie, “A Few Good Men” and to George Orwell’s novel, “1984” as sources that have explored the issues of torture and the language associated with the limits to moral behavior in marshaling a collective defense against threats.

Orwell’s work was seminal on the issue of government control and language, so much so that both Western thought and language were permanently affected. Wikipedia even has a separate page for the word, “newspeak”, part of which says:

Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. Orwell explained the basic principles of the language in an essay included as an appendix to the novel.[1] Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. The totalitarian aim of the Party is to prevent any alternative thinking—”thoughtcrime”, or “crimethink” in the newest edition of Newspeak—by destroying any vocabulary that expresses such concepts as freedom, free enquiry, individualism, resistance to the authority of the state and so on. One character, Syme, says admiringly of the diminishing scope of the new language: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

My dictionary defines torture in terms of inflicting pain, but I suggest that this does not go far enough. I think it should include the causing of excessive psychological anxiety and stress as well.  And, come to think of it, fear and anxiety are principal components of the “technique” of waterboarding.  Hypoxia induces extreme fear and anxiety.  I can

Disciplining Plebes

Disciplining Plebes

personally relate to the psychological aspect of torture from the experience I had as a first-year Naval Academy Midshipman where “hazing” has a long tradition. It was common when I was there for plebes to be required, because of some infraction or failure, to “shove out”, which meant to assume a sitting position against a wall with no support under the buttocks. Sitting on this nonexistent “little green stool” had the effect of producing pain and muscle cramps, more for some than others depending on build and musculature.  (I was a skinny, tall kid.)  There were other equally painful activities as well but they all had one thing in common and that was the price of showing any weakness, i.e. a predictable increase in the intensity and frequency of punishment and the likelihood of expulsion as stress impacted academic grades.

In retrospect I feel that the psychological fear of failure is what made such hazing most like torture. After all, any plebe could resign at will. Some will say, rightly, that hazing is an appropriate filter for success in a highly competitive field, but I say that without safeguards and supervision the process easily transitions by excessive zeal, something inherent in a large segment of the population, into both mental and physical torture.  When I went to USNA I detected no effective safeguards on these activities, nor was there even any official acknowledgment that extreme practices existed.  A few suicides among entering classes each year appeared to be par for the course.

George Will in his column leaves me with the impression that despite his understanding of Orwell he yet condones torture in the context of dealing with terrorism. I don’t, because once government embraces it there is no effective limit on excessive zeal.  Can you imagine a Congressional oversight committee routinely monitoring such interrogations? If the Bush administration intended torture as something morally justified, then why affix a newspeak name to it? Was Jack Nicholson’s character right, that society needs to be protected from the means that justify government’s defined ends? Not in my opinion. That is not the society in which I want to live.  If government is permitted to hide torture, what else are they going to hide?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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18 Responses to Torture, By Any Other Name . . .

  1. jwhester says:

    We never used to debate the issue of torture; we used to collectively agree that it was wrong. I am ashamed that it only took a single horrific event to corrupt America into justifying evil in the pursuit of security. I find it equally amazing that so many “conservatives” are quick to line up on the side of expanding the power of government across so many troubling boundaries. I am still astounded by how little protest accompanies the notion that our government may spy on, torture, and murder American citizens.

    I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I recommend the movie Unthinkable as one that really explores the ramifications of our new willingness to torture people in the name of public safety.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I think, John, that we never publicly debated torture because it was publicly unthinkable that we would do such a thing, even though it was common in the rest of the world. Like you, I feel that America’s reputation is forever tarnished.


  2. IzaakMak says:

    Great post Jim. While I have many thoughts on the matter, I think that the US’s loss of prestige is primarily due the increasingly obvious disparity between what we preach to the world and how we actually behave. And, considering that our actions in regards to torture barely scratch the surface of the immoral, if not downright illegal, things our government does and permits to be done in its name, along with how little real outrage actually exists amongst the people, I have to wonder if Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) was right in saying “You can’t handle the truth!”


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You’re right, Mak, to cite Jessep’s “You can’t handle the truth!” That of course is the premise behind the oxymoronically-named Patriot Act, that secrecy and the suspension of ordinary rights are necessary to combat terrorism. But that, like the power to classify information, is a double-edged sword.

      “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.” – John F. Kennedy


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    This blog raises great questions and Jim uses his experiences in college, the exact same experiences that I had as a “plebe” at USNA. We were about six years apart but not much had changed during those six years.

    I hated plebe year, the most miserable year of my life for sure. And yes there was constant stress and alot of physical pain and psychological “torture” involved. Even today I have occasional “dreams” recalling that very stressful year. For sure I can still recall “collapsing in agony” (physical agony) after being forced to “shove out” for 20 minutes or so at the dining table or elsewhere. By today’s definitions many would consider such physical demands, torture. I don’t however.

    Consider the physical “torture” imposed on any candidate attempting to get through “BUDS” training to become a Navy SEAL. Such “torture” is far beyond anything that was imposed on me (or Jim) during plebe year. Try running around for an hour holding a telephone pole over your head along with maybe ten other “trainees” in your squad. As well, just look at the pain and stress during “hell week” in that training program, a whole week with essentially no sleep allowed.

    There is only one way “out” of such pain. Go “ring the bell” to dropout of the training and about 75% of the “trainees” do exactly that, quit the program (BUDS). On the other hand my naval academy class had only about a 25% “dropout rate”, people that quit or “flunked” the course (academically or physically).

    Americans today are appalled at imposing physical pain or psychological stress on anyone, particularly themselves. Yet I learned long ago “No pain, no gain”. Just going to school creates “pain and stress”, does it not? Learning is hard work and does not come “free”. Yet we try to make our education system “pain free” and try to make learning “fun” for everyone all the time. The academic “stress” to which I was exposed at USNA was, alone, almost overwhelming. Combine that with the physical stress imposed and I “wanted to quit” just about every day during plebe year. In fact the system was designed to do just that, force me on a continuing basis to “gut it out”, each and every day. Live through the “pain” or quit was the simple choice for a whole year of “shoving out”!

    How much “pain and stress” should be imposed today on students, “warriors” (or students to be warriors), “business men”, auto mechanics, etc. is a legitimate question in my view. But the goals of any training or doing the work itself must be taken into consideration as well. No way can such training (or interogation or work) be “pain and stress” free in my view. Yet “torture” cannot be condoned as well in a “civil society”.

    Scalia said it well in my view. He said he opposed “torture” but demanded someone define “it” for him. If pain and stress free actions are demanded and anything else is “torture”, well how in the hell does anyone live a life, successfully, in a modern “pain free” world?

    Most Americans, myself included, believe applying voltage to the human anatomy is torture. Many now believe waterboarding is exactly the same thing. Well how about “sleep deprivation” and how far do we go in the “pain free” direction before confronting a question of torture?

    Consider this simple point. One of the greatest “stresses” on me during my command at sea in the Navy was “sleep deprivation”. When my ship was at sea I NEVER got a “good night’s sleep” and usually had to sleep with “one eye open” all the time. Was that “torture”? Hell I got more sleep each night during plebe year than I ever got when in command, at sea!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I can agree with you and Scalia that “torture” is hard to define, except at its extreme of course. It is a continuum complicated by the complexity of its design (physical, mental, duration, ingenuity) and by the psychology of its victim. Clearly one can rationalize that torture is more easily condoned if its recipient can opt out, although that still leaves the fact that it can be intense and have lasting effects, both mental such as PTSD or physical ones like Henry describes, or even much worse. When George C. Marshall was a plebe at West Point he was forced to “shove out” crouching above an upward-pointed bayonet.

      What makes the opt-out cases of special concern to me in is that highly demanding and competitive programs usually hold hostage one’s career and one’s pride. That is true in your and my USNA experiences and in Henry’s USMC case. The intensity of suffering in the opt-out cases is still high and is likely maximized in those most determined to overcome what the tormentors offer.

      All that said, I want to emphasize what I intended to be the principal message of this post. The power to intentionally inflict pain, both physical and psychological, is one that is highly susceptible to abuse, and the likelihood of abuse increases with secrecy. It is incumbent then on a civilized society, I submit, that it take steps to manage such power within humane bounds, and torture being hard to define is no excuse for not trying. To conclude otherwise is to embrace consequentialism, i.e., that the end justifies the means, and that is a moral abyss.


  4. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: Your USNA experience reminds me of a similar experience in Parris Island in 1950’s USMC boot camp. DI’s were prohibited from striking, pushing, shoving or in any other way physically assaulting recruits. Which, of course, they never did, since they were permitted to “correct the position” of the recruit. I witnessed any number of position “corrections” including the great number of occasions in which my position was found to be in drastic need of correction, including one instance in which the correction resulted in a bruised rib. I should have turned in to sick bay, but that was considered such a “pussy” sign of weakness that no self-respecting Marine would even consider such a “dodge.” I still have a small lump on my bottom left rib 60 years later.

    I don’t know if these practices still exist today in training in the Corps, since many things changed in 1956 with the drowning deaths of six Marine recruits at PI in an in unscheduled but universally practiced midnight forced march through the swamps surrounding PI, but knowing the Marine Corps, I doubt that very much has changed. As in the USNA of your youth, when some are given enormous unsupervised control over the lives of others, such practices are bound to occur.

    Do you suppose that George Will was ever water boarded?



  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    Bud, I just checked George Wills biography on Wiki and see no indication that he was even hazed in a fraternity, much less water boarded. He has by all accounts has always been insulated from life’s harsher experiences and you’re right, one should take that into account when evaluating his views on topics like this one. Thanks for your true-life contribution here, Bud.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    Henry related 1950’s MC training, Jim does the same for that period at USNA and I confirm that it was still going on in the early 1960’s. My guess is now plebes at USNA no longer are told to “assume the position” (shoving out). Can you imagine a female plebe with a male upperclassman screaming in her face, spit and all spewing forth, while she quivers in pain in the “position”? Show such a picture “transparently” to the public and …….

    I also recall training for divers school. We would run several miles with tanks on our backs and then begin calistentics, push ups, simple push ups, being ordered. Well how many push ups are OK but beyond such a point they become “torture”? I also recall, after doing maybe 50 such push ups, being given the chance to “rest”. Except the “resting position” was feet and arms on the ground and nothing else. The goal was to see who collapsed first. Was that unneeded torture?

    What we, those of us with past military training experience speak of, are tales of physical stress imposed, but for a purpose. If you are going to be a member of this team that gets through training, then we are going to push you to and beyond any preconceived limits, physically, but as well “mentally”. It is a well know point in training where your body wants only to quit, but your mind takes over and says NO, I won’t quit. To me that is superb training. While “laughable”, it is still true. Such training “builds character”!!! And Henry well knows, such training is why Marines proudly and rightfully call themselves the “few but proud” group of men. My hat is off to such men!!

    So much for “optional torture”, which to me is not torture at all in the criminal sense. And when some idiots take “training” too far, well, the “system” usually finds out and takes care of that discipline matter as well. The movie “A Few Good Men” showed that happening in a Hollywood fashion. But as well I have NEVER heard of a plebe dying as a result of “torture” at USNA.

    Yes, maybe a few suicides, rare, but they have happened. But such happens in many other colleges as well, does it not?

    Forget physical stress for a moment. What about mental stress? How far should a professor go in applying such mental stress on students? At what point do test questions become “torture” as opposed to testing the intellectual limits of any student?

    My series of interviews with Rickover’s organization was a classic example. I wanted very much to be accepted into that program and went through three one hour technical interviews with trained and experienced engineers. I recall one such interview that began with the simple question of “How does a radio work?” Within the first 15 minutes I had drawn a electrical schematic of a radio’s circuit, etc. I then went to the other end and showed how a microphone translated sound waves into electrical signals.

    Great, said the interview, but how does that distant microphone circuit actually “get to” the receiving radio circuit. There I went into how antennas work, sort of. I even showed how “waves” generated on one antenna create “waves” on receiving antennas, etc.

    Great said the interviewer but how does the “wave” being transmitted through “space” reach a receiving antenna. Ouch. Recall this was in 1964 and suddenly I was approaching the boundary of quantum mechanics, wave versus particle therories of transmission of “light” or other “radio frequency” transmissions. I soon became “lost”.

    The interviewer quickly took me to my “limit”, intellectually, but then pushed me beyond such a limit. He did TWO things in such an interview. He defined my limit, how much did I know, but as well he watched carefully how I handled my thoughts when getting into the “unknown”.

    I left the interview with tears running down my face, thinking I had flunked, miserably. And there was no one there to comfort me. I was on my own, thinking I was a failure. Was that unneeded mental stress? Nope. Not in my book. And it turns out EVERYONE went through such interviews and later written exams all the time in Rickover’s training program, a brutal (mentally) training program, but highly effective as well. The nuclear safety record of that program is testimony to such effectiveness, over the last almost 60 years.

    Any effective education program (mental or physical) finds the “limits” of individuals and then works hard to expand those limits (physical or mental or both). As well any good education program will test individuals when they reach their own particular “unknown” (never “gone” that far) and how to deal with it.

    Too long, I know, but an important subject. But as well beyond what Jim was really trying to say, as he has said before. He does not want our “system” to “torture” others to gain intelligence. Neither do I but, again, we must define torture, very carefully and in individual circumstances.

    For me, was Kalid Sheik ….. deserving of “waterboarding”. Yep, he was in my view. And he is alive and well with no physical damage as a result. But I can only imagine his mental anguish and yes PTSD today. Fine with me as he killed some 3,000 Americans, indirectly and I hope he regrets “giving in to interogators” for the rest of his life!!!

    However, I as well will acknowledge that waterboarding every suspect is wrong as well. Sane people must establish “limits”. But how about keeping some (not all, again) in a cell with bright lights and loud music, 24/7, until they “start talking”? Is that torture akin to waterboarding, as well?



  7. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim and Anson:

    I agree with Anson about taking candidates to their limits, and then forcing them beyond, And I believe that that principle applies to non-military circumstances as well as military. For example, I encountered a similar kind of pressure in the Ph.D program at the U. of Colorado in the late 60’s, especially during the Ph.D comps, the final comprehensive oral exam which is the last step, after all the course work, all the papers written and delivered, after the Written Comps, after the Dissertation and the following Dissertation Defense, before the Ph.D is awarded.

    Six Senior Faculty members, three from the candidate’s major field and three from other disciplines, sit around a table and question the candidate. After the first hour of questions, the real questioning begins, the questions becoming more an more esoteric and more and more elusive, until the candidate begins to answer “I don’t know.” After another hour, with more and more “I don’t knows,” the candidate begins to realize the point of the questioning: As proud as he or she may of having reached this lofty pinnacle, the candidate is still a simple beginner in the field, a virtual neophyte, in the chosen field, barely beyond the station of “boot,” in the Marine Corps expression.

    It seems to me that it is a useful lesson for a person who is at the end of one process, but barely at the beginning of yet another, with a whole world of things remaining to learn. I remember that it was roughly akin to the feeling I had when, boot camp finally over, we were awarded our Globe and Anchors, now entiltled to call ourselves Marines for the first time, but still only lowly PFC,s, at the beginning of a whole new world.

    As Anson says, the process may be rigid, but I agree with him that it is a process that best produces a superior product. Is it torture? I doubt it, but it’s hard to believe that in the moment.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Exactly right, Bud, although I would add that it’s easier to ask questions than to answer them. Your experience in the Ph.D. comps, by the way, are remarkably similar to my own in submarine qualification in which an approximately year’s experience as a crew member was followed by an operational exercise in which I personally made an exercise torpedo ready to fire, supervised its loading aboard a sub different from my own, conned the submarine to a test firing area, took the dive, and then conned the ship to fire it. After that came oral exams by the CO of the exercise boat and separately by the CO of yet another. Achieving submarine qualification was a proud day for me. And I agree, it wasn’t torture but getting my dolphins felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders.


  8. While I agree with the moral problems against torture (depending on your definition of torture), the fundamental problem with it (in relation to interrogation) is given enough pressure, you can get anyone to say anything. It’s been proved down through history, be it Spanish Inquisition or Gestapo HQ or Gitmo, that the subject reaches a point where they will tell you exactly what you want to hear just to get the pain and discomfort to stop. (I’m not equating tactics in Nazi Germany to those of US agencies – trust me, I know the difference!) The intel you get is highly suspect – and usually self-fulfilling. I’ve yet to see a single example where even mild torture produced reliable data, though that may be my lack of a security clearance.
    My point is, with such a great possibility for faulty information, why suffer the political and moral troubles associated with torture?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      John, from my reading there is no proof one way or the other. I’m guessing that the verisimilitude of information extracted by torture is a function of the intelligence and particular personality profile of the victim, but that said, I agree with you that any such information has to be suspect. I can imagine though that the identity of the “courier” allegedly revealed by Kalid Shiek Mohammad, once confirmed through considerable effort, did indeed lead to locating OBL. Does this justify torture? Not in my book – it crosses a moral line of consequentialism. Thanks for your thoughtful input, John.


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    We seem to have come full circle and agree, by and large, that it is good to put pressure on people as a simple matter of training and/or education. Henry’s description of a PhD board is exactly the same as the board process described by Jim for submarine qualification. Both were examples of pushing people, imposing great stress on people, to achieve a worthy goal. In other words both the goal and the means to achieve that goal were worthy and humane, though the stress was…….?

    No doubt that “finding OBL” was a worthy goal as well. It is the stress applied to achieve that goal that is being challenged and “torture” is the operative word. I stipulated (and expected a torrent of objections) that waterboarding KSM was justified. But I also said that does not mean we should waterboard every terrorist suspect. I then suggested that “sleep deprivation” was “OK”, in my view, but again not for every man arrested as a terrorist suspect.

    Take a step back, into less threatening situations, like a PhD interview. My guess is that there were some PhD’s conducting such interviews that were “too tough” and even flunked candidates, well qualified candidates, for such achievment. Does that mean we should ban PhD interviews entirely simply because some “rotten apple” actually harmed a candidate? I don’t think so. I instead would get rid of the rotten apple.

    Broad and overwhelming condemnation of an entire system because some few people abuse the system is …….. In my view one must look carefully at the circumstances involving abuse on a case by case basis. But as soon as one (or a few) man (men) abuse the system and the public gets wind of it, well cries to “outlaw” the whole system become “popular”.

    Here is a another great example, in my view. Recall the abuse at Abu Grabi (spl?). There was a one star general responsible for that system within one prison. She got, at best a slap on the wrist based on what I have read of the event. I also have no idea of the ultimate punishment of the prison guards conducting the abuse. Yet the public believes that most if not all such military confinement facilities have such abuse going on all the time. Does that mean we should never use military personnel to confine captured terrorists? How about “Gitmo” issues as well?

    The public “went nuts” over Abu Grabi. I wonder how many federal/state prisons have incidents of abuse against inmates therein similar or even more egregious than what we saw at Abu Grabi? I never heard such a discussion. Did you?

    Bottom line, is developing systems to apply stress is not always wrong. But any system that in fact is designed to apply stress can be misused from time to time. Solution? Train and supervise the people operating the system to high standards and hold them individually accountable when the system is abused. Education, military training, interrogation of civilians and interrogation of “terrorists” can all be abused, but…….. The dot’s, in my view mean DO NOT simply outlaw the whole system based on what may well be isolated misuse.

    Based on the entire waterboarding situation I believe we only waterboarded three people, period. I know of one of them that “deserved waterboarding” and know nothing of the other two. But now waterboarding is outlawed, period. Well, if I plant a nuclear device in NYC and get captured, is there really a limit, by law, that should never be crossed to find that nuclear device? My point of course is that waterboarding, properly conducted, never kills anyone. But it sure as hell makes them “wish they were dead” while undergoing such stress. But nuclear devices can kill 100’s of thousands while eveyone of them wants to live.

    Hollywood loves to make movies of such moral dilemmas does it not? I can’t wait to see how Hollywood deals with such matters in Zero Dark Thirty. But however it does try to expose or resolve such an issue, well Hollywood is a helluva place to make public policy or laws!!

    Just go watch Argo and then ask yourself if arming Marine guards during an embassy riot with only rubber bullets is absolutely the “right” thing to do all the time in such incidents. One can only wonder what might have happened in Iran 30 plus years ago had those Marines instead cut loose with machine guns with real bullets against that mob before it gained access to the people within the embassy. Same with an AC-130 gunship at Benghazi. But we can only guess, right? Now go try to figure out a broad and uniform policy to protect our embassies. And when you develope that policy be sure and publicize it around the world as well, thus defining any limits we might impose on embassy guards (or interrogators, etc.) as a matter of law or public policy? Right now it seems that our policy at least in terms of protecting Americans “over there” is no one “going after” such Americans will ever be “hurt”. Hmmmm????



  10. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim and Anson: As the last word on the subject, at least in my case, when I said that “the process produces a superior product,” I didn’t to imply that I was a superior product but only that the process left me far better than I was before. What are wives for if not to humble husbands? Bud


  11. ansonburlingame says:

    My final word as well, herein,

    I went to see Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. A “must see” if these topics are of interest to you. In terms of “impact” on current issues, as opposed to historical ones, Zero Dark Thirty gets my vote for Best Picture as opposed to Lincoln.

    My wife’s opinion (a liberal) was her astonishment at the bravery of the SEALS in the helos headed for the “compound”. The simple fact that those guys “do it all the time” was not familiar to her. On the other hand, my intense focus on the movie was the tenancity of the CIA to pursue a goal over a ten year period and the stress on the CIA folks doing so, in the face of……..

    On a much less publicized scale of intensity, I was reminded of how the Navy and CIA worked hand in hand for 50 years facing the Cold War Soviet “threat” (specifically from Soviet submarines).



  12. ansonburlingame says:

    No, one more observation, a funnyt one.

    I just heard of Bill Clinton’ s description of being married to Hillary and I have the same sentiment. He said it has been a lifelong effort on HER part to focus on HIS “self-improvement”.

    THAT is what wive’s are for, I suppose!!!

    Janet rants all the time against my politics. I told her to go read Duane’s blog ( she NEVER reads mine) but she defered!!!



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