Monday, February 4, 2013

New, Hit Movie and Controversial Topic of Torture

Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial movie billed as “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man” opened in December to a mixture of rave reviews and criticism for its handling of subject matter involving interrogation and torture.

Glenn Greenwald, in The Guardian, stated that the film takes a pro-torture stance, describing it as “pernicious propaganda” and stating that it “presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America”, while Frank Fruni similarly concluded that the film appears to suggest “No waterboarding, no Bin Laden.”

Here William Clark Latham Jr., author of Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea and assistant professor at the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, examines three lessons we have learned about the reliance on officially-sanctioned torture, through the lens of torture American soldiers suffered at the hands of North Korean allies.

At a critical point in the movie Zero Dark Thirty, an American CIA agent assures his victim, “In the end, everybody breaks. It’s biology.” The movie has inspired controversy because of its graphic depictions of rendition, enhanced interrogation, and torture, especially water boarding.  These depictions are based on actual events. In 2007, the CIA confirmed that it had used water boarding while interrogating three suspected terrorists. While the revelation was greeted by widespread condemnation in Congress and the media, some political pundits defended water boarding as a necessary and effective technique that led to the apprehension of Al Qaeda leaders.

 I cannot judge the movie’s accuracy, but the details in this scene ring true. The prisoner is filthy and exhausted, the interrogator is dispassionate and morally ambivalent, and perhaps most importantly, the information provided is dubious.

In the past 100 years, enemy forces have tortured captured Americans during at least four conflicts: World War Two, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm).  During the Korean War, Chinese officials routinely withheld sleep, food, shelter, and medical treatment (methods that some might define as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) to coerce captured American airmen to write and sign bogus confessions to germ warfare and other crimes.

Their North Korean allies were less subtle, relying on physical beatings to gain cooperation. In one grisly example, guards used pliers to remove an officer’s finger nails in order to persuade him to broadcast a surrender appeal. When the officer refused, interrogators threatened to execute several dozen American POWs. At that point, the officer complied. After the war, a US Army court martial absolved the officer of wrong doing.

In my research about American prisoners of war captured during the Korean War, I spoke with several survivors of enemy torture. Subjected to extreme mental and physical abuse, most of these men eventually broke. To placate their captors, they wrote confessions, signed peace appeals, or made radio broadcasts depicting life in their prison camps as an inconvenient but not unpleasant ordeal. Based on their systematic torture of captured Americans, the communists did manage to fabricate credible germ warfare accusations against UN forces (accusations thoroughly de-bunked four decades later by declassified Soviet records). Aside from that hoax, however, the coerced statements and confessions seem to have had little impact on world opinion. The subsequent employment of torture by North Vietnamese and Iraqi interrogators against captured American pilots likewise did little to sway world opinion in the torturers’ favor. This record of inhumanity suggests at least three lessons about the reliance on officially-sanctioned torture.

First, torture rarely achieves the intended result.  The premier of Zero Dark Thirty has revived the debate about whether torture helped the CIA locate Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders.  In this particular case, we may eventually reach the conclusion that torture did play an important role. Even if it did, and that issue is by no means resolved, other such triumphs are notorious by their absence.  French forces employed torture against their enemies during the Algerian civil war, but that measure could not save them from defeat. The Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the Soviet purges all produced their share of confessions, but these results say more about the efficiency of the torturers than the guilt of their victims.

Second, torture seems to be contagious.  During the early months of the Korean War, North Korean troops were under orders from Pyongyang to treat captured enemy personnel humanely, but North Korean forces ignored this guidance from the very start. Perhaps because they had become accustomed to brutality during Imperial Japanese occupation, Korean troops routinely mistreated prisoners, and in several cases summarily executed them. Unfortunately, the mistreatment of Iraqi and Afghan detainees by some American units, most notably the abuse at Abu Ghraib, has marred the otherwise magnificent performance of US armed forces in the past decade of conflict.  Meanwhile, our future adversaries will doubtless have no qualms about citing the CIA’s conduct as precedent for their own mistreatment of captured Americans.

Finally, torture undermines both the humanity and the influence of those nations who choose to employ it. Communist China was a pariah state for two decades after the Korean War, in part because of its mistreatment of captured Americans. North Vietnam endured similar reprobation for a generation after its war with the United States, and North Korea, which has employed its network of prison camps to work millions of its own citizens to death, remains an outcast from the global community. 

Whether the use of torture blackens our own national reputation for decades to come remains to be seen.  At the Tokyo trials after World War II, an Allied military tribunal found several Japanese soldiers guilty of committing war crimes, including water boarding, and sentenced them to death by hanging.  Sixty-five years later, the ongoing debate about torture raises serious questions about who we are and what we are willing to do for the sake of national security. American citizens owe that question more than an indifferent shrug.

--William C. Latham Jr, author of Cold Days in Hell: American POWS in Korea

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