Confessions of a SERE Veteran: What It is, and What It Was Not
On Wednesday, Spencer had a pretty fine piece quoting Malcolm Nance the former SERE instructor about the techniques used at SERE school. I am a graduate of the US Navy’s SERE school, albeit from the early ’80s, and the training has changed I am sure since then, so I can only speak to the things I know of, anything else is conjecture.
When I graduated from SERE, we were told that much of what we went through was classified, so anything that I talk about here has been discussed in public forums before, including by wingnut apologists and their mouthpieces (Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Scarborough, etc.), and thus I no longer feel any compunction to not talk about what they have already made public. There are some things that I remember that have never been disclosed (or I have not seen them) out here on the Internets. . . so there is no need to go into them, they are not significant with respect to the discussions of torture.
A principle wingnut talking point is that we all attended SERE school, and somehow that makes the treatment of the detainees (and others who have been subjected to the gentle ministrations of the modern-day Torquemadas) in GITMO and other places around the world OK in some way. Well, as Aviators (Pilots and Naval Flight Officers and certain enlisted Aircrew), we had to go through SERE training if we were in communities that had a possibility of flying into places we could potentially be captured (we also had a few SEALs with us, because they could find themselves in that sort of situation, too), and thus needed the training to endure a place we might not want to be.
The name of the school, SERE, is most telling—and seems to be missed by the wingnuts. The acronym stands for Survival, Evasion, RESISTANCE, and Escape. Resistance was taught as part of the curriculum—an equal part of the SERE curriculum—and likely the part most remembered by every graduate. The Survival phase was exactly what you would imagine. In general terms, we were given instruction in survival in different environments in which we might find ourselves (hey, we were Navy, so think about where that could be. . . and Deep Water Survival was a separate course). Evasion sort of speaks for itself—the challenge that allowed us to use the mad skillz we got in classroom lectures to try to get away.
But in resistance—resistance to torture—we had lectures in the "ground school" part of the course (when we were all warm and dry and got to go to lunch and have a beer or two) about the Geneva Convention, and about different instances of things that were experienced by POWs that came from debriefs of men returning from different wars, back to WW the Second. All of this information was to give us a perspective of how far a lawless enemy (even signatories to the Geneva Convention) might be willing to go to try to break us down, and then extract information if they could. The instructors left us with no doubt that they could get us to say anything, and that being "John Wayne" in SERE school was sure to earn you a one-way ticket out of both the program and possibly out of Aviation altogether (the school was mandatory for certain Warfare Specialties). Their logic for that was that being "John Wayne" if captured would likely leave you being fitted for a pine box by your captors, sort of permanently "kicked out" of the program as it were. That point made pretty good sense.
The wingnuts all seem to think that the training we got was to "toughen us up" (¿quién es mas macho?), and, in a sense, it was, and that because the techniques that were used on us it was okay to use them on combatants/detainees who are in American custody. Nice argument but wholly specious. As I pointed out, we all had to go through the training and as others have pointed out in other places, we were all "volunteers" in the sense that we all joined the military and chose our career paths. We also knew what was coming, because the waterboard was legendary, and the other things that were done were handed down from one generation of Naval Aviators to the next… we all knew before we got there what was going to happen. The resistance training we got was not to turn us into mini-John Wayne’s, but to teach us how to do the best we could, and give up as little as possible while making the "enemy" put out the maximum effort, until we were threatened with death or our imminent demise. We were taught that we as individuals were more valuable than any intel we might have had when captured; we were American Fighting Men and the Code of Conduct was our touchstone to help us survive anything that might happen. I guess that the faux-macho chickenhawk wingnuts all figure that if we torture, they will talk. Except they won’t. We learned that we could endure, that passing on nonsense brought about a cessation of ill-treatment, and that we would survive because we believed in something (getting done with training, god, the flying spaghetti monster, whatever) and kept our focus there. And that was the point of the training, not to suffer the abuse and cry about it, but to suffer the abuse and use it to focus our minds on (wait for it…) RESISTANCE.
Dick Cheney (and his semi-literate boss, Short Bus George) watched too much 24, saw too many John Wayne movies, and really had no understanding of what they were asking for. His soulless directive to "get results" was what drove his band of mercenaries (Addington, Yoo, Bybee, et al.) to break the law, and drive our country’s reputation into the mud. The perception that blowing off someone’s kneecap would elicit the location of the Ticking Nuke was constantly reinforced by the chattering Village Idiots who also had no understanding what they were asking for—torture. The professionals inside the FBI, and even the CIA, pretty consistently pointed out that the interrogation techniques they used which involved not only no torture, but treating the detainees as human beings, yielded far better results than waterboarding and "walling" (yes, it hurts. but it leaves you no more disposed to talk about anything meaningful than does the waterboard). The torture done in our name is a shameful episode that puts us in the same category as the fascists we fought in the ’40s, the Asian adversaries we battled in the ’50s and ’60s, and every tin-pot dictator we have ever supported.
We were better than that before George W. Bush, and, hopefully, we will be again. An enemy who plants a "ticking bomb" has probably already realized that their life is forfeit anyhow, the threat of death no matter how unpleasantly implemented probably holds no fear for them, so strapping them to a waterboard, or blowing off their knees or whatever might make George and Dick feel better, but would probably do no more than that.
SERE was not about teaching us to torture, it was about teaching us to resist, and being able to forgive ourselves for what we might give up. I guess that subtle distinction escaped the man who wanted to put food on my family and let gynecologists practice their love with their patients. And it certainly escapes the Republicans and torture apologists (yes, Mr. Obama, I am looking at you) who seem to think it’s a required tool in the arsenal of democracy.