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Dangers of SERE Reverse-Engineering Torture Explained 53 Years Ago

SERE insigniaJoost Meerloo was a Dutch psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who, having fled German-occupied Holland in 1942, and survived torture by the Gestapo in Belgium, made a name for himself in British and U.S. medical establishments. By the early 1950s, he had undertaken an examination of the supposedly new phenomena of "brainwashing." The latter had made headlines when U.S. POWs in the Korean War cooperated with their captors, and even made accusations of U.S. use of "germ warfare." Dr. Meerloo was expert witness on "menticide" — his term for brainwashing — at the U.S. tribunal of Colonel Frank Schwable, one of the men involved in biological weapons accusations.

While today we know that the primary providers of domestic propaganda on brainwashing were sponsored by or agents of the CIA — Frank Hunter, who coined the term, was only revealed to be in the pay of the CIA years later — I don’t know how closely Dr. Meerloo was involved with U.S. intelligence. His contacts, his works, and his interests seem to argue that he was heavily involved.

Recently, I was reading Meerloo’s out-of-print 1956 classic, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. (A portion of the work, though not the quote below, can be read online.) I was surprised to find Dr. Meerloo enunciating a critique on an organization that has been heavily implicated in the U.S. military’s torture regime abroad. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (or SERE) schools in the different branches of the military have their origin in the Pentagon’s response to the POW confessions of the Korean War.

More recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee documented that psychologists working for SERE, in collusion with military and political higher-ups, helped the CIA and military "reverse-engineer" the torture techniques the school was supposed to use to inoculate U.S. military personnel against foreign coercive interrogation and captivity. Subsequently, these techniques were used against detainees in Bush’s "war on terror," from Guantanamo, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and possibly at secret CIA "black prisons" around the world.

On page 262-263 of the 1961 Universal Library edition of Rape of the Mind is the following criticism of the SERE program. How odd that it comes from one of the principal investigators into interrogations of his time, one closely associated with the CIA/military program of the 1950s that was investigating how to psychologically break down prisoners in a "scientific" fashion, and which included such sinister programs as MK-ULTRA. The quote comes from Chapter 15, "Training Against Mental Torture." The words are prescient in the extreme. (Bold emphasis is added.)

An educational concept exists to the effect that conditioning to physical torture will help soldiers to be more immune to brainwashing. In one of the air force bases, airmen had to go through a "school of torture," euphemistically called the School of Survival, in which some of the barbarous and cruel Communist methods of handling prisoners were initiated in order to harden the men against future brutality. [Meerloo here footnotes an article on the school in Time, Sept. 19, 1955, "Training in Torture", which can be read online.] The trainees could stand the ghoulish exercises rather well.

I take some issue with this last sentence, and will present some evidence contrary to that at the close of this article. But, continuing:

However, such a training can condition men to take over, unwittingly, the methods of totalitarianism. It may give a semiofficial green light to enemy tactics by implying that we can do the same. Moreover, such methods may stimulate hidden sadistic tendencies in both trainer and trainee. Under the disguise of an earnest training need, American youth may be educated in the same sadistic view as their enemies

Meerloo could have added that, after decades, an entire bureaucratic apparatus or section of government can become infected with the bacillus of brutality and sadism. This is one way we can understand how it was that the SERE officials — though, admittedly, not all of them — were so excited about contributing their expertise when asked by the Department of Defense in late 2001.

As the campaign for investigations and prosecutions of Bush officialdom wobbles along during the initial months of the Obama administration, and without in the least exonerating the culpability of the governmental leaders, like Cheney and Bush and Tenet, who promoted torture, it might help us to understand the motivation of the men who acted to spread this vile practice, to understand why they were so easily perverted, the better to make sure it will never happen again. Because recent events have proven that we have become, as medical ethicist and researcher Steven Miles titled it, a torture-endangered society, "a society that is abraded by the process of dehumanization."

One place any anti-torture reform could start is with the decommissioning of the SERE schools. There is no scientific evidence they do what they say they do. They are unnecessarily brutal to soldiers. Consider this from the June 2000 article, "Assessment of Humans Experiencing Uncontrollable Stress: The SERE Course," in Special Warfare:


As shown in the charts on page 7, SERE stress caused significant changes in students’ hormone levels. Recorded changes in cortisol levels were some of the greatest ever documented in humans. In some cases, the changes noted among the trainees were greater than the changes noted in patients undergoing heart surgery….

Changes in testosterone levels were similarly remarkable: In some cases, testosterone dropped from normal levels to castration levels within eight hours.

Or how about this May 2000 article in Biological Psychiatry, Hormone profiles in humans experiencing military survival training?

Conclusions: The stress of military survival training produced dramatic alterations in cortisol, percent free cortisol, testosterone, and thyroid indices. Different types of stressors had varying effects on the neuroendocrine indices. The degree of neuroendocrine changes observed may have significant implications for subsequent responses to stress.

In the end, the SERE schools became breeding grounds for savagery and a drive to torture among some of their practitioners, ready and willing torturers when the politicians came a-calling. But then, Joost Meerloo, who experienced directly both torture and fascism, understood the danger to society when he observed the program over 50 years ago. No one listened.

Instead, the CIA and miltary began using the SERE schools as testing grounds for interrogation techniques, new technologies to monitor physiological correlates of stress — officially, to help someday with strategies of intervention to help sufferers of PTSD, but really (or perhaps, also) to discover the most efficient methods of breaking down individuals in interrogation. Wittingly or not, at the behest of a governmental and military leadership hell bent on conquest, the survival schools became schools for torture.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.