The History of Torture — Misses the Point

There was a recent article about torture on the History.net website, talking about the history, of course, of torture, and why we’re seeing more of it. One doesn’t hold websites like this to too high a standard, but this article (a) casts its net too wide, and (b) misses the point.

On being too inclusive
The article includes as torture seemingly everything that would fall under the heading of doing bad things to noncombatants and former combatants. Yes, the Crusaders killed thousands of civilians in Jerusalem, many of them Christians, until their horses waded in blood. Yes, the Japanese killed tens of thousands of Chinese during their occupation. That’s murdering civilians, not torture. Starving and working POW’s to death, the way the Germans did in the Soviet Union, and the Japanese did in their prison camps (and the Confederacy did at Andersonville) is prisoner abuse, not torture. All of these are Bad Things, but they are all examples of simple atrocity, not torture.

To me, torture is something that is done to an individual, one who has the status of a prisoner (it needn’t be official, and it makes a difference if we are talking about the criminal justice system or POWs). It usually has a goal, of which more, later, and it is usually extreme — simple beatings by guards doesn’t count, usually. You can get into hair-splitting arguments about specific examples, but let’s just use this as our working definition.

On objectives
Why would anyone want to torture a fellow human being? I see three reasons:

1. Revenge/Entertainment: I am stuck here in the Spanish Netherlands, fighting the Marsh Germans in mud up to my ankles, with more or less chronic diarrhea, and you are the cause of it. The culture of the day includes dog fighting and bear-baiting and going to executions as entertainments suitable for the whole family. I can’t read, and besides, the Church is suspicious of people who read their own Bibles. There’s no cable, so we have to make our own fun, and why shouldn’t I have some fun on my own, carving bits off your salient features, or using you for target practice?

This covers most field expedient tortures over the years, and is really just the troops blowing off steam, which is better than them getting into duels or knife fights or fragging their officers, right? This is what you might call unofficially sanctioned torture.

2. As Punishment/Example: You have done something that the Powers That Be find unforgivable, but that they can’t just kill you outright for, because that would cause talk, and they want to maintain the appearance — on paper — of being a society of laws. Simple imprisonment, even with heavy labor, isn’t likely to change you, so they want you, and others like you, and others who might be thinking of becoming like you, to understand what the penalty is. The classic examples are from the treatment of political prisoners in the USSR. If you can stand two thousand dreary pages of “and then what horrible thing did they do?” reread the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Arkhipelag GULAG. This is officially sanctioned, but informal. Like Abu Grahib, it tends to be whatever the guards can think up. It also tends to fall in the category of abuse of civilians, because it’s not usually an issue with POWs.

3. To extract a confession: Note that I didn’t say information. That might have been a goal back in the days of Good King Henry the Eighth, when the legal system still believed in God, but (as the article shows) that hasn’t been the case for centuries. No, the authorities don’t care, absolutely and totally don’t care, about the truth of the confession. In fact, even if you are guilty as charged, your details might prove embarrassing. What they want is a signature on a confession that they have crafted, to achieve their ends. There’s a whole spectrum of tools here, from the psychological pressure of brainwashing (re-education lectures, subtle destruction of social cohesion) to things that even the Bush Department of Justice would recognize as torture, things that leave the subject short of limbs, or at least, digits. It is terribly effective. As one former POW of the North Vietnamese said, “if you think you can stand up to this, just deliver your soft body into the hands of me and some of my friends, and we’ll show you how wrong you are”.

4. To gain information: This case is easily disposed of. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. We have known for decades, if not centuries that it doesn’t work. The tortured will say anything, just to get it to stop, and you are back to Case 3. The only people who do this are ignorant of history.

We have a couple of additional dimensions we could explore, but have only just alluded to. Are the subjects civilian prisoners, or POWs? Does it take place within or outside of the criminal justice system. What’s the difference between those who authorize it and those who do it?

To touch briefly on that last, those who authorize the torture, be they Henry or George, aren’t the ones who do it. The guards and interrogators do it. In the cases of torture as entertainment/example the torturers don’t need to be particularly skilled — simple enthusiasm will do. These are the people who Vandana Singh alluded to in a comment on an earlier entry as ones who are fearful of the other. This is what causes prisoner abuse in the prisons of a formal justice system, and what causes poorly led troops to perform field expedient tortures for fun. The extraction of confessions is another thing altogether. There, you need well-trained interrogators, who are as much psychologists as anything else. In fact you can’t have enthusiastic amateurs doing this work, any more than you would want them to perform normal surgery on you.

On the renaissance of torture
The article says that torture went nearly away, and then came back, and that this was the result of conflicts going from total war to gentlemanly clashes and back again. That’s only true if you accept their too-wide a definition of torture. To my way of thinking, it never went away, it just changed shape.

Torture as entertainment tends not to be a problem in modern armies with effective officers and NCOs, and PXs and satellite TV. The US has not always had those, the dilution of leadership in VietNam being the classic example. You still can have casual brutality, but it’s frowned upon. In less enlightened (or poorer) armies, or in many prison systems, it’s still around.

Torture as example has been pretty well stamped out in the West, but there are still cultures that allow it. It requires that a country be right on the edge between their old Medieval culture and the modern Enlightenment. Their Medieval face allows it, the modern face is horrified enough that it is useful.

Torture as a source of useful confessions is as old as Galileo being shown the rack, and as recent as most doings in North Korea. It requires that the culture be a little further along than those who do it as an example. Here, the fact and details of the torture are hidden and denied, and only the signed confession sees the light of day.

On America’s use of torture
Where does this leave us when we look at what happened during the Bush years? It’s a dilemma, one that I’ve talked about before, and it’s where the History article misses the point. The goal was purportedly to gain information, and the President and his advisors directed that this torture be done. This is a straighforward Case 4 situation. The question is, why did they do it? The two most direct reasons I can think of are ignorance and fear. They were swept along by their own war on terror propaganda, and feared Al Quaida more than was necessary, and they, being politicians, were ignorant of history, particularly military history, and the reasons for things like the Laws of War and the US Military Code of Conduct. Another possibility is that there was a certain amount of Case 2, making an example, involved. Current US policy seems to be that they will beat down anyone who entertains thoughts of becoming a terrorist, however stupid (witness the fact that many of the cases of terrorist arrests in the US appear to be based on losers who were egged on by their FBI handlers), and this might be a part of that.

The great moral failing of the Bush government was that no-one down the chain of command stood up and said that torture wasn’t a suitable tool. Who should have done this? Not the Justice Department. Their job was to stand up and say it was illegal. They failed. They failed because they saw themselves as lawyers working for the President, and not as government officials charged with defending the Constitution. No, there were three people who were in a position to know, had the background or the advisors to tell them it wouldn’t work, had the authority to make it stick, and who didn’t do it. Those were the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the CIA, and his subordinate on the operations side, the Director of the National Clandestine Service (NCS) (formerly known as the Directorate of Operations). Any one of them were in a position to stop it and they didn’t.

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2 Responses to “The History of Torture — Misses the Point”

  1. Kurt Says:

    [Hard to encapsulate a response to such a well summarized damned difficult topic in a comment box rather than over beer and earnest conversation. Forgive the leaping round.]

    I can’t think of a period of time in which an enlightened western government didn’t practice torture. Us. Current friends. Former enemies. Paragons of cultural virtue, all.

    It’s not just a moral failure, it’s a huge intellectual failure. We’ve been outsmarted or outplayed, by terrorists and by factions in our own government. We try to extract info out of people willing to martyr themselves, their families, and their unwilling culture. Who generally work in isolation. Who are often, it seems, tortured stepladder fashion to learn who their handlers are, and so on.

    The torturers also become victims of their own practices, and pass the tradition on to others. They write papers and make policies, all very bloodless.

    I also think I see why history.net lumped brutality and torture. Both may require you to see the target as less than human or, at least, less than you, for you to command or perform the act. Look outside the bounds of western torture to the practices of tribal armies in Africa or outside of military and government to gang violence. At some level you have a person or organization in power (or seeking power or retribution) and another suffering, whether they actually are the intended target or a stand-in. We can outlaw torture of any sort by our government and stand tall, and it won’t make a difference wherever the practice is accepted–including in our own country.

    As a though experiment, what if torturing another being also cost the torturer their life–not as legal punishment but personal cost? As part of our architecture? Would we continue with rewards for martyrdom? Or would it simply never occur to us to seek other solutions? (That assumes that other parties could take violent actions that did not cause them to self-expire.)

  2. Response to a Response to The History of Torture Says:

    […] The History of Torture — Misses the Point […]

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