Sunday, July 10, 2005

SERE Suckers

I could write about the biggest no-shit-sherlock story since Ellen Degeneris admitted she was gay, but instead, I wish to write about my friend G.

I have known, and been friends with G longer than anyone else outside my family, save one. We met in the 7th grade, and we've done a lot of fun things together. We've also done many stupid things together. It's not surprising that the mirthful and moronic activities often coincided. At least, that's what we were told when we came to.

But for all our closeness, our political distance is most likely greater than our physical one, and we live 2678 miles apart (thanks Yahoo Maps!).

You see, G. is your basic All-American, red-white-and-blue devoutly Christian Republican former Navy Pilot, and I'm your everday freak-flag-flying, authority questioning, spiritual-not-religious progressive former pot smoker.

So you can see where we may have our differences. One time G and I got into an argument about Reagan. Well, to be honest, I did all the arguing. I would go on about one thing or another, ending with my cogent point. He would consider what I said, and then say: "Not necessarily..."

Well, that would start me off again, even deeper and more defiant. More points were made. More facts were dredged. More anectdotes were...anecdoted. And G would listen, nod his head slightly, and then say "Not necessarily..."

He probably had about an hour and a half worth of fun with me this way before I finally caught on. And, to be honest, the only reason I did was because he just couldn't keep a straight face any longer. It was such a simple, sublime tactic that it awes me to this day.

I thought about G. the other day, when I read the blog entry linked above. (I actually tried to write something about it when the article first came out, but my blog ate my homework.) You see, back in the early '80's, before G. did his first tour on an aircraft carrier, he, like every other pilot, had to go through SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) 'School,' as he called it.

As he told it to me, G, was taken out into the woods with an enlisted man, and given only the items the would have with them after a successful ejection from a stricken fighter plane behind enemy lines. They would have to evade capture for as long as possible (which for G., wasn't very long), and then be treated like prisoners of war.

I don't remember if G told me how many days he was a 'prisoner,' or even if he knows himself how many days it was. I do remember him talking about the interrogation sessions. He was made to stand at attention with a blindingly bright light inches from his face, being asked unanswerable questions, in a sort of stilted, broken English. Unanswerable, in part, because they made no sense. Unanswerable, in part, because he couldn't understand the words being used.

When not being interrogated, he was made to sit on what was essentially a small coffee can, back straight, fingers clasped together behind his head. If he slouched or fell asleep, he was awoken by the guards banging on the cell walls and yelling at him.

After a number of days of this treatment, there was gunfire outside the camp, some explosions, and American soldiers came in, 'liberated' the prisoners, and with much hugging and crying, the group raised the American flag while the Star Spangled Banner was played over the PA.

I remember the deep emotion in G's voice as he said, "I've never been so proud to be an American as I was that day."

"G," I said softly to him, "It was Americans who were torturing you."

So what's my point? My point is these guys are good.

G's no backwater uneducated schmuck from a country without options. His father was an executive in a Fortune 100 company. He got a degree in engineering from one of the toughest universities in the country. He was a VP pulling down I'm guessing a mid-t0-upper six-figure salary before he decided to get a job that allowed him to spend more time with his family, and he's probably still making 5 times what I earn.

And yet the folks from SERE were able to make him forget that he was being tortured by Americans. The folks from SERE were able to--I'm sorry, I can't find a better word for it--brainwash him.

My point is that my point didn't sink in. The stuff they put him through was so awful, that it didn't matter that these were Americans doing it. All that mattered were the Americans who rescued him.

And this was a guy the Navy wanted to keep safe. There was a huge investment of time and money in G by the military. This was a guy who got the kid gloves treatment. No real physical abuse. No lasting psychological abuse--other than just enough to solidify his patriotism.

Now these guys are being used to train the interrogators for suspected terrorists. How hard do you think they're going to go at these guys? How much do you think they're going to care if the guy's innocent or not?

How much do you think they're going to enjoy it?



Blogger That Dude said...

two things..the Reagan part reminds me of an "argument" me and Cranky had in his garage. It was settled by EDITED BY NO SELF INCRIMINATION.COM and by watching the Big to your boy G, I would hazzard a guess that maybe his meaning was different than you think when he said "I was never so proud to be an American"..think about it, now I didn't serve so I can't pretend to get into the mind of someone who has, but I think there are more meanings to his statement than the obvious one.

7:07 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Jessica said...

Your story reminds me exactly why "the banality of evil" is so chilling. Most interrogators (at least on the U.S. side) probably don't have blind, malicious hatred against their prisoners; they are simply following orders without consideration.

From what little I've read, I understand that SERE was created to help Americans to survive the psychological drain of being a POW and to resist the frequent outcome of giving a false confession. One could only hope that this training would also instill in them a bit of empathy should they become the interrogators.

7:29 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

Dude--he was talking specifically about the moment when they raised the flag and played the National Anthem after he was liberated. That, to him, at the time (which was a few months after the incident) was, according to him, the moment that he felt the most patriotic. Because these Americans came and freed him. It may have been theater, but it was theater with a specific purpose. And that purpose was achieved.

Jessica--If you read the link, the story is that these guys who were doing this are now being used to train interrogators. Your hope, it seems, is a bit of a false one.

From the linked blog:
"One of the most disturbing things about the article is its suggestion that what started out as a stupid means of getting information evolved into pure sadism. As a retired colonel who attended a SERE school as part of his Special Forces training said, 'If you did too much of that stuff, you could really get to like it. You can manipulate people. And most people like power.'"

Now, granted, this is an opinion generated on a different blog about an article that I have yet to read (I don't subscribe to the New Yorker, but do plan on buying this particular edition), but the anecdotal inferences from this coincide with anecdotal inferences I got from something that happened to a friend of mine twenty years ago.

America has always prided ourselves, and often justifiably so, on having the best and the brightest. Does it not stand to reason that this could also be manifested in our ability to torture?


8:04 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger That Dude said...

I understand the "when" I am just saying the "why" might be different.

8:10 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

As I recall it--and this is with the caveat of it being more than twenty years ago--I was pretty specific about my point, and he was pretty specific about his.

However, let's hear your possible 'why'


10:29 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Jerry said...

I have to admit I didn't know what SERE was...googled it and was surprised to see that their website design looked like something from a Tom Clancy-style video game and a website put up by Nickelodian. It's all about baiting the young I suppose.

10:09 PM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger ticharu said...

It's all about brainwashing. That's what becoming a soldier is all about. Empathy is stamped out. Empathy is stamped out of most everyone to some degree. I had to go through tremendous steps in order to unravel my own brainwashing and find empathy.
How much harder for someone like G?

5:07 AM, July 13, 2005  
Blogger Jessica said...

Ah, I didn't realize the title was also a link. I'm still caught up in the Karl Rove fiasco.

6:44 AM, July 13, 2005  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

Some thoughts on him later today


8:30 AM, July 13, 2005  
Blogger Cranky Yankee said...

I were through AF SERE school. We called it Resistance training. I also did more training when I first went into Special Operations. Your friend's story of how his school ended is right on. For us they raised the flag and played the Star Spangled banner. I stood there at attention physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted with tears of pride streaming down my face. That is to this day one my most powerful memories.

I have always felt I made it thru that training with much honor and pride myself with having resisted successfully. My dog tags say Roman Catholic on them. I guess I had to put something.. Anyway during one of the interrogation sessions they tried to get me to lose my temper by ordering me to stand on the bible. I think they ended up more pissed then me when I happily complied. They acted like I had just pimped out my mother. They were supposed to be East Germans who captured us in a Red Storm Rising type scenario. My response was something to the effect of, " aren't you guys Lutherans?" I was roughly bound, gagged and thrown into a footlocker size box for a two hour nap. I ended up enduring more than the average amount punishment during that training mostly because of my temper and my smart mouth.

What makes me angry about the current situation is that having been through this I knew Americans wouldn't do it. In the academic portions of the school it was drilled into our heads that this type of abuse was illegal, immoral and would exact a great toll on those societies that allowed it. There was no moral relevance. We endured based on the belief that our enemies, by engaging in this type of abuse, were surely losing, that they resorted to torture as a last resort, a death throe if you will. It was playing dirty, cheating and revealed the true moral character of our enemy. The worse they treat us the more we believe we are just in our cause and right in our belief of ultimate victory. That is why the current situation breaks my heart. It is precisely the training I received from the U.S. Military that tells me this is wrong.

10:36 AM, July 14, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Cranky, what a great post, thanks so much for the inside view, the heartfelt honesty.

9:50 PM, July 14, 2005  

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