In 2004, the news that Americans had committed abuse and mistreatment in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was shocking. Even more alarming were the revelations that physicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals had assisted with interrogations that bordered on torture.1
In the span of just 2 generations, the United States had drifted from condemning Nazi physicians at the Nuremberg Trials for their collusion with torture, inhuman experimentation, and cruel mistreatment to justifying waterboarding in the pursuit of better intelligence.
As a retired brigadier general and Army psychiatrist, committed to a strong military and national defense, I find these scandals to be most disturbing. The complicity of psychiatrists and other physicians clearly deviated from the fundamental ethical principles of the medical profession and military medicine. My generation of soldiers, who had served during the Vietnam War, vowed not to repeat the misdeeds of the My Lai massacre and rampant indiscipline we witnessed.
But after the attack on the World Trade Towers, fear and anger dominated the country’s emotional climate and the principles of our profession were hijacked. The incessant drumbeat of political rhetoric that “the war on terror is a war like no other” and that “we must take all measures possible to stop the enemy” made it somehow easier for psychiatrists to apply their skills and training to exploit the vulnerabilities of prisoners. To this day, former government officials justify cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo with unsubstantiated assertions that their confessions led to the trail of Osama bin Laden.
The public supported such conduct, and the television show 24 gained wide popularity as viewers were captivated by threats of violence and new gimmicks for bringing the bad guys down. Even the presidential candidates in 2008 were ambushed by questions that judged their fitness to be Commander in Chief by their willingness to torture a suspect who planted a “ticking bomb.” But there is no evidence to confirm the assertions that torture of prisoners has helped the war effort at all.
The plain fact is that nothing that has been claimed in the name of defending our country can justify cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of another man or woman. Torture, in any form—light or heavy—is not a tool of interrogation or useful for gathering good intelligence. It is a propaganda tool, and it degrades the perpetrator as well as the victim. This is not just the rhetoric of bleeding heart progressives. It is the opinion of more than 50 retired admirals, generals, and senior government officials convened by Human Rights First to discuss this issue, and our conclusions can be stated simply:
• Torture is un-American. General George Washington laid down the directive that American soldiers will treat the enemy humanely and conform to high moral and ethical principles on the battlefield.
• Torture is ineffective. Experienced interrogators acknowledge that information extracted by the use of torture is unreliable.
• Torture is unnecessary. Veteran FBI and military interrogators have spoken out publicly against the use of physical pressure in interrogation.
• Torture is damaging. “. . . a person who is tortured is damaged, but so are the torturer, the nation, and the military.”