Tuesday, May 04, 2004

On American Abuse of Prisoners I

I was just listening to the reports from Iraq and was reminded of my own training to be both a guard and a prisoner of war at the Air Force Academy during the summer program called S.E.R.E. ("seary": survival, evasion, resistance, escape).

The "resistance" and "escape" part of the training, lasting about a week or so, took place in a very elaborate mock POW camp in the mountains above the Academy. When I went through the program as a new sophomore (just after recovering from a broken jaw with six weeks of wires and very little food), the POW part of the training came after the survival and evasion parts, which amounted to two weeks of even less sustenance than I received while my jaw was wired shut. So I was already delirious, but I remember a variety of sadistic abuses, often in the form of mind games and humiliation. It was a horrible experience, but I imagine it might have prepared me to be in the position some of the Iraqi prisoners have unfortunately found themselves in.

A year after I went through the training as a prisoner, I was chosen to be a guard in the POW camp to facilitate the training of the class one year behind me. Whatever training we guards-to-be may have gotten on how to play the mind games, to humiliate, to be the sadists they wanted us to be, this training paled in comparison to what happened the year we spent venting our pent up hostilities on the members of the class behind us, since we spent the whole year "training" them to be cadets. Our pent up hostilities exploded during our year of inflicting abuse, which ended with a "hell week" that put hundreds in the hospital and provoked congress to terminate the very old tradition of hell week. This year-long "training" is really an extended course on the type of sadism that permeates the Academies, and has done so since well before my grandfather was hazed in 1924 during his "plebe" year at the Naval Academy.

I have no recollection of learning the Geneva Conventions and their rules on the treatment of prisoners during my training. We probably got it though. I just don't remember. I do remember learning about the "Stanford syndrome," where a mock POW camp was created at Stanford and the people involved in this unethical experiment ended up delusional about the reality of the environment and their role in it--i.e., they started believing they were in fact guards in a prison, and the people they were treating so sadistically deserved what they were getting. The prisoners fell into similar delusions, though of the masochistic kind. I remember being surprised and ashamed when I discovered that I was not as immune to this syndrome as I thought I would be.

I find it ironic and tragic that people might believe Rumsfeld's line that the abuse Americans are dishing out to Iraqi prisoners is somehow un-American. The kind of sadism that we are hearing about is actually a rather standard and traditional part of military training. I imagine that most Americans are vulnerable to the fantasies that torturers are only to be found among Nazis, or (in the racist version of these fantasies) in Latin American, Japanese or Vietnamese prison camps. I was disturbed by how familiar the photo of the strutting, smiling female guard with naked Iraqi men behind her was for me. It reminded me of my very American "training."

I was reminded of how I had to learn to "resist" the torture inflicted on my by my captors. In order to learn how to teach this lesson, to teach "resistance," someone, the teacher, has to become an expert in torture. The US has many such experts. Many of them, as many of you know, work at what is known as the Army's "School of the Americas," recently given the Orwellian name of the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation." As Mary Turck puts it in her article:

"What do Col. Byron Lima Estrada of Guatemala, Lt. Josê Espinoza Guerra and General Juan Orlando Zepeda, both of El Salvador, and General Juan López Ortiz of Mexico have in common?

They are all murderers. They were all trained at the School of the Americas. Because of them, and because of thousands of others like them, many people call the U.S. Army's School of the Americas the "School of Assassins."

And what do Panama's Manuel Noriega, Argentina's Leopoldo Galtiere, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado, Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez, and Bolivia's Hugo Banzer have in common? They have all been dictators in their countries, and they were all trained at the School of the Americas. Because of them, and others, many people call the U.S. Army's School of the Americas the "School of Coups."

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a military training school for Latin American soldiers. SOA is an official program of the U.S. government, funded by the government and run by the U.S. Armed Forces since 1946. SOA graduates have long been implicated in terrorism, human rights violations, coercion, and atrocities committed against civilian populations across Latin America."

You can see the rest of the article at the web site below. My basic reason for sending this article is to give everyone a sense of how very American it is to torture, humiliate, terrorize, and not follow the Geneva Convention--which means how American it is to commit war crimes. There is a well-documented history of this for those who aren't blinded by their patriotism and their delusional John Wayne Americas.

What seems so scary now is that Jihadists around the world now have an even stronger case that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, led by a former oil man, is a racist, power grab, "naked aggression" (as Bush senior said of Iraq years ago), an illegal occupation with the goal of gaining more control over Arab resources, the second largest known oil reserves in the world. I am embarrassed that a year ago I was fooled into believing the WMD threat was real, and that I wasn't more against the invasion then. Perhaps my "training" clouded my judgement. Excuses, excuses.

1 comment:

Paul Trautwein said...

This is so interesting. I had no idea that you went through this kind of training. The fact that it seemed to be tied in with hazing only makes me more sick to my stomach about the situation.

I guess I'm under the dilusional, or naive, opinion that we should be "better" than our enemies.

My Uncle (a Bush supporter) constantly sends me jingoistic emails full of pictures of flag waving soldiers and links to web sites with patriotic music in the background ("Proud to be an American... where at least I know I'm free...) when he recently sent a letter from a reporter embedded with an army troop, I replied saying I was saddened about the dying soldiers and furious about the prisoner abuse. He replied with another email full of rants on how Arab people in general are not deserving of sympathy because of their lack of vocal outrage at the deeds done by Arab or Palestinian terrorists. (From Fallujah, to the Munich Olympics, a pretty long list.) I should point out in his defence, that he does not write his own comments, only forwards things that he reads or are sent to him, but I found it both specious - bordering on racist.

I got the feeling that a lot of people on the right are just as shocked and angered, they are just hiding it behind non-apologetic blusters. But reading between the lines I think they are searching for excuses to justify their positions.

I never felt that the torture was done by just a bunch of bad apples, but after reading your post, I got a sickening feeling that the whole barrel is rotten. I heard something on the radio recently and the commentator hit the nail on the head, I'm certainly glad I'm an American, but I'm finding it hard to feel proud of it these days.