Torture: Parting Ways With McCain

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - December 14, 2005
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Although I consider him a dear friend, there’s no question Sen. John McCain sometimes marches to a different drummer. Even so, as I have said many times, I trust his instincts, and on most issues we are in accord. This should not be surprising, since we are co-survivors of a values-shaping experience in the Communist prisons of North Vietnam where torture was systemic, solitary confinement common, and psychological stress constant.

With but a few exceptions, the treatment and conditions were the same for all, especially the torture, which always involved the same techniques, and were always in isolation. Screams could sometime be heard, but I never knew of one man being an eyewitness to another man’s beating or torture.

Article V of “The American Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct” (now “The American Soldier’s Code of Conduct”) specified: “When interrogated I am bound to give only my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. I will evade answering all further questions to the utmost of my ability.”

Pain is subjective. Its intensity can cover a broad continuum, and varies from one individual to the next. One man’s pain can be another man’s discomfort, or another man’s distraction.


Whenever a man was dragged back to his cell from a torture session and could begin to communicate again, he was honor-bound to share what he had revealed or signed or agreed to do, and to affirm that he had done his best. In my personal experience, he was always accorded the benefit of the doubt; that he had “evaded ... to the best of his ability.”

Although the senator and I were both on the receiving end of Communist cruelty, it seems we have emerged with opposing views on the effectiveness of torture. He says torture does-n’t work, and cites this as part of the rationale for his proposed legislation banning all torture in all circumstances.

Well, friends can disagree. Torture does work; it worked on me and - in varying degrees - on every other man I knew there. I gave information I didn’t want to give, and wrote statements I didn’t want to write. When you are desperate to stop excruciating pain - at least, for me, excruciating - and death has not been offered as a welcome option, and a “yes” will stop it, rationalization comes easily and quickly.

McCain says under such circumstances a man will say anything to make it stop, and therefore any information derived is unreliable anyway. Maybe so and maybe not. I found that varies with a man’s cleverness and creativity, and how much pressure the interrogator is under to get the information, or how much known related information the interrogator has with which to compare it. Where a pool of potential informants exist, such as at Guantanamo Bay, professional interrogators can piece together bits of information, each of which may have seemed irrelevant or harmless to the prisoner who gave it, to form a complete picture, i.e.: “actionable” intelligence. We know that several terrorist plots have already been thwarted from information gathered from multiple sources.


Granted, U.S. military policy on the definition and use of torture has been less than helpful, and has led to some problems, not the least of which was the Abu Ghraib debacle, and the McCain proposal rightfully seeks to provide necessary guidance. But any such guidelines must be highly classified - if that’s even possible anymore - so terrorists will not be able to train for specific interrogation techniques, and will know that torture is always a possibility; as, indeed, it should be.

In fact, to ban torture in all circumstances would be dangerous and would make us the laughing stock of our enemy - those who simply want to blow up by the dozens, or hack off the heads of innocents. Any new legislation must include provisions for exceptional circumstances so the president or his designees - Secretary of Defense or the theater military commanders - can be responsible and accountable for making exceptions to a “No Torture” policy.

In the days before 9-11-01, if we had held a known terrorist who we had strong reason to believe had specific information about an impending attack on America, we now know it would have been unconscionable not to have done everything necessary to extract the information that would have saved nearly 3,000 lives. I’d bet the surviving family members would agree.

And speaking of family, if you could somehow know that your loved ones were among those targeted to be ripped apart by a crazed suicide bomber, but someone with information that could stop it was in custody, what would be your decision? Torture or not to torture? Think about it. It’s not as theoretical as it used to be.

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