- “The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are as important as ends.”
- Final Report of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the Church Committee, 1976
Recently, I came across a photo on the web of prisoners in Guantánamo. You know the one: shot at close range through a chain-link fence, we see a line of detainees in orange jumpsuits—hooded, hands tied, bent over and broken. They are the first crop of prisoners from the new Global War on Terror. An American guard hovers nearby, apparently berating one of them. You can feel the menace even through the pixels. The funny thing is, despite being an American and a former Marine, I instinctively identify with the guy in the orange. I can’t help myself.
You see, back in the nineties, I was the guy in the orange jumpsuit. As a young lieutenant, I was sent to a secretive school whose regimen of torture and abuse later became the basis for Guantánamo. The school, known simply by its initials SERE—Survival Evasion Resistance Escape—is ostensibly designed to train military personnel to withstand interrogation. While I was in the school I lived like an animal. I was hooded, beaten, starved, stripped naked, and hosed down in the December air until I went hypothermic. At one point I was unable to speak because I was shivering so hard. Thrown into a three-by-three-foot cage with only a rusted coffee can to piss in, I was told that the worst was yet to come. I was interrogated three times. When I forgot my prisoner number, I was strapped to a gurney and made to watch as a fellow prisoner was waterboarded a foot away from me. When my turn came, the guard just dropped the hose on my chest, the water soaking my uniform. His point was made: this is all your fault.
When I’d learned that I was headed to the school, one of the company clerks saluted me and said, “That’s fucking bad-ass, sir.”
I was only incarcerated for a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. At some point in the training I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner-of-war camp. Training had stopped. My captors, who wore foreign uniforms and spoke with thick Slavic accents, seemed capable of anything and were limited only by their deranged imaginations. Stuffed inside a tiny cell, cut off from any external point of reference, time cracked open. I came to believe that the entire camp—guards, prisoners and all—had locked arms and crossed over into some shadowland, some common holding place for prisoners throughout time. Traditional regulations and strictures of training were like ancient runes, incomprehensible, no more relevant than a Mayan Codex.
Curiously, my fellow officers considered going to SERE to be an honor, a fortuitous if atypical trial by fire. (SERE was attended primarily by pilots just out of flight school, not by infantry Marines.) The school was looked on as a rite of passage, a chance to prove yourself in a play POW camp. Shipping out to Warner Springs, where the camp was located, to get “beat on” for a while was, for a young officer, a terrific opportunity to show that you could take it, that you were made of better stuff. I was a brand-new lieutenant, my status among the old-timers in my company was shaky at best, and I was eager to prove myself. No matter, the orders had been cut. I was going, regardless of how I felt about it. When I’d learned that I was headed to the school, one of the company clerks who wanted more than anything to escape from behind a desk had saluted me and said, “That’s fucking bad-ass, sir.”
I’d seen some of this SERE business before and I was skeptical. After my basic training in Quantico, Virginia, a year earlier, I was sent to the Infantry Officer Course, a ten-week finishing school for young lieutenants. Before one of our first training exercises, we’d been warned rather cryptically by our instructors to be especially vigilant during the upcoming maneuvers. That first night in the field, my team of four new lieutenants had set up an observation post along a dirt road in order to keep watch for an opposing force of lieutenants trying to kill us. Nothing seemed to be impending and our team leader for this exercise, John, my roommate back in the barracks and a good friend with whom I’d gone to college, decided that we ought to get some rest while things were still quiet. I stretched out and fell asleep immediately.
The next thing I remember is waking up and seeing my roommate being tackled by two Marines in desert camouflage uniform. There were other, similarly clad Marines sprinting toward our position, yelling obscenities at us. Without thinking, I bolted upright, grabbed my M16 and dove into a line of pine trees behind our position. I had heard rumors of this sort of thing. If our instructors thought we were remiss in our training, they would dispatch teams of enlisted Marines to capture the slackers and put them through an impromptu interrogation course. It was all part of the big game of Marine Corps training.
Somehow, I managed to escape the gang of Marines sent to capture my team and linked up with a nearby squad of lieutenants. But John’s torment was just beginning. As I later learned, the Infantry Officer Course ran its own miniature SERE program. The headmaster of the Quantico school was a former CIA psychiatrist known as “Dr. D,” who was reputed to have been one of the architects of the Phoenix Program during Vietnam, an assassination campaign that targeted Viet Cong sympathizers. How a character like Dr. D ended up on the staff of a prosaic school like the Infantry Officer Course was never explained to me, and even the staff of the school seemed a little bewildered by his presence there.
After the training exercise was concluded, our instructors put us in a classroom and screened the video highlights of John’s interrogation by Dr. D. Projected up on the wall like a snuff film was my roommate, naked except for a too-small wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Later we were treated to some murky shots of John signing a confession of his guilt as a nascent war criminal.
John told me later that for two days and nights he’d been a toy for Dr. D, who’d relentlessly questioned him about a cover story that we’d been briefed on at the beginning of the exercise. Between interrogations, he was stuffed into a fifty-five-gallon drum with a rounded metal bottom and ordered to keep upright, an edict that left him unable to relax for even for a moment. If he lapsed or fell asleep, allowing the barrel to list even a few degrees, guards stationed nearby would pound on the drum with sticks, the sound reverberating in his head, a punishment that John described as “excruciating.”
After the Korean and Vietnam Wars such “techniques” were held up as the hardest evidence of our enemies’ depravity.
And this was only training, I reminded myself. And yet how could it be only training? Was this not real terror? Was this not real agony? As I would later learn, in the middle of my own SERE “module”—the same program of sensory deprivation and totalitarian control applied to prisoners at Guantánamo—it is as if the outer world has ceased to exist. The rule of law, your past life, the hope of redemption are eradicated by the omnipotent figures now in charge of your life. In the absence of any reminder of the real world, it stops utterly. To be a prisoner is to be an unwilling citizen of an independent republic with an inscrutable body of laws, a body of laws whose logic is never explained to you and seems to evolve moment by moment at the whim of your captors.
But this was terrible knowledge that would come to me later, and with time it would exact a horrible toll—for I knew through direct experience that I would always be a mere forty-eight hours from betraying everything I cherished. That’s all it takes to break a person. Forty-eight hours and a few simple garden tools. There was even a period, shortly after returning from Iraq for the first time, when I found my mind in a rut, able to live only in forty-eight-hour increments, planning my pleasures out for the only time I knew to be real, consumed by The Question: How can anything be loved when it can be so easily surrendered?
Now, looking back at how I reacted to my friend’s interrogation, I can see I was a voyeur, a dilettante in these matters, dumb to what I had witnessed, innocent of the history of this sort of thing, blissfully unaware of the tendency in times of national crisis to flirt with the dark arts of in extremis interrogation and psychological manipulation. But I suspect that I was no more of an amateur in these things than many of the SERE instructors themselves, people ignorant of the history of the torture school that would later be called upon to train interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib.
When people today decry the abuses of the Bush administration, they get hung up on the years that scream loudest in the imagination, when the country was still reeling from the cataclysm of 9/11—2002, 2003, and 2004—as if these recent outbreaks of barbarity are unique phenomena, isolated incidents, distinct from the larger sweep of history. In fact, there is a much longer record of this sort of behavior in our country than the popular memory would admit. The style of totalitarian control and interrogation used at Guantánamo didn’t just drop out of the humid Cuban sky and into the minds of the interrogators. This was an empirically established body of knowledge accrued over decades of scientific and pseudoscientific research by the Central Intelligence Agency and by all four branches of the US military. What would later become known as the SERE program was but one of an array of experimental mind-control programs that, when taken as a whole, constitute a sort of secret history of the Cold War.
It all began with the Korean War. That conflict, which burns dimly if at all, in the American imagination, saw the first psychological exploitation of American prisoners of war by the enemy. According to some accounts, fully 70 percent of the 7,190 American prisoners held by the Chinese and the North Koreans were made to sign either confessions or petitions calling for an end to the war. (Tellingly, most of these were false confessions, admitting, for instance, that the US had engaged in germ warfare against North Korea). Most shocking of all, twenty-one American servicemen chose to remain in China after the war. By contrast, British, Australian, and Turkish prisoners performed much better and were found to have rarely collaborated with their Communist captors, despite evidence that they were treated as badly as the Americans.
This news sent shock waves through the Pentagon. No one could explain what had happened. American boys simply didn’t cave in like this. To many national security experts, it looked as if the Chinese were engaged in some underhanded enterprise, capitalizing on some unwholesome aspects of modern psychology to penetrate and manipulate the minds of American soldiers. The Communist’s putative body of techniques, which became popularly known as “brainwashing,” (the term was coined by Edward Hunter, journalist and onetime CIA officer writing for the Miami Daily News in September 1950) became a central preoccupation of the culture and the military–industrial complex.
The stateside view of these brainwashing revelations as a sort of psychological Pearl Harbor spawned a myriad of ill-advised experimental programs by the armed forces and the CIA into mind control. To many in Washington, a psychological arms race was under way and the US was already dangerously behind. As Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA, told the journalist David Frost twenty-five years later, “There was deep concern over the issue of brainwashing. We felt that it was our responsibility not to lag behind the Russians or the Chinese in this field.” A network of secret prisons and research laboratories was set up outside the United States in order to allow researchers to work unimpeded by the constraints of American law. In facilities in occupied Germany, Japan, Canada, and the Panama Canal Zone, “It was anything goes . . . like Guantánamo,” said Thomas Polgar, one of the founding fathers of the CIA.
This was the period that produced The Manchurian Candidate, and while that film, which portrayed a Korean War veteran who’d been programmed by the Communists to assassinate the president, was thought at the time to be a piece of speculative fiction, history has shown the film to have been behind the CIA by more than a few years. “By whatever means necessary” seemed to be the watchwords over at Langley during the late fifties and early sixties. One of the more outlandish programs launched during this period was the CIA’s bizarre MK-ULTRA, which involved, among other things, exploring the uses of hypnotism and the administering of a strange new drug known as LSD to unsuspecting victims. One such victim, Frank Olson, an Army biological weapons researcher, was given LSD without his knowledge and committed suicide a week later, jumping from a ten-story building. According to a 1994 report by the Government Accounting Office, between 1953 and 1964 over 149 separate research projects involving drug testing and other “mind control”–related experiments were conducted. No one knows how many unwitting subjects were experimented on over the course of the program because most of the records relating to MK-ULTRA were later destroyed by Director Helms, but the GAO report, in summarizing the totality of the programs undertaken by US government, describes the number of human subjects in question as “thousands.” Virtually all of these techniques were subsequently condemned by the Senate’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, in 1976.
Another product of this “golden era” of mind control was the CIA’s secret KUBARK interrogation manual, declassified in 1997 after an extended campaign by the Baltimore Sun. It was this document that first codified many of the coercive tactics that would later appear in the SERE curriculum, including extreme confinement, sleep deprivation, sensory manipulation, and sexual harassment. The authors of the manual were open about the inspiration for many of the tactics they described, and KUBARK makes repeated reference to techniques used on American prisoners of war by Chinese Communist interrogators. The rationale seemed to be one of building upon the experiences of the Chinese, fine-tuning some of their excesses, refining the work of the Communists, who seemed to the folks at Langley to be bent upon some form of ideological dominance rather than focused on the very serious task of intelligence-gathering. This can be seen in one instance where the authors argue that “Among American POW’s pressured by the Chinese Communists, the DDD syndrome in its full-blown form constituted a state of discomfort that was well-nigh intolerable. . . . If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”
The KUBARK manual, whose very title is a cryptonym for “CIA,” is considered by many in the SERE community to be the sine qua non of coercive-interrogation literature. Its influence can be seen in virtually every other classified interrogation manual, most of which have been officially repudiated by the US government, including the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual–1983 which was used by the US Army’s School of the Americas in training numerous suspected death squads in Central America. Whatever one’s opinion of the ethics of interrogation, KUBARK remains a classic of Cold War literature and a fascinating read, owing to the quality of the prose, its reliance upon established psychological research, and the common-sense tone with which it describes in detail the process of flaying the human mind. Its authors assert on the first page: “There is nothing mysterious about interrogation. It consists of no more than obtaining needed information through responses to questions. As is true of all craftsmen, some interrogators are more able than others; and some of their superiority may be innate.”
For several months after I graduated from the school, I had been consumed by my hatred for the course, for the instructors, and, for that matter, all sailors.
Fast forward to August 2002. American intelligence officers, searching for methods to deal with the new crop of prisoners harvested in Afghanistan, racked their brains looking for ways to squeeze information out of the busloads of prisoners filling US military prisons. The great gears of the intelligence system were jammed with the raw material that could save the republic, if only the information trapped in their heads could be gotten to. There had to be a better way! It couldn’t have been long before they struck upon the SERE body of knowledge as a possible solution. Jane Mayer in her authoritative account of US torture policy, The Dark Side, asserts that, “It’s not yet possible to pinpoint exactly how and when the CIA first turned to the SERE program for advice on how to interrogate its own captives.” However, I would argue that because virtually every intelligence officer on active duty today has undergone some form of SERE training, it was probably inevitable that they would come to it eventually. Of course they would fall back on what they knew! Perhaps reminiscing about their own days as pretend-prisoners, back to their days at Warner Springs, at Fort Bragg, at New Brunswick, these officers thought to themselves, Why, I made it through that stuff without too much trouble, why can’t we try these techniques out on the detainees? Never mind, of course, that the “techniques” in question were first used by the Chinese against our own people. Never mind that after the Korean and Vietnam Wars such “techniques” were held up as the hardest evidence of our enemies’ depravity. Again, turning to Mayer’s account, “By the fall of 2002 . . . the trademark techniques of the SERE program soon popped up in Guantánamo and other US military prisons holding suspects from the war. Hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, and psychological ploys designed to induce humiliation and fear suddenly seemed legion.”
To get to the Navy’s West Coast SERE schoolhouse, you enter the gate at Naval Air Station North Island and take McCain Boulevard (named after the senator’s father, who was an admiral) for half a mile, driving past manicured lawns and towering palm trees that seem more appropriate to La Jolla, ten miles to the north. Across McCain, Tropic Thunder, a comedy about a troupe of actors making a Vietnam War movie who get caught up in a real insurgency, is playing at the base theater. This last part seems like an unnecessary irony, because the schoolhouse itself, a bland two-story building, is so inescapably reminiscent of that war, so filled with artifacts from Southeast Asia, that if I didn’t know better I might have mistaken it for a museum. The school’s insignia, a menacing black and green shield that dominates the front entrance of the school’s main building, has at its center a bowie knife encircled by barbed wire. At the left margin of the shield is the Chinese character for “tiger.” According to the school’s literature, this quirk of heraldry refers back to the medieval practice of denoting terra incognitae on maps with the phrase Here there be tigers or Here there be dragons, a small, easily overlooked detail that would seem to acknowledge the sub-rosa course of instruction that goes on behind such an emblem. It is a purposefully intimidating insignia, designed to strike fear in the chests of the students who have reported by the thousands for training here since the school was established in 1953, shortly after the Korean War ended.
Inside, the place has the curatorial air and studied quietude that I associate with certain types of churches. The passageway outside the main classroom is lined with mementos and black-and-white photographs relating to the American prisoner-of-war experience, with a special emphasis on the Vietnam era. The place exudes a shrine-like feel, and the literature relating to the school has the sort of hyperbolic echo, that straining for the highest registers of syntax, that reminds me of Civil War memorials I have visited—the understood mission being to impress visitors and students with the gravity of their environs. The school’s recommended reading list includes such heady titles as In The Presence of Mine Enemies; Seven Years in Hanoi; The Password Is Courage; Five Years to Freedom; and Scars and Stripes, by Eugene B. McDaniels, a Navy pilot who spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton. The school is on the Pacific, the air is always fresh, the light carrying that special sort of Californian oblivion, but the place seems to wallow in history in a way that goes beyond even the usual military impulse toward remembrance. Here classroom handouts still reference “Communist methods of indoctrination and exploitation.” Here the normally banal, black POW/MIA flag takes on new meaning (If you are captured or declared missing, you will not be forgotten). Here waterboarding was, until just a few years ago, thought of exclusively as an instructional method—in the words of a former master instructor, “a demonstration tool that revealed to our students the techniques of brutal authoritarian regimes.”
Here then is the fountainhead, “the repository,” according to Mayer in The Dark Side, “of the world’s knowledge about torture, the military equivalent, in a sense, of the lethal specimens of obsolete plagues kept in the deep-freeze laboratories of the Center for Disease Control,” an assertion made more alluring by the fact that the mock prisoner-of-war camp that the school operates is referred to in the official literature as the “Resistance Training Laboratory” (emphasis mine).
A few years earlier, I returned for the first time to North Island, taking part in a panel on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disease characterized by, among other things, an addiction to the reliving of powerful memories, memories that habitually traumatize and re-traumatize the mind until, in the worst cases, it becomes impossible to live without the chemical rush the memories provide. One of the other panel participants, a military psychiatrist who was later put in charge of the Navy’s PTSD task force in Washington, told me that, “We’re still fighting the Vietnam War.” Iraq, I was told, had only highlighted what had been going on for a very long time.
Back at SERE, wandering around the building but too freaked out to bring myself to talk to anyone, I kept returning to what the psychiatrist had said years ago, unable to live with my “only training” memories and yet unable to live without them and everything that comes with them. Looking around, I found myself remembering that, unlike a lot of graduates of the course, I had never purchased the de rigueur souvenir T‑shirt with the SERE shield on it. I remember, in fact, that the very idea of the T‑shirt was revolting to me. For several months after I graduated from the school, I had been consumed by my hatred for the course, for the instructors, and, for that matter, all sailors. Why in hell would I want to commemorate my own humiliation? And yet, here I was, back at North Island, sniffing around the SERE building.
SERE always was, for me, more abusive than instructive, and the military found it all too easy to enact these excesses upon this new enemy.
This is, on some level, a familiar, even clichéd story: a scarred veteran unable to let go of the memories that have come to define him; a military establishment still fighting the last war. Responding to reports of Americans applying Communist brainwashing techniques on detainees at Guantánamo, several prominent observers have commented upon the historical ironies. As the New York Times reported on July 2, 2008, “In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners.” However, most striking to me in these revelations about the US torture program is not the “historical amnesia” or what one observer called “the double irony” of Americans repeating the very sorts of bodily abuses that had been committed against their fathers and uncles, but instead the very commonness of these sorts of things, how almost inevitable they seem.
History is the record of trauma echoing across generations and cultures. I am thinking here of the recurrence of American soldiers’ scalping their enemies in both World War II and Vietnam. And much more to the point, I am thinking here of the heroes of the French Underground: tortured by the Gestapo, many of them going on to serve in the French army and commit the very same atrocities against Algerian prisoners in 1957. It’s PTSD writ large, the nation as victim/perpetrator, reenacting the trauma.
What is different here is that in SERE you have an apparatus that for fifty years curated and cultivated the torture techniques that would later be used against America’s suspected enemies. And I think SERE always was, for me, more a rite of passage than actual training, more abusive than instructive, and that the military, a subculture defined by ritual and remembrance, found it all too easy to enact these excesses upon this new enemy. In times of crisis, we regress as a culture, we return to the site of the trauma that forms us as a nation; we fetishize. Think of how John McCain’s time in the Hanoi Hilton is endlessly mulled over, how it is insistently portrayed as an ennobling event, is recounted as homily, something we are never allowed to forget, a touchstone to return to in moments of confusion.
When I reported for training at North Island I quickly discovered that I was already working at a disadvantage. Virtually all the other trainees in my cycle were pilots who had completed several years of flight training. They spoke a different language. Some of them smoked. Many of them looked like they’d never seen the inside of a weight room. The instructors seemed content to let them cruise, knowing that failure for these guys meant a loss of flight status and a permanent mark on their careers. I was a young infantry lieutenant in a school filled with what to my mind were a bunch of flyboys and prima donnas. I had already seen the SERE thing up close, and I told the training staff that I wasn’t impressed.
They packed forty of us into a room built for twenty, for classes on the Code of Conduct (“I am an American fighting man. I will never surrender of my own free will.”) and the Geneva convention. (“Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated.”) We were told that despite most nations’ having ratified the Geneva convention, America’s enemies had never respected the treaty. We were told, for instance, “In both Korea and North Vietnam, POW protests that the mistreatment they were receiving violated the Geneva convention were usually refuted by their captors with the claim that they were ‘war criminals’ not entitled to POW protection.” We were told that we should expect no less than the worst imaginable treatment from America’s enemies.
And we got classes on map reading, camouflage, and what the instructors referred to as “Global Environmental Survival Training” (basically, how to shit in the woods). Most of my classmates had never used a compass before, at least not on land, and the classes were beyond tedious. I had just completed a full year practicing these skills and considered the recitation of these supposed crumbs of wisdom to be an insult to my intelligence. I did everything I could to ensure that my derision was noted, making pains to distinguish myself from fellow trainees. We were all in uniform so my choices were limited, but after some deliberation I started wearing a pair of clunky mountaineering boots I had ordered through a climbing catalogue. They were enormous, designed to be worn with crampons, and reached almost to my knees. Most of my classmates were trying their best to look invisible, to avoid the scrutiny of the training staff. I did the exact opposite. The instructors affected not being aware of the differences between us, but a couple of them, when they got a look at my enormous boots, smiled cryptically and said exactly the same thing: “Ahhhh, Spetsnaz boots,” using the Russian word for “special forces.” These were sins I would pay for later.
A couple of our instructors were old Navy SEALs. They reminded me of my father’s old Navy friends. They belonged to a different era and addressed us in an avuncular style that gave me a warm feeling inside. One of them looked like a Hell’s Angel—he had full, and faded, tattoo sleeves, such that it looked as if every morning he dipped his arms in swamp sludge. I never saw him without a mug of coffee trapped inside the giant claw of his hand. But most of the instructors were aviation mechanics and bosun’s mates who had never spent more than a few nights in the woods. We got lectures on “The Seven Enemies of Survival” which naturally listed eight such foes of the flesh (Fear, Pain, Cold, Thirst, Hunger, Fatigue, Boredom, and Loneliness). On smoke breaks between classes, I caught glimpses of a few civilians who worked at the school. I had been in uniform for a little over a year at this point, and to see guys walking around in mufti gave me a strange thrill. I learned later that one of them was a renowned prisoner of war from Vietnam, Doug Hegdahl, who consulted at the school. In 1968, he had been swept overboard from a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin and eventually picked up by North Vietnamese. The proprietors of the Hanoi Hilton were dubious about his story and assumed that he was CIA, a distinction that earned him their worst attentions for several months. Eventually, he was able to convince them of his lowly status. At one point he told them that he was an illiterate peasant and therefore unqualified to read any of their propaganda statements on television. Soon they began referring to him as mot ngoui dan don, Vietnamese for “The Incredibly Stupid One.”
We got a single one-hour lecture on techniques for resisting enemy interrogation, all of which were, and still are, classified. Smoke breaks turned into satiric interrogations, the pilots trying to outdo one another for the prize of the Stupidest One of All.
“Say, What squadron are you in?”
We were all headed to one of the darkest trials of our lives.
“I said, which squadron are you in?”
“No, seriously, aren’t you at Miramar?”
“Mira-who? Never heard of her.”
Jesus. Jesus, indeed. Our Last Supper came at the end of the first week of classes, in the form of a final breakfast at the chow hall before they loaded everyone onto a bus bound for Warner Springs. After we sat waiting for awhile, a sailor got on and read our names out. Everybody answered except for four guys. The sailor came to the end of his list and read their names again, calling out their full names and ranks as if he were preparing their tombstones, then asked if anyone knew their whereabouts. When no one answered he made a note on his clipboard and stepped off the bus.
The bus was dark on the long ride to Warner Springs, a remote training site in the high desert east of San Diego, where there was said to be snow on the ground. On the ride out, nobody spoke. For once, there was no bullshit, no bluster. Even the pathologically jocular pilots were silent, stunned into introspection. What was there to say? Later, in the desert, we’d find words, but at the moment we were all headed to what we knew to be one of the darkest trials of our lives. That was the idea, so widely accepted that it didn’t need to be spoken; you heard it in the way guys savored the word in their mouths, SERE, as if the shape of its lone syllable held some magic, you saw it in the fact that nobody could look at anyone else on the bus, could only stare desolately out the window, looking for succor in the shapes of the passing trees. We flew through gray backcountry, wearing the faces of the condemned.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the prisoner-of-war phase of SERE. My experiences from Quantico, fresh in my mind, helped to feed the visions in my head, but I had yet to spend an hour in the mock POW camp. If the stories I’d gleaned from other Marines about SERE were any indication, it was a royal pain in the ass, a juiced-up version of boot camp that was thankfully much shorter. The field portion of SERE was but a week long. What could they possibly do to you in that short amount of time, I wondered. However, in boot camp you had a bed in the barracks at night. In boot camp, the daily training schedule was posted on a wall near the drill instructors’ hut. If a drill instructor hit a recruit in boot camp, he went to jail. In SERE, none of these prohibitions existed, nor were the boundaries of the training ever explained to you. As a trainee, you were deliberately kept in the dark. It was all part of what I’d heard some officers refer to as “the harassment package.” Making matters worse, because SERE training is officially classified as confidential, graduates of the school were instructed to never discuss their experiences at Warner Springs.
One of my friends back at my home unit had gone to the Army school at Fort Bragg several years before. The day before I left, I asked him what to expect. He gave me a version of the same parting advice that I would hear ten years later, in Iraq, over and over again until it came to seem like a formal benediction, something you say to people when you know that fate is about to have its way with them. He told me: Keep your head down out there.
I should have known then that I was in for it.
How stressful is SERE exactly? It might seem a question for which there is no answer, but in 2000, on the cusp of the war on terror, a team of researchers attempted to address this very issue, to quantify in clinical terms the amount of psychological force the school exerted upon trainees. The results, published in Special Warfare, the professional journal of the Green Berets, were shocking. The researchers measured the amount of cortisol, a hormone excreted during times of mental and physical stress, present in the saliva of SERE trainees. “It was the highest amount of cortisol we’d ever heard of,” one researcher was quoted as saying. A person undergoing major surgery, such as a heart transplant, can be expected to produce cortisol levels of around 700 nanomoles per liter. By contrast, the researchers examining the saliva of SERE trainees discovered an average of 900 nanomoles per liter, the highest levels ever recorded.
Nevertheless, it is telling of the elite American military subculture that this study, when it is referenced, is usually held up as evidence that Special Forces troops and personnel who undergo SERE training are “different,” and that the school had “inoculated” them to the stresses of captivity, as if the situation were strictly medical in nature. And it is this metaphor of “inoculation” that is the most troubling, because it posits such mistreatment as a prophylactic and confession and psychological collapse as preventable conditions. And this appeal to the language of medicine is used throughout the literature relating to SERE training, as if to underline the sense of Communist interrogation techniques as a known pathogen.
About the interrogations I underwent, I remember little. Or I should say, I am not permitted to remember. You see, even today, ten years on, I am not free of SERE. (That word, brother of arid, withered, cousin of the Latin meaning “to scorch”). The school retains an official, bureaucratic claim on the contents of my mind. Even my memories are not mine. (I may not have lost my mind, but I have certainly lost sovereignty over certain parts of it.) Question me all you like, I shall never tell. Certain aspects of the resistance-training laboratory are classified “secret,” and to describe what transpired there is to flirt with further incarceration—an implied imprisonment to complement the simulated one I endured so long ago.
No, you shall have to deduce for yourself what actually occurred those nights inside that cold interrogation shed in the California desert. Did I shake with fear when my prisoner number was called? Did they ask me my name, my rank, my serial number? Did they ask how many men were in my team? Did they ask me who among my comrades was planning to escape? Did they force me to sign a bogus Red Cross form saying that I was being treated humanely? Did they film it? Did I crack? Did I cry? Renounce my country? Throw myself at the mercy of my tormentors? Ask to be released from training?
About the only thing I can tell you is that it didn’t much matter that SERE was a simulated prisoner-of-war camp. It was real enough to me. I was a young man and I possessed a promiscuous imagination, unanchored by the weight of experience. Drunk as I was on the visions of war that had inspired my childhood, my mind embraced the illusion of prisonerhood with little resistance. I had seen all the movies, read all the novels, had cultivated visions of being a resident of the Hanoi Hilton. I had piloted a jet over the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, dodged flak over my target with great aplomb, laughing, delivered my payload, watched the surprising beauty of the antiaircraft fire as it swept like blown rain towards my craft, felt the shudder of flight departed, parachuted right into enemy hands. On some level I wanted to be a prisoner and so I became one. As Rimbaud said, “I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there.” This much I understand now. But the older, wiser man can give no help to the young lieutenant. He is still there, trapped behind the wire.
When I got home a week later, a friend asked me how it went. I told him that I would commit suicide before I allowed myself to be captured in combat.