The US Military and Torture

“In every war but one that
the United States has fought, the conduct of those of its servicemen
who were captured and held in enemy prison camps presented no
unforeseen problems to the armed forces and gave rise to no particular
concern in the country as a whole.. . .That one war was the Korean

In Every War But
One 1

Some 50 years later, it is the conduct
of U. S. servicemen and women toward those they have captured
that has caused “concern in the country”: the case
of LTC West firing a pistol during the interrogation of a detainee
in August 2003, photographs of nude men from the Abu Ghraib prison,
reports of Afghans and Iraqis dying while in U.S. custody, etc.
Overarching and amplifying these events, there has been an almost
worldwide accusation that: “Americans are torturing detainees!”
In the arena of public opinion all these events have been called
“torture” even though many of these acts were of a
lesser intensity and should be categorized as coercion or physical/mental
abuse. Accordingly, this essay looks at these acts as “torture”
through the prisms of some legal imperatives, the effectiveness
of torture, why some resort to torture, trained interrogators,
and a closing comment.


The United States Congress ratified both the Third and Fourth
Geneva Conventions thereby compelling the U. S. Armed Forces
to comply with their strictures. The Third Geneva Convention,
which covers prisoners of war, contains the following proscription
within Article 17:

“No physical or mental
torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on
prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind
whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened,
insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment
of any kind.”2

The Fourth Geneva Convention, which covers “the Protection
of Civilian Persons in Time of War” from the occupying power
has less precise rules on interrogation but Article 31 still
bans all “physical or moral coercion” to obtain information.3
Soon after 9/11, there was some confusion as to who was a Prisoner
of War and/or protected by these Conventions. That was quickly
put to rest with the 7 February 2002 memorandum “Humane
Treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees” from President
Bush that directs, in part:

“Our values as a nation,
values that we share with many nations in the world, call for
us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally
entitled to such treatment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. armed
forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely, and to the
extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in
a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.”4

Regardless of where you place the threshold between torture and
coercion, they are both banned by the Third and Fourth Geneva
Conventions and anathema to President Bush’s order to “treat
detainees humanely.”


In addition to being illegal, these acts are frequently ineffective
and counter-productive. The Romans threatened the early Christians
with crucifixion, being burned at the stake, or being fed to
wild animals in the Coliseum if they did not reject their new
religion and embrace the many gods of Roman: Thousands chose
death. Joan of Arc was tried before an ecclesiastical tribunal
accused of witchcraft and heresy because she claimed to be guided
by divine voices. She was told to admit that she heard no such
voices or be burned at the stake: She was not dissuaded by death.
William Wallace, of Braveheart popularity, was hanged, drawn
and quartered because he refused to swear allegiance to King
Edward I. The threat of certain and excruciating death was ineffective
in dissuading these and their deaths had opposite effects: the
slaughter of Christians contributed to the conversion of Rome;
Joan of Arc is widely remembered today while few remember the
name of the French king she served and who contributed to her
demise; and, the death of William Wallace invigorated the Scots
to successively eject the English from Scotland.

This is not to say that coercive techniques always fail to influence
or prompt some action. These techniques have caused men to do
as their abusers wanted them to do or say, and, at times, caused
the unintended death of the detainee; for example,

1) “The barbarous custom
of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets
to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that
this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces
nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes
into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to
know.” (Napoleon Bonepart) 5
2) Four days after the war started and two days after he was
captured, an American lieutenant was heard broadcasting over
Seoul radio on behalf of the Democratic People’s Republic of
[North] Korea. He was followed by others making similar statements
and even confessions of using germ warfare weapons. It wasn’t
long before a journalist explained what was happening to them:
“Americans are being brainwashed in Korea.” Although
these men were not “tortured”–as defined at the time
by the U.S. Army: “the application of pain so extreme that
it causes a man to faint or lose control of his will”–they
were coerced and abused into saying what the Koreans/Chinese
wanted them to say.6
3) During the Vietnam War, Americans were, in the most profound
sense of the word, tortured into making confessions of using
bacteriological weapons against the North Vietnamese and other
acts considered to be criminal by the world community: statements
the Americans knew were false.

4) According to the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo
School of Law, Yeshiva University, duress, coercion, and violence
(threatened or performed) have led innocent Americans to confess
to crimes they did not perpetrate. The Project reports that,
“33 of the first 123 postconviction DNA exonerations involve
false confessions or admissions.”7
5) On 27 May 2004, The New York Times reported that on 30 August
2003, LTC Alvin B. West, an artillery battalion commander, detained
an Iraqi police officer named Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi for interrogation
because West believed the officer knew about a “plot to
ambush him and his men.” West “made a calculated decision
to intimidate the Iraqi officer with a show of force . . . [even
though he previously] had never conducted or witnessed an interrogation.”
The Interrogation of Hamoodi, that included hitting him and threatening
his life, failed to produce the desired answers. West then fired
his pistol next to his head. Hamoodi gave West the names of several
men who were purportedly involved in an effort to kill him. One
man was picked up and shortly thereafter released; none of the
named men were determined to be involved in the so-called plot.
Later, “Mr. Hamoodi said that he was not sure what he told
the Americans, but that it was meaningless information induced
by fear and pain.”

6) According to a 12 June 2004 Navy Times story, two Marines,
during “motion hearings” held on 28 & 29 June 2004,
faced charges in connection with the death of Nagem Sadoon Hatab,
a 52-year-old Baath party member who was being held in a makeshift
detention center outside Nasiriya. Allegedly, Hatab had been
struck and kicked on 4 June 2003 and the following day was lethargic
and had defecated on himself. On 6 June, he was found dead.

As these examples show, the use of torture and/or abusive techniques
frequently fails to elicit the desired response, at times produces
a false response, and can result in the death of a potential
source of information: A dead source is no source of information!


Practitioners of torture have frequently been described as being
antisocial, bullies or products of a culture of violence. There
is evidence supporting the assertion that even “normal”
persons will, under certain circumstances, resort to the torture
or abuse of others; for example,

1) In the summer of 1991, Stanford
University conducted a psychology experiment of prison life.
College students that had been screened for normalcy were broken
down into two groups–one of prisoners and the other guards–and
placed in a prison environment for a scheduled two weeks. According
to Stanford University, the experiment “had to be ended
prematurely after only six days because of what the situation
was doing to the college students who participated. In only a
few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became
depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” In other
words, people given extraordinary power quickly turn sadistic.8
2) On 1 June 2004, the Washington Post reported that:

“On May 1, a U.S. Army
investigator took the stand in a criminal proceeding in Baghdad
against one of the seven military police soldiers charged in
the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. There was, he said, ‘absolutely
no evidence’ that military intelligence officers or the military
police chain of command had authorized the abuse to aid interrogations.
‘These individuals were acting on their own,’ said Army special
agent Tyler Pieron, who investigated the case for the Criminal
Investigation Division. ‘The photos I saw, and the totality of
our interviews, show that certain individuals were just having
fun at the expense of the prisoners. Taking pictures of sexual
positions, the assaults and things along that nature were done
simply because they could.'”

3) Lastly, MG Antonio Taguba,
USA, was tasked with investigating reports of improprieties at
detention facilities in Iraq. Conclusion #1 of his report entitled,
BRIGADE,” reads:

“Several US Army Soldiers
have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international
law at Abu Ghraib/BCCF and Camp Bucca, Iraq. Furthermore, key
senior leaders in both the 800th MP Brigade and the 205th MI
Brigade failed to comply with established regulations, policies,
and command directives in preventing detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib
(BCCF) and at Camp Bucca during the period August 2003 to February

During his appearance before
the Senate Armed Services Committee on 8 June 2004, MG Taguba
said the root of the problem was, “Lack of discipline, no
training whatsoever and no supervision.”

Certainly, torture is not the sole property of loose cannons.
This technique is also advocated by those who believe it is the
right thing to do. On 21 Oct. 2001, Walter Pincus reported in
the Washington Post that FBI agents were becoming frustrated
in their efforts to glean information from terrorist suspects
and said, “it could get to the spot where we could go to

On 23 Jan. 2002, CBS’ “60
Minutes” aired two Mike Wallace interviews for a segment
on torturing terrorists during interrogation-1) French Maj. Gen.
Paul Aussaresses and 2) Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz:

1) Aussaresses was asked whether
he would use torture to force al Qaeda suspects to talk. He answered
in English and without hesitation: “It seems to me that
it is obvious.” He is the author of the book, The Battle
of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria 1955-1957
where he describes his use of torture against Algerian insurgents.
Aussaresses had no intelligence training and his instruction
in interrogation came from the Algerian Gendarmerie: “They
quickly informed me that the best way to force a terrorist who
refused to disclose what he knew was to torture him.”

Ironically, he admits, “It
was the first time that I tortured anyone. But . . . the man
died without talking.” The book is also replete with stories
of summary executions of those who admitted to being involved
with the Algerian insurgency or those who were fingered by tortured
Algerians; he doesn’t mention any effort to confirm an accusation
before he executed the accused. Nevertheless, he justifies the
use of torture by saying that it was instrumental in defeating
the insurgents by 1957 even though he admits many merely withdrew
to the Atlas Mountains only to return later to expedite the withdrawal
of France from Algeria in 1962.

2) The self-described civil
libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, published a book in 2002 entitled,
Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to
the Challenge. In Chapter Four, he calls for the use of “nonlethal”
torture in “ticking bomb” situations. Unfortunately,
he neither tells us how we can be sure that an event is imminent
nor how we can be sure that the torture applied will not have
a fatal result.

On the surface, his recommendation
of pushing needles under someone’s fingernails appears to be
a nonfatal technique. But, can we be sure of that in the case
of an older source with a heart problem?

As evidence that torture works,
Dershowitz describes an event that took place in the Philippines
in 1995. It seems the police captured one Abdul Hakim Murad after
finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They
beat him and broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced
water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the
Israelis. Sixty-seven days later he broke and told of terror
plots to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters
of the CIA and to assassinate the Pope. Unsaid here is which
of these purported plots were subsequently confirmed. Also, I
find it curious that Dershowitz would argue for the use of torture
in a “ticking bomb” situation based on a torture-interrogation
example that took sixty-seven days to bring to fruition.

According to WO Brian Copeland
of the Navy/ Marine Intelligence Training Course (NMITC), Dam
Neck, Va., current Marine Corps interrogation doctrine is that
detainee information is highly perishable and, in a tactical
environment, has a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours.


It is not the purpose of this essay to demonstrate the U.S. Armed
Forces’ doctrinal techniques of interrogation that have been
honed over the years and are known and used by both military
and law enforcement agencies worldwide. But, I do feel obliged
to shine a little light on some alternatives to torturing and/or
abusing detainees. For the curious, I invite you to read the
basic reference for trained U.S. military intelligence interrogators,
You would also find illuminating the book: The Interrogator:
The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff Master Interrogator of the
Luftwaffe. This German interrogator purportedly gleaned information
from every one of the American and British fighter pilots he
interrogated without ever resorting to violence. This is not
surprising when you consider: FM 2-22.3 states that direct questioning
“works 90 to 95 percent of the time.” Even Gen Aussaresses
admits in his book, “most of the time I didn’t need to resort
to torture, but only talk to people.” Trained interrogators,
of course, know this–the operant words here are, “trained

Another precept that is foremost in the mind of a trained interrogator
is that: the interrogator does not know what the source knows.
Think about it! Isn’t that the reason the interrogation is being
conducted in the first place? This point has profound implications
for those who are untrained and/or inclined to use coercion.
The following is a partial extract from the 11 July 2004, New
York Times Magazine article entitled, “Memoir: Interrogation
Unbound,” By Hyder Akbar, as told to Susan Burton. This
narrative demonstrates what can happen when someone untrained
in interrogation-especially this interrogation precept–attempts
to interrogate a detainee:

It was a Wednesday afternoon
in June 2003, and Abdul Wali was being interrogated by three
Americans at their base near Asadabad, Afghanistan. I was interpreting.
At the time, Wali’s family guessed his age to be 28; he was 10
years older than I was. I’m 19 now. I grew up mostly in the Bay
Area suburbs, but since the fall of the Taliban, I’ve been spending
summers in Afghanistan, working alongside my father, Said Fazel
Akbar, the governor of Kunar, a rural province in the eastern
part of the country. It’s a strange double life. I sometimes
stumble into situations in which I’m called upon to act as a
kind of cultural translator. It’s a role that can leave me tense
and frustrated, or far worse: I came away from Wali’s interrogation
feeling something close to despair.

On June 18, 2003, Abdul Wali visited my father’s office. He knew
that the Americans wanted to question him about some recent rocket
attacks. He told us he was innocent, and he said he was terrified
of going to the U.S. base, because there were pervasive rumors
that prisoners were tortured there. My father told him that he
needed to go, and he sent me along to reassure him.

A half-hour later, Wali and I were sitting across from three
men I then knew only by their first names: Steve, Brian and Dave,
who proved to be David A. Passaro. It was more than 100 degrees
in the small room, and above us, a fan whirred wildly.

The interrogation started casually enough. In his friendly Southern
accent, Brian dispensed with the nuts and bolts: have you been
in contact with Taliban? Were you Taliban? Then the subject turned
to Wali’s recent visit to Pakistan.

“How long ago were you in Pakistan?” Brian asked.

Wali looked confused, and I doubted he’d be able to answer. People
in Kunar don’t have calendars; most of them don’t even know how
old they are.

“You don’t have to give a specific date,” Brian said.
“Was it two, three days ago? Two, three weeks ago? Two,
three months ago?”

“I don’t know,” Wali responded. “It’s really hard
for me to say.”

The Americans exchanged glances. I prodded him: “Can you
at least say a week or two weeks or a month or two months, or
something?” But he couldn’t. For him, as for many of his
countrymen, time unfolded forward- there was no way to go back
later and try to fix it in a structure.

“I just, I go to sleep, I wake up and there’s a next day,”
he explained.

“I feed myself, I go to sleep and there’s a next day.”

The Americans weren’t buying it. Dave took over the questioning.

He asked Wali where he had been 14 days earlier, on a night when
three rockets were fired at the American base. “How could
you not know where you were on the night three rockets were fired?”
he said. Wali explained that his nights were often punctuated
by explosions.

Even seated, Dave seemed enlarged by anger. His demeanor felt
put on, as if he were acting the role of a fearsome interrogator
(especially in comparison to Brian, whose Southern hospitality
softened even his grilling of this suspected terrorist). Dave
fixed Wali with an unrelenting stare. Wali returned a nervous

“Translate this to him!” Dave exploded: “This
is not a joking matter! Don’t smile!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend him,” Wali replied
anxiously. “It’s very hard for me. I can’t understand anything
he’s saying. He was staring at me, and I didn’t know what to
do. What should I do?” he asked me.

I wasn’t sure how to react. Dave’s behavior was unpredictable.
Only days earlier, he and I had a friendly conversation about
his little son, who could say his ABC’s and count from 1 to 20
and back down again. But now he was acting as if he was full
of rage. “If you’re lying, your whole family, your kids,
they’ll all get hurt from this,” he threatened.

As I translated, I started to feel as if Dave’s words to Wali
were my own, and all I wanted to do was stop saying these things
to him.

“Your situation’s getting worse,” Dave warned. How
was I supposed to tell that to Wali, when my father had assured
him that coming to the base would make everything better?

Nobody was behaving the way they would with a regular translator;
both sides added comments meant only for me. In one ear, I had
Wali pleading: “I’m innocent, I’m innocent.” In the
other, I had Brian dismissing his account: “That is impossible.”
What was I supposed to do, argue or agree?

At some point, I announced that Wali was making personal, emotional
appeals to me, and that the other translator in the room-a local
Afghan employed at the base-should take over. Then I quietly
tried to share my largest concern with Brian. “I’m not going
to translate for this guy,” I whispered. “Look how
he’s acting.”

“What do you mean?” Brian replied, perhaps misunderstanding.
“I’m totally calm.”

“You’re calm, but look at Dave,” I said.

Brian shrugged his shoulders.

As the interrogation continued, I was relieved to be on the sidelines,
but still, it wasn’t easy to watch Dave browbeat Wali. Finally
the questions stopped, and Wali stood facing the wall as the
Americans patted him down in preparation for detention. “Is
there anything you want to give to your family?” Dave asked

The question terrified Wali. “No, no,” he stuttered.

I approached Wali and, to calm him, put my hand on his shoulder.

“Just say the truth,” I told him, trying to sound normal.
“Nothing is going to happen if you just say the truth.”
Then I walked out of the room, promising myself that I’d come
back and check up on him.

He died before I got the chance.

On June 17 of [2004], a federal
grand jury indicted C.I.A. contractor, David A. Passaro, in connection
with his assault. Passaro, the first civilian to be charged in
the investigation of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan,
is accused of beating Wali using his hands, his feet and a large
flashlight. [Also, according to the 29 July 2004 Fayetteville
(NC) Observer, Passaro is a former Special Forces medic and “was
working at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command as a ‘medical
intelligence research analyst’ when he was arrested.”]



The Korean War experience prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower
to promulgate the Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces
of the United States by executive order. Training in the Code
followed and America has been proud of the conduct of its sons
and daughters while in captivity ever since.9 Conversely, the
conduct of American servicemen and women on the opposite side
of the captivity equation have now caused concern in the country
as evidenced by the examples cited in this essay. The common
thread connecting the above examples was the lack of training
in the handling and interrogation of detainees. The conduct of
those untrained personnel resulted in: an apparent failure to
glean valid intelligence information; potential intelligence
sources dying while in their custody; and, America’s citizens
and their detractors being embittered with stories that the U.
S. Armed Forces practices “torture.” In this information
age where TV cameras broadcast warriors’ every action and warriors
themselves post digital photos of intimate scenes on the Internet,
the untrained are an even greater liability to the United States
then ever before. It is perplexing to realize that this is not
a new “Lesson Learned”; it is just one that some have
not yet implemented. Years ago, General Douglas MacArthur, observed:

“In no other profession are the penalties for employing
untrained personnel so appalling or so irrevocable as in the


1 Kinkead, Eugene, In Every War But One, New York 1959, p 15.

2″Geneva Convention relative
to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” adopted on 12 August
1949 by the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International
Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War, held in Geneva
from 21 April to 12 August 1949:
Entry into force 21 October 1950.
See entire text at:

3 “Convention relative
to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” adopted
on 12 August 1949 by the Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment
of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of
War, held in Geneva from 21 April to 12 August, 1949: Entry into
force 21 October 1950.
See entire text at:

4 See entire text at:

5 Luvaas, Jay, Napoleon on
the Art of War,” Chapter II, Preparations for War, New York
1999, p. 11. The original comment is from a letter Napoleon sent
to Berthier, 11 November 1798, Corres, V, no. 3606, p. 128.

6 Kinkead, Eugene, In Every
War But One, New York 1959.



9 See entire text at:

Maj. Anthony Milavic’s 25-year Marine career included service
as: an instructor in Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination,
and Exploitation of Prisoners of War; a tactical interrogator
in Vietnam and a strategic interrogator; the principal intelligence
officer of a Marine squadron, regiment, and division equivalent
in combat; and, a DIA briefer for the CJCS/SECDEF.

This article originally appeared
on the website of the Straus Military Reform Project, a program
of the Center for Defense Information.