Normally, I’d relegate an article that discusses torture to Links and let readers chat it up among themselves. But an article at TruthOut on the genesis of the US torture program needs to be read widely. And in many respects, it’s not as off topic as it might seem to be.
On one level, it is a troubling illustration of an Israeli saying, “Love your enemy, for you will become him.” The torture program grew out of training courses designed by one Dr. John Bruce Jessen, a psychologist who consulted to the CIA. They were intended to steel soldiers who had been captured from enemy techniques designed to “exploit” them. That might be as mundane as cowing them into being submissive captives, but was presumably for more nefarious purposes: to get them to make false confessions or statements, to spy on fellow prisoners, or to collaborate with their jailers on a more widespread basis. In lay terms, the objective is to break them psychologically yet have them still appear credible to third parties.
Retired Air Force Captain Michael Kearns, who helped hire Jessen in 1989 and later trained thousands of soldiers in the defensive course that Jessen originally developed for the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) branch of the US Air Force Intelligence Agency, found and released some of Jessen’s original handwritten notes for one part of the course, “Psychological Aspects of Detention”:
“From the moment you are detained (if some kind of exploitation is your Detainer’s goal) everything your Detainer does will be contrived to bring about these factors: CONTROL, DEPENDENCY, COMPLIANCE AND COOPERATION,” Jessen wrote. “Your detainer will work to take away your sense of control. This will be done mostly by removing external control (i.e., sleep, food, communication, personal routines etc. )…Your detainer wants you to feel ‘EVERYTHING’ is dependent on him, from the smallest detail, (food, sleep, human interaction), to your release or your very life … Your detainer wants you to comply with everything he wishes. He will attempt to make everything from personal comfort to your release unavoidably connected to compliance in your mind.”
Jessen wrote that cooperation is the “end goal” of the detainer, who wants the detainee “to see that [the detainer] has ‘total’ control of you because you are completely dependent on him, and thus you must comply with his wishes. Therefore, it is absolutely inevitable that you must cooperate with him in some way (propaganda, special favors, confession, etc.).”
The article does not identify who was involved in the process to turn a defensive operation to protect American personnel from “illegal exploitation” into an effort to brutalize US prisoners and detainees. Jessen set about to reverse engineer the very same abuses he had tried to neuter via “stress inoculation.” And I suspect “reverse engineer” is far too charitable a description of what Jessen did; it implies the US was not out to advance the state of the art in prisoner abuse, merely identify and copy existing best practices.
On another level, this revelation raises troubling questions about how programs like this relate to the coarsening of American society. Some readers will not doubt argue that trying to connect the dots between programs designed for use in combat settings and broad social trends is overreaching. Yet look at the themes Jessen stresses: control, dependency, compliance and cooperation. To use one pet example, why are people so apathetic in the wake of widespread abuses by banks, first the extortions that took place during the bailouts, and now the continued flouting of the law in mortgage servicing and foreclosures?
Although there was no single architect like Jessen for the various elements of our current economic paradigm, they do seem to work to weaken, and perhaps in some cases, to break the will of ordinary citizens to stand up to their tormentors large and small. A policy preference for higher levels of unemployment (to keep inflation down and workers in their place) have reduced many if not most individuals’ sense of control of their own destiny and increased their sense of dependence. When job tenures are short and replacement work at the same level of pay can be hard to get, that alone produces a good deal of the sough-after state, compliance.
Add to that an information apparatus which allows employers to see minor transgressions like late payment and misdemeanors such as getting arrested at protests, and you have effective mechanisms for social control. And there are those who look at the abuse of Bradley Manning, which would have seemed inconceivable fifteen years ago, and wonder who else might be deemed to be enough of a threat to merit similar mistreatment.