Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whence Torture? An Early SERE Critic, Circa 1956

Joost Meerloo was a Dutch psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who, having fled German-occupied Holland in 1942, and survived torture by the Gestapo in Belgium, made a name for himself in British and U.S. medical establishments. By the early 1950s, he had undertaken an examination of the supposedly new phenomena of "brainwashing." The latter had made headlines when U.S. POWs in the Korean War cooperated with their captors, and even made accusations of U.S. use of "germ warfare." Dr. Meerloo was expert witness on "menticide" -- his term for brainwashing -- at the U.S. tribunal of Frank Schwable, one of the men involved in biological weapons accusations.

All this is by way of background, and while interesting in and of itself, I've written some on this before. While today we know that the primary providers of domestic propaganda on brainwashing were sponsored by or agents of the CIA -- Frank Hunter, who coined the term, was only revealed to be in the pay of the CIA years later -- I don't know how closely Dr. Meerloo was involved with U.S. intelligence. His contacts, his works, and his interests seem to argue that he was heavily involved.

With my interests in the literature of the period (see link), when the works of psychologists and physicians heavily concentrated upon how to induce suggestion and control of a person's mind, it was only a matter of time until I found myself reading Meerloo's out-of-print 1956 classic, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. (A portion of the work, though not the quote below, can be read online.)

So imagine my surprise when Dr. Meerloo had some comments to make about an organization that has been heavily implicated in the U.S. military's torture regime abroad. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (or SERE) schools in the different branches of the military have their origin in the Pentagon's response to the POW confessions of the Korean War. More recently, it has been documented that psychologists working for SERE, in probably collusion with military and political higher-ups, helped the CIA and military "reverse-engineer" the torture techniques the school was supposed to use to inoculate U.S. military personnel against foreign coercive interrogation and captivity. Subsequently, these techniques were used against detainees in Bush's "war on terror", from Guantanamo, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and possibly at secret CIA "black prisons" around the world.

On page 262-263 of the 1961 Universal Library edition of Rape of the Mind is the following criticism of the SERE program. How odd that it comes from one of the principal investigators into interrogations of his time, one closely associated with the CIA/military program of the 1950s that was investigating how to psychologically break down prisoners in a "scientific" fashion, and which included such sinister programs as MK-ULTRA and MK-NAOMI. The quote comes from Chapter 15, "Training Against Mental Torture." The words are prescient in the extreme. (Bold emphasis is added.)
An educational concept exists to the effect that conditioning to physical torture will help soldiers to be more immune to brainwashing. In one of the air force bases, airmen had to go through a "school of torture," euphemistically called the School of Survival, in which some of the barbarous and cruel Communist methods of handling prisoners were initiated in order to harden the men against future brutality. [Meerloo here footnotes an article on the school in Time, Sept. 19, 1955, "Training in Torture", which can be read online.] The trainees could stand the ghoulish exercises rather well. However, such a training can condition men to take over, unwittingly, the methods of totalitarianism. It may give a semiofficial green light to enemy tactics by implying that we can do the same. Moreover, such methods may stimulate hidden sadistic tendencies in both trainer and trainee. Under the disguise of an earnest training need, American youth may be educated in the same sadistic view as their enemies
Meerloo could have added that, after decades, an entire bureaucratic apparatus or section of government can become infected with the bacillus of brutality and sadism. This is one way that one can understand how it was that the SERE officials -- although not all of them -- were so excited about contributing their expertise when asked by the Department of Defense in late 2001.

As the drumbeat for investigations and prosecutions of Bush officialdom gains intensity in the last days of Bush's rule, and particularly over the promotion of torture, it will help us to understand the motivation of the men who acted to spread this vile practice, to understand why they were so easily perverted, the better to make sure it will never happen again. Because recent events have proven that we have become, as medical ethicist and researcher Steven Miles titled it, a torture-endangered society, "a society that is abraded by the process of dehumanization."

One place any policy committee could start is with the decommissioning of the SERE schools. There is no evidence they do what they say they do. They are unnecessarily brutal to soldiers, and now we know, they are breeding grounds for savagery and a drive to torture among their practitioners.


Anonymous said...

Great informative post - thank you. My bf is a SERE grad and IMO his "severe to extreme" PTSD is more a result of that school than the 15 months as a sniper in Iraq. I would just love to get my hands on the psychologist that bent and twisted his mind during their daily sessions.

Valtin said...

I'm sorry to hear about your boyfriend. There have been lawsuits against the military re SERE treatment, but I'm not sure what happened as a result. Surely, the programs continued, and the brutality.

One researcher found the stress so bad among participants that it could suppress male fertility (at least temporarily).

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