Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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The Moral Cost of Torture

by Robert A. Newson
March 22, 2016

Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington November 5, 2007. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)


By Robert Newson

When I am asked about torture or, more frequently, when I feel the need to speak out against torture, I don’t talk about the fact that it doesn’t work (it doesn’t), nor the fact that it contributes to the enemy’s narrative and recruiting (it does). Instead, I talk about its gravest cost—what it does to the Americans whom we ask to conduct torture and what it does to the character and fiber of an entire nation that embraces it.

I’m from a small town in Kansas filled with good, patriotic Americans. Small town America knows their sons and daughters. Although I left more than thirty years ago, they know in very broad terms how I serve the nation; some have asked, knowing what I know and doing what I do, how can I advocate against “no holds barred” pursuit of a barbaric and brutal enemy?

It’s because I don’t think about what the enemy deserves. I think about what those who serve the nation deserve, whether in uniform or as civilians. As a leader, I think about what those who report to me deserve. As a servant of a nation of which I am willing to die or be maimed in its defense, I think about what I want from my leaders. As a father and uncle, I think about what I would ask my children and my brother’s children to do in the service of our nation.

With all my heart and soul, I believe American servicemen, civilians, and contractors deserve to serve a nation that does not ask them to set their humanity aside. A nation that does not carelessly and flippantly hoist the consequences (psychological and legal) of becoming a practitioner upon their shoulders.

What will you as an American citizen ask of your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers? The burden of war—even under the most moral and just standards—weighs heavily on the soul. It leaves scars, seen and unseen, on many who serve. Will you ask those who serve in your name to abandon their humanity? Some politicians and a sizable number of our own citizens think so. “Yes!” they say, “The enemy does terrible things and deserves a taste of their own medicine.”

Ask yourself what we deserve! Who will you send to the torture chamber to do your bidding?

Captain Robert A. Newson is a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer currently serving as Chief of the Commander’s Action Group at U.S. Southern Command. He spent twenty-two months in command of Special Operations Command (SOC)-Forward Yemen and recently led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command. Previously, he  served as director of the Joint Interagency Task Force-Counter Terrorism. Newson is a graduate of the University of Kansas and the Naval Postgraduate School (with distinction.) He is a PhD candidate at the University of San Diego. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Amy

    ‘The enemy does terrible things and deserves a taste of their own medicine.”, that is a re- translated Christian principle(and by the way, I recall I read this nice short and too simplistic article for my thought, 1,2 years ago. Who’s Right and who’s Wrong here from us, dear Sir ??

  • Posted by Jack

    Yeah, well tell the Egyptians that torture doesn’t work. They may practice on you.

  • Posted by Sandy Pidgeon

    Methinks my former colleague paints a tremendously wide brush with the word “torture” and its efficacy. Let us move to inductive reasoning vice the deductive proposition of his. First of all, is water-boarding “torture”? No, or we would not be doing it to our own people during SERE training. “But, they “volunteered for it!” The enemy volunteered for suicide duty. The enemy we face embraces death as a culture, and they are willing, ready, and eager to die; whereas, we are willing to fight for life. Ours is a culture of life. We have not even summarily executed a single enemy detainee/combatant/spy as we did in all previous wars, except DESERT STORM, to my knowledge. This then begs the questions: Is solitary confinement “torture”? Would wearing pink pajamas and eating baloney sandwiches be considered “torture” as done in Maricopa Country, AZ? Should we not yell at prisoners, as we do daily in law enforcement? Is this not “torture”? Is hand-cuffing and chaining one to a bench considered “torture”? The enemy we having been fighting, in essence for many decades, volunteered to take their own lives along with thousands of others – this is a paradigm shift, if you have not noticed. We do not live with Marquis de Queensbury rules, nor should we revert to the 1990’s when war was thought of as “law enforcement”. Prisoners of Al-Qaeda and ISIS are burned alive, drowned in cages, and beheaded. We are not dealing with civilized entities which adhere to Codes of Conduct in War, but barbarians – Islamic barbarians. Thomas Jefferson did not own a Qu’ran because he respected Islam, but to learn what motivated the enemy. We are not dealing with nation states, but those who have no willing stake in their territory nor people, only their political-theological philosophy which glorifies death and the killing of infidels, non-Muslims and apostate Muslims, as gifts to Allah. Their more secular state will follow under Sharia. Their own personal desire not to live, cheapening life, adoring death, is the threat, not whether we spritz some water into the nostrils of the mastermind of 9/11. The three men that were water-boarded, by the way, knew ALL the interrogation tactics, techniques, and procedures for how their capture and incarceration would proceed, thus the reason for enhanced interrogation (EIT). Why did all three immediately ask for a lawyer when captured? Only THREE men were subjected to water-boarding, or EIT. As I have plastered on my small desk, I think my former colleague should also adorn his desk with a collage of jumpers from the Towers on 9/11. He should ask one of the 9/11 victims jumping from the 101st floor of Tower 1 and ask that man, who, by the way, did not have the choice of life or death that day, but by which method he would die…being burned alive, crushed, or jumping to his death. He held no anger against Islam. He was an innocent, one of the custodial staff. Perhaps one should also review and discuss whether the fire-bombing of civilian infrastructure in Dresden and Tokyo was “torture” as more civilians were killed in these two acts, alone, than both of the atomic bombs dropped later. One should also note that the Emperor was not willing to surrender until AFTER the second bomb was dropped. Before my service, I was a prep school teacher, and one of my colleagues who taught history across the hall from me was on one of the invasion ships headed to Japan. It was estimated there would be at least one MILLION casualties. The number of suicide planes, boats, and submersibles as well as suicide vests found during the occupation was overwhelming. He, for one, could not understand those who were averse, today, to dropping the bombs – it saved AMERICAN lives. He was thankful that he and his friends would not have to make a forced entry into Japan.
    We have a moral imperative to strike quickly and end wars quickly by using devastating means and not incrementalized responses; the latter is immoral. The latter always leads to drawn out conflict and sustained misery. As for my former colleague’s assertion that “torture doesn’t work”, well, I don’t consider water-boarding “torture”…it is child’s play, as I have been water-boarded as have thousands and thousands of servicemen AND women in aviation and special warfare as well as the intel services. The notion that the US immediately “tortures” prisoners, if we can even call it that, is fallacious and in some sense, seditious, as it is a false accusation which helps the enemy’s propaganda machine. 99% of detainees answer questions immediately when interrogated, often with a warm meal and a cigarette. I don’t think my former colleague is qualified to know “what works and what doesn’t work”. Waterboarding DID work on the three master-mind barbarians who were TRAINED in counter-interrogation techniques. ONLY THREE ENEMY COMBATANTS FACED THIS EIT. “Enhanced interrogation”, from which they received clean nasal passages and lived, gave a bevy of information. Should we have instead given them a “lawyer”, which they requested, and a three-star accommodation? Prisoners of this enemy do not get any luxury. They face real torture, death, or dhimmitude. KSM, by the way, THANKED his interrogators for taking him to the limits of what he could endure, as he said he had “done his Islamic duty”. He is still alive and living in comfort, thanks to the United States…his victims are not. Lastly, the author’s assertion that this is a recruiting tool is false. None of the captured propaganda asserts this, and none of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS media magazines say as much, and it is the same political propaganda foisted by liberals that closing GITMO would somehow alleviate the pressure that ISIS and Al-Qaeda recruiters feel. This is sheer nonsense. Perhaps my former colleague needs to re-read history and speak with some of the Christian Pastors we sponsor in the refugee camps. The horror that these people, Kurds, Yazidis, Iraqis, and Syrians, have faced would be censored in this posting. Again, using the word “torture” in such a sweeping manner, as my former colleague does, coupled with SEAL credentials, is a disservice to those engaged in the fight and to this nation.

  • Posted by nnevets

    The unfortunate choice of photo hurts an otherwise thoughtful article. Equating waterboarding with torture is silly.

    That aside, torture does work. Police states, Cuba for example, routinely use torture as part of an overall information gathering system.

    The rest of the article is spot on and I am proud that, during my adult life-time at least, we haven’t asked our personnel to torture anyone and hope that record continues.

  • Posted by Jim Raimondo

    Hear hear Rob. Thanks much for this!

    Jim Raimondo

  • Posted by Steve Steinmetz

    I could not agree more with CAPT Newson’s stand on torture. Those who are quick to advocate for boots on the ground rarely consider the human cost. I would also highly recommend Karl Marlantes’ book, What It is Like To Go To War. He cautions us to think carefully before asking our citizens to kill in the name of national or international interests.

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