The question is especially pertinent because America's enemies haven't used SERE's techniques of "mind control" since the Korean War. No doubt some military officials will argue that SERE has never been more necessary than it is today, given that there is no front line in the war on terrorism. Our troops are in constant danger of being captured, as in the kidnapping of two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division near Yousifiyah, Iraq, in May 2007.
But a review of the experiences of American servicemen captured in Iraq and Somalia shows that our enemies don't water-board their captives. Nor do they have the resources to mount a program of systematic sensory deprivation and humiliation, as we did in Guantanamo and in the American prison at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base. In fact, our soldiers need training from SERE based on an entirely different premise, as illustrated by the experience of Michael Durant, the helicopter pilot who spent several weeks in captivity when he was captured by Somali fighters during the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" raid. Durant survived by befriending his captors and forcing them to see him as a fellow human being. SERE conditions servicemen to expect nothing but the worst from their captors; Durant's life depended on his ability to understand his captors and find ways to manipulate them psychologically.
At the same time, the problem with SERE extends far beyond its questionable relevance to the threats that the war on terrorism pose to American soldiers. The school, which all pilots and special-forces soldiers attend, unintentionally serves to legitimize the use of torture by U.S. personnel in the field. In at least one documented case, special-forces soldiers in Afghanistan modeled their interrogations on the SERE training they received. The unit, the "20th Special Force Group," forced prisoners to kneel outside in wet clothing and repeatedly kicked and punched prisoners in the kidneys, knees, and nose if they moved, resulting in the death of one detainee, according to Mayer's book.
The experience of torture at SERE surely plays a role in the minds of the graduates who go on to be interrogators, and it must on some level help them rationalize their actions. It's not hard to imagine them thinking, Well, if I survived this, then it's OK to do it to this guy. This acceptance of abuse from up high down to the lowest levels is the root of our military's torture problem. Unlike other Western militaries (Britain's, for example), ours thrives on sometimes-cartoonish authoritarianism and contrived rites of passage (like those hazing scandals that continually plague all the service academies). To young, impressionable soldiers, it is a too-short mental leap to the depredations of Abu Ghraib, as evidenced by a 2007 Army Times poll showing that 44 percent of enlisted Marines thought torturing a detainee was OK under certain circumstances. As John McCain said of torture in 2005, "It's not about them—it's about us."
Because the operation of SERE is entirely a military matter, its role hasn't received anything like the attention of the legal machinations that licensed the Bush administration's abuses at Guantanamo. But unless we stop torturing our own servicemen and training them how to torture others, unless we close SERE and retrain its instructors, Guantanamo could happen again.