On his first day in office, President Obama kept his most important campaign promise and began the process of closing Guantanamo. But this eliminates only the most visible part of the U.S. torture bureaucracy. In order to ensure that the atrocities of Guantanamo aren't visited upon the world by future administrations, Obama must also eviscerate the structures that enabled and supported torture. At the top of a long list is the U.S. military's secretive torture school, known as SERE, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape.
Founded in the aftermath of the Korean War to train U.S. servicemen to withstand enemy interrogation, the school was central to the development of the notorious "enhanced interrogation techniques" at Guantanamo. It was the SERE program that sent instructors and staff psychologists to Guantanamo shortly after 9/11 and provided the technical expertise on tactics like water-boarding. As Jane Mayer put it in her study of U.S. torture policy, The Dark Side, "SERE is a repository of the world's knowledge about torture, the military equivalent, in a sense, of the lethal specimens of obsolete plagues kept in the deep-freeze laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control."
I served in the Marine Corps in the 1990s, and I attended SERE as a young lieutenant in November 1995. I have since been to Iraq three times (as a reporter), and I can attest that the school isn't relevant to the threats American soldiers face abroad. It resembles more of an elaborate hazing ritual than actual training.
While I was in the school, I lived like an animal. I was hooded, beaten, starved, stripped naked, and hosed down in the December air until I became hypothermic. At one point, I couldn't speak because I was shivering so hard. Thrown into a 3-by-3-foot cage with only a rusted coffee can to piss into, I was told that the worst had yet to come. I was violently interrogated three times. When I forgot my prisoner number, I was strapped to a gurney and made to watch as a fellow prisoner was water-boarded a foot away from me. I will never forget the sound of that young sailor choking, seemingly near death, paying for my mistake. I remember only the sound because, try as I might, I couldn't force myself to look at his face. I was next. But for some reason, the guards just dropped the hose on my chest, the water soaking my uniform.
I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp. Training had stopped, from my point of view. We had crossed over into some murky shadow land where the regulations no longer applied. I was sure that my captors, who wore Warsaw Pact-style uniforms and spoke with thick Slavic accents, would go all the way if the need arose.
Based on my conversations with recent graduates of SERE, it's clear that the school continues to inflict on trainees the techniques I experienced, such as sensory deprivation, extreme confinement, and exposure to loud music and recordings of wailing babies. According to congressional testimony given in November 2007 by Malcolm Nance, a former SERE instructor, they still water-board at SERE. If water-boarding is torture, then why are we still doing it to U.S. servicemen? Yes, enlistment in the units that attend SERE is a voluntary act, but must it entail the signing away of basic human rights?