Explaining “Torture-Lite”

I very strongly recommend the piece in this morning’s Washington Post about the theory behind the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the CIA reportedly used on senior al Qaeda detainees.  Written by medical doctor M. Gregg Bloche, it explains that there is a theory, a “model,” with a serious foundation in behavioral science and in history that underpins so-called “torture lite.” 

In brief, “this model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair.”  Then, “once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.”  During the Korean War, this was the point at which American POWs became willing to make confessions that met the propaganda needs of their Chinese captors.  In our struggle against al Qaeda, this is the point at which, purportedly, the detainee starts to cough up useful information. 

Bloche notes that the reporting that detainees gave up information leading to Osama Bin Laden’s courier after the abuse stopped is fully consistent with the model.

Bloche’s column is not only substantively interesting, but it is also an example of how policy debate should be conducted in our country but seldom is.  Bloche treats his opponents on this issue neither as fools nor as knaves.  He makes clear that he’s still not comfortable with the concept of “torture lite” and he suspects that it leads to false confessions.  (I share these concerns, as do many experts, a category into which I do not fall.)  However, he gives a fair explanation of his opponents’ point of view.  Even more tellingly, given Bloche’s background as a scientist, he explains the ethical and legal problems that prevent the carrying out of studies which could prove or disprove the correctness of the “model” he finds so objectionable.

Well done, Dr. Bloche.

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM  Comments (4)  

Wikileaks and Tunisia

PBS’ Frontline is broadcasting a really excellent show about Wikileaks and Bradley Manning.  HOWEVER…they just strongly implied that a batch of a dozen State Department cables about corruption in Tunisia that Wikileaks released helped spark the uprisings in Tunisia and hence the whole Arab Spring movement.

Is there any real evidence for this?  Surely the people of Tunisia knew that their government was corrupt.  I can’t imagine that they needed Wikileaks to tell them that the State Department thought there was corruption at work before they got it.

To me this sounds like another case of people making the United States out to be more powerful than it is and denying agency to people elsewhere in the world.

Published in: on May 25, 2011 at 1:57 AM  Comments (3)  
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Update on Strategic Manhunting/Studying Special Operations

Benjamin Runkle, author of the forthcoming Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden, about which I wrote the other day, has a brief but thought-provoking article about the topic here at Foreign Policy.  In it he asks why we are attracted to the notion of strategic manhunting.  (HOTEL TANGO to Elizabeth Nathan.)

He finds that “killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success” but assesses nevertheless that the idea of manhunting is likely to remain attractive to us.  Two of the several  reasons for this, he suggests, are that the idea of inducing strategic paralysis is attractive and that we manhunt because today’s technology means that we can.

These reasons, which I think are quite right, remind me of those other technologically-enabled theorists who have proposed other ways of achieving strategic paralysis: Fuller, and Boyd, and Warden, for instance.  One might also add Harlan Ullman in there.  For a book that is well worth reading and that casts a lot of cold water on such ideas (thought it doesn’t address Ullman), see James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy:  From World War II to the War on Terrorism.  Kiras basically argues that we have given too much attention to one-off “special operations and great raids” and their alleged ability to induce strategic paralysis and other dramatic effects.  In part this has happened because there is a great deal of literature about such operations.  He maintains that we should instead understand the strategic importance of special operations forces as lying primarily in their ability to induce “moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces.”  He seeks to align himself against those who are attracted to ideas of “strategic annihilation” and alongside those who purportedly really understood the strategic dimensions of attrition.  In this latter category he puts Clausewitz, Delbrück, Mao, and T. E. Lawrence.

I’m still undecided on whether I really agree with Kiras, but it does seem to me that the idea has some obvious congruence with counterinsurgency efforts like the one in Iraq where special operations were ubiquitous and apparently indispensable but seldom dramatic stop-the-presses kinds of affairs.  Rather, they were a key part of the effort to hold the enemy in check while the broader Coalition force made blandishments to the population as a whole.

Gene Sharp’s Strategic Non-Violent Conflict and the Egyptian Revolution

This is an item that I wrote a couple of months ago and for some reason never posted.  I’ve dredged it up and offer it for what it may be worth, recognizing that it is rather less than timely at this point.

NPR recently interviewed Gene Sharp, whom they call the “Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,” about the revolution in Egypt.*  The excuse for the story was that apparently some of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had read Sharp’s books From Dictatorship to Democracy and the three volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.

The story is interesting in itself but the comments are also worth reading.  They touch on the difficult question of how one knows that a text has actually had an effect in the real world.  Another comment, apparently from an Egyptian, downplays the influence of Sharp’s work.  He writes “Yes, the organizers are sophisticated and educated, but not in the theory of nonviolent movement.”  Then he gets into more difficult territory:

It really is important to give credit where it is due. It is the habit of the West to want to own the origins of good ideas. Unfortunately this habit ends up being the ugliness of Orientalism. That is not what NPR is saying, I know. But, the Egyptian people own this victory. Let us have it.

I have trouble agreeing that enunciating the proposition that some of the Egyptian revolutionaries may have among their influences an American is tantamount to stealing the credit for the revolution.  It seems to me that if one is to believe that one must believe at least one of the following propositions:

  1. The Egyptian revolution is unusual in that it was invented from whole cloth, conceived completely without influence from “the other.”
  2. All struggles, including this one, are invented from whole cloth, conceived from first principles and indigenous work without influence from any “other.”
  3. Some of the Egyptians may plausibly have been influenced by Gene Sharp but that fact should be suppressed so as to avoid hurting anyone’s ego.

I find all of these insupportable.  The third proposition is condescending, the second is demonstrably false; and the first is highly improbable on its face.  In addition, of course, the first proposition is, I would argue, precisely the sort of thinking that constitutes Orientalism: the idea that Egyptians (in this case) are special and exotic, set aside from all the rest of us, and with limited capability for learning or evolving.

I think, rather, that the possibility that some Egyptians read and took to heart the work of Gene Sharp is a profoundly un-Orientalist idea.  It means that Egyptians, like the rest of us, are global citizens, not merely captives of their own exotic, retrograde world.  Like the rest of us, they do learn and they do evolve.

Now, whether Egyptians were, in fact, meaningfully influenced by Gene Sharp isn’t clear yet, the NPR story notwithstanding.  However, as someone interested in strategic thought, I’d like to think that we will learn more about this over time.


* I think calling Gene Sharp “Clausewitz” is ill-advised, though he is a man of great abilities who has made tremendous contributions.  To that extent, I think that NPR’s title for the story is poorly chosen.  However, I do tend to think that “warfare” is the right word for it.  I will admit that my thinking on this is not fully formed, but I’m not convinced  think that warfare needs to be predominantly violent and I’m willing to seriously entertain the possibility that it need not be violent at all in its actual manifestation.  Clausewitz, it seems to me, opens the door to this line of inquiry, though I admit he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  I refer, in particular to his section in Book 3, Chapter 1 entitled “Possible Engagements Are To Be Regarded As Real Ones Because of Their Consequences.”  (p. 181 in the Paret-Howard translation)

Book and Blog on Strategic Manhunting

I’ve just added a new blog to my blogroll: Wanted Dead or Alive. It is run by Benjamin Runkle, who describes himself this way:

A former paratrooper and presidential speechwriter with a Harvard PhD and a Bronze Star from Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has worked in the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council. He is the author of “Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden,” forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan in July 2011.

That book of his was originally supposed to come out in September, but for some odd reason, the publisher has pushed the date forward and it will now be out in July.  I can’t imagine why.

I look forward to reading this book.  The idea of achieving quick and decisive results by taking out the enemy’s leader is persistently tempting, though it often rests on unexamined assumptions.  Among these are commonly:

  • That the leader plays a major role in the command and control of the enemies armed forces;
  • That the leader is irreplaceable;
  • That his sudden departure will demoralize the enemy’s armed forces and/or population or will cause them to collapse into disorganization.
  • That even despite the above, the enemy will retain sufficient unity of command to be able to surrender.

By the way, the book is presently ranked as the 612,070th bestseller on Amazon.com.  I rather suspect that ranking will improve.  A lot.  For crying out loud, he even got “Geronimo” in the title!

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