The ethics of S.E.R.E. (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape)

I have a friend who is a SERE trainer. I’m not even claiming some special inside knowledge because he won’t talk about it. I don’t think even his parents know exactly what he does. But I think he is one of the most extraordinary, selfless human beings I have ever known, so I find this subject, and the controversy surrounding it, particularly poignant. And I find it difficult to reconcile the person I know with the stereotypes surrounding this ‘torture school.’

The idea, as I understand it, is to prepare high-risk military personnel for the worst should they find themselves in a survival situation or as a prisoner of war. They teach wilderness and cold weather survival as well as how to withstand torture. And to teach them how to withstand torture, they actually torture them. There seems little doubt that students are broken down to the point that they begin to forget this is all in the interest of training – which would be, I think, the point.

I know this school is controversial both for its curriculum and for its apparent involvement in the Guantanamo Bay torture of suspected terrorists. It seems clear from CIA documents that SERE psychologists and some upper-levels were involved in developing enhanced interrogation techniques used in Gitmo and Iraq. I personally find torture abhorrent, but it seems to me that to throw the entire SERE program under the bus because of the actions of a few staff members is like throwing the entire American Psychological Association under the bus because some of its members also developed these interrogation techniques.

Here are two different articles, both written by soldiers who experienced SERE training firsthand. One thinks it was critical to his personal development and the other thinks it is an abomination that should be eradicated.

I am not, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, a blindly patriotic pro-military type. But it seems to me that this program, which is entirely voluntary, needs to exist. Capture and torture are not an abstraction for many of the students at this school, it is a high probability, and their ability to handle it may be the deciding factor in saving countless lives. I’m not sure about the actual research here – as in, whether SERE training has been demonstrated to increase soldiers’ coping abilities – but the curriculum seems sensible to me, however horrific it may seem to the average layperson.

On the other hand, the author of the Slate article raises an important point… that graduating soldiers are likely to use these same techniques on those they perceive as the enemy… and there is evidence that they have. I find this problematic. Indeed, I wonder to what extent SERE trainers had so normalized this in their own heads that they could contribute to torturing people at Guantanamo Bay. The Slate guy sounds truly traumatized, and I admit I think he’s coming off as kind of whiny, but let’s consider at least that some people who come out of this are going to be truly messed up afterward. Is it worth the potential lives saved?

I think it is a thorny ethical issue worth discussing. Thank you for your time.

Was Hiroshima ethical? To determine you have to propose some moral axioms and apply some logic. The thorny nature is due to different sets of moral axioms.

Basically, this.

Torture isn’t nice, but neither is going around shooting people, blowing them up, destroying their infrastructure (leading them to a slow, agonizing death by famine), nor abandoning them to tyrannical, homocidal leaders.

There’s no particular reason to not use torture other than the belief that it is more evil than killing. But there is no known proof that torture is in fact more evil than killing, it’s just the popular sentiment of our time, in some places.

If torture were in any way effective at preventing such calamities, I could concede this point. But torture is notoriously terrible at gathering useful intel.

My own general view is that torture is always wrong, even if it were theoretically to save lives. SERE challenges that view because the participants are volunteers and the outcome is specific and (ostensibly) measurable.

If I have any moral axiom it would be not to intentionally inflict suffering on other people. SERE raises the question of whether there ought to be exceptions. Which then leads to the question, why should it be an exception? Because people, in this case, are volunteering for their suffering?

And what about collateral damage, like the Slate guy and the Iraqi prisoners who were killed using SERE techniques?

This is the problem with moral imperatives.

Torture is not used exclusively to extract information. It’s also a cost to factor into with regards to deciding on certain actions.

Right. The purpose of torture is not to extract information. It’s to get the victim to admit to some crime, so you sleep better after you kill them.

Also some people get a thrill from torture. You can’t run a torture chamber without sadists, because normal people can’t take it. So every torture then serves two purposes, the reason the sadist’s boss used to justify the torture, and the sadist’s reason which is because they enjoy torturing people. And therefore the sadist has to keep the victims coming, so of course a big part of the torture program is to get the torture victim to name others who can then be brought in and interrogated to keep the fun going.

Alright then!

But who is that directed to?

As usual we should look at what the SERE experts think about using a tool to help soldiers that can be subject to torture by our enemies, when people get the dumb idea that the reverse of SERE was effective.

Malcolm Nance
Chief of Training

Dr. Michael Gelles
Chief Psychologist
Naval Criminal Investigative Service

Can you provide a specific example? I’m not sure what you mean.

Thanks, GIGO. Interesting stuff. I honestly never considered the idea that at Gitmo we had legitimized torture to the rest of the world, thus further endangering soldiers.

I think ‘‘normal’’ people are capable of all sorts of atrocities, provided they are desensitized to brutality over time. Which is maybe the point of the Slate guy’s argument – students who have experienced this might well reason that it’s okay to do to others. I would assume that sadists would be naturally attracted to jobs involving torture, though.

I’ve not been through SERE training, so all my information on it is second- or third-hand, but those couple of close friends / family members of mine that have been through it and talked about did not describe anything I’d label as “torture”. They were not waterboarded, but perhaps that’s only been a change in the last 10 years or so.

A specific example? They are extraordinarily common. How do you think governments, gangs, and cartels operate? Through fear of punishment.

Torture is used to incentivize certain actions. Such as compliance to the state. Or non competition in a cartel controlled area.

It sounds like it has, as GiGOBuster’s link and the words of Dr. Michael Gelles suggest that waterboarding is done to every student, but not within the captivity/torture context, more as an instructional demonstration. The Slate guy claims he was next to someone getting waterboarded as punishment in a captivity simulation so it sounds like it does happen. Also, what these kids are describing – sleep deprivation, exposure to extremely loud, grating noises, stress positions, being hit and threatened with weapons – all sound like torture to me. In fact, the SERE expert quoted above says that these are all techniques that Amerian troops were subjected to by totalitarian regimes and that they deliberately use them to inoculate American troops against such tortures, which are regarded as a direct violation of the Geneva convention.

It does, however, sound like there are different levels of SERE training. Could be that not all SERE students are tortured or handled in the same way.

It was not clear to me that you were referring to incentivizing behavior through fear of punishment. Thank you for clarifying.

Clinically speaking, punishment is only effective for behavioral change in individuals if it is applied with absolute consistency. It is even less effective for controlling group behavior. The emphasis becomes not on avoiding the behavior, but on not getting caught for doing it.

So we’re 0 for 2 with ‘‘good reasons to torture people.’’

I learned it as Move, Escape, Evade or Attack, and it’s generally what they teach civilians in an active shooter situation in the work place. In the military in survival school they taught similar things but for a different situation…usually for downed pilots or soldiers cut off in enemy territory. Is it ethical to train people to be able to do these things? Sure. What they DO with the training and how ethically they use it is something else. It’s like a gun. A gun is neither moral nor immoral…it’s just a tool. How someone uses the tool dictates the morality. Same with training. Training someone to be able to shoot a weapon, or use their bodies as weapons, or improvise weapons is just training. If they use it in service to their countries in honorable ways, well, that’s pretty moral for the person (maybe or maybe not for the country depending on how they use those soldiers). Use it to become a terrorist and blow up innocent civilians or go rogue and do the same, then less so.

XT, I am of the perhaps controversial opinion that we don’t just get to hand out guns to people and wash our hands of responsibility for what they do with them. If SERE did a research study, for example, and found out that an alarmingly high percentage of its students were engaging in torture of the enemy, SERE would have a responsibility to modify their training. However, as it stands, I don’t see where SERE in any way even tacitly condones the use of torture – in fact the code explicitly states these techniques are used in totalitarian regimes that reject the Geneva Convention. So they are explicitly teaching, as a core value, that it is wrong to do this to a person. That a handful of people would go rogue does not surprise me, but it doesn’t seem like a cultural problem.

So you claim. I don’t see why regimes and criminal groups worldwide and throughout history relied and rely upon violence and the threats of such if it did not work to some degree.

Of course it does work, but not as many do think it does.

If is like when the church tortured heretic and witches, unless we fall for the false idea that they confessed to real things like flying or causing harm with supernatural means, the result (and for many even then the real reason) was to gain more power and control of the population. Besides the fear that the powerful also wanted to keep going over the population.

I’m not talking about information gathering. I’m talking about torture and the threat of torture being useful to influence behaviors. There has to be a reason beyond sadism that it’s been employed as often as it has.

I agree with this. It is abhorrent that anyone in the US armed forces would be involved in torture, but the fact that some of the people involved in SERE program were also involved in real torture should have no bearing on whether the SERE program itself continues.

Though to me it has to boil down the effectiveness of the program. Have people survived or coped better with enemy captivity because of the SERE program?

You could make the same claim for virtually anything that people do. I don’t see why so many people rely upon prayer if it does not work to some degree. I don’t see why so many people rely upon voodoo if it does not work to some degree. People as a species have incredibly dim perception about their environment and their own behavior, see patterns where none exist, and are prone to brutal, violent behavior when they are trying to acquire or maintain power. We are forever walking the line between emotion and reason, savagery and civilization. This reality is codified into the structure of our brains, a flexible cortex of rationality imposed over primitive instinct.

But let’s assume you’re right. Let’s say torture is a more effective deterrent to a given behavior than simple incarceration. Are you saying it’s therefore ethically permissible? What exactly are you arguing?

This thread has taken an interesting turn, as my OP apparently begged the question. I assumed most people would find torture abhorrent and the ethical conflict I propose is rooted in that assumption. Apparently, we are now debating whether or not torture is generally acceptable. I suppose I should have seen this coming.

That is the million dollar question. I’ve seen anecdotal indications that it has, but I’m not aware of any research.

Also, the more I look into this, the more it looks like nobody involved with SERE thought it was a good idea to use its intel at Gitmo. it’s so obvious, now that GIGO has pointed out, what a damning national security mistake Gitmo was and how many American servicemen it endangered as a result.