By Shepherd Bliss
I try not to think about torture. Then I read the following: Vice-President Dick Cheney apparently defends it, a U.S. soldier who objects to interrogation techniques commits suicide, articles with titles like “Torture’s Not So Bad, If It’s Done for a War Worth Fighting,” and Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet was recently arrested and charged with torture.
Feelings about close friends tortured over thirty years ago in Chile rush in. Unfortunately, my experiences with U.S.-supported torture have been quite direct and specific.
To most people, torture is just an idea, probably abstract and distant. Not to me. Hearing the word, I feel, rather than think. I remember…a sharp pain rises in my stomach.
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Cheney recently admitted on radio that the U.S. engages in water-boarding. “Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it,” an Oct. 26 McClatchy News Service article reports.
In water-boarding “a prisoner is secured with his feet above his head and has water poured on a cloth over his face. It has been specifically widely condemned as torture,” an Oct. 28 San Francisco Chronicle article reveals. A military veteran friend with direct experience divulged to me that water-boarding induces a terrifying sense that one is drowning. It is only one of the many techniques that the CIA apparently employs and tries to cover by the use of words such as “coercion” and “aggressive interrogating tactics.”
Over thirty years ago, after being ordained a Methodist minister, I was assigned to Chile. My ministry there started well, given the hopefulness of Chileans for their popular and democratically-elected President Salvador Allende. My good American friend Frank Terrugi also came to Chile to work. I started a relationship with a young woman who was, like me, a member of a military family.
Then came Sept. 11--the date in l973 that the U.S. supported Allende’s overthrow by the dictator Gen. Pinochet. Frank was tortured so badly that the coffin could not be opened at his funeral in Chicago. My girlfriend was also tortured, and survived. Their tortures stopped my life.
More than 30 years later, that torture still holds a firm grip on me. However, as with much torture, it failed. Instead of reducing my commitments to genuine liberty, freedom, and democracy, it enhanced them. Torture is immoral, cruel, ineffective and deeply damaging to whomever it touches, including associated survivors and the torturers. For example, when you join the U.S. military, you do not expect to be ordered to torture. If you follow those orders, you are forever damaged.
U.S. SOLDIER COMMITS SUICIDE
The editor of the authoritative trade publication “Editor and Publisher,” Greg Mitchell, wrote on article on Nov. 1 entitled “Revealed: U.S. Soldier Killed Herself After Objecting to Interrogation Techniques.” He tells the story of U.S. Army specialist Alyssa Peterson, 27. She died on Sept. 15, 2003, by “non-hostile weapons discharge,” according to the military.
Her story lay dormant until longtime radio and newspaper reporter Ken Elston decided to probe further in 2005. On Oct. 31 he reported the following on her hometown radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona: “Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.”
Elston reports on interviews with her colleagues, “The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties.” Peterson was a devout Mormon. She is described by a friend as being “genuine, sincere, sweet…a wonderful person.”
It is bad enough that the Bush administration is putting the bodies of our military personnel in harm’s way. It is worse that some are being order to apparently engage in war crimes, thus damaging their souls.
I hope that Peterson’s story gets out further. It is an example of how torture deeply harms those tortured, their family members and friends, and those ordered to torture.
TORTURE AS MORE THAN AN ABSTRACT IDEA
For me, torture is more than merely an abstract idea or a vague metaphor. Its reality is not just in some distant place or time, but exists as a feeling in my body. The tortures of my friends traumatized my nervous system, creating a scar. I go through periods of not thinking about it. Upon reading about torture, I remember.
Others may argue abstractly about whether water-boarding is really torture and whether torture is ever justified. But those touched directly by torture are likely to feel its terrors when hearing about water-boarding. I can feel and even hear the victim’s terror.
I continue to follow the oath that I took in 1966 when I was commissioned a U.S. Army officer to defend our country and our Constitution. The main threats to our people today seem to come from the Bush administration itself.
One of the worst things about the U.S.’s illegal and immoral war in Iraq is how it has stained our military tradition. I do not always agree with American foreign policy, but I support a civilian-led military to defend our country. Many people in the services and veterans feel ashamed of the continuing actions of our military in Iraq, which bring dishonor to our country, especially when it involves torture.
Chile’s Gen. Pinochet has been charged in numerous European and Latin American courts with abuse during his brutal regime. On Oct. 27 he was arrested and indicted in Chile on torture charges. The apparent architect of the Sept. 11 coup in Chile, Henry Kissinger, also has been wanted for years by judges in Europe and Latin America to stand trial for war crimes. Kissinger is now an advisor to Pres. Bush.
Terrorism in any form is terrible. Its worst form is when it is sanctioned by the state with its substantial resources. The long and brutal power of the U.S. state reached Chile in the l973 coup to kill, maim, and torture thousands of people. Though that may seem long ago and far away, that abuse continues to live in the bodies of those of us who survived that time and place.
“TORTURE’S NOT SO BAD”
“Torture’s Not So Bad…” by columnist Joel Stein in a recent Los Angeles Times may have been meant ironically to make his point “What is it we’re doing over there?” But his column was in bad taste—an abstract use of the word “torture” as an idea and metaphor, without any sense of how painful such uses can be to those actually touched by torture. Stein does not appear to understand torture and may not have had any direct experience with it. He should stop re-triggering those of us who have had experience with the trauma of torture.
Stein wants us to “stop distracting ourselves with discussions about how we conduct this war.” Those discussions are important, not only with respect to this war, but for recent and future wars. We still have veterans dying from Agent Orange from Vietnam. We have soldiers returning from this war with sicknesses caused by the use of weapons with depleted uranium. Who knows what horrors will be visited upon soldiers by their own government in the next wars. Stein should stop distracting us from discussing the larger issues that modern warfare raises.
I would not be able to put these words down on paper without my decade-long participation in the Veterans Writing Group, lead by Maxine Hong Kingston. We recently published our first book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” www.vowvop.org, edited by Kingston. Listening to the stories of other vets and telling my own has not been easy. Kingston encourages us to “go into the dark of forgotten things” and then “write the unspeakable.” I still have a long ways to go to be able to properly describe my deepest feelings about torture.
Have you ever been tortured? Probably not. (I hope not.) However, you may have used the word to convey what the dictionary describes as “severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion” and as “mental anguish.” Before you use the word “torture” again to describe some pain, please study U.S. “aggressive interrogation tactics” currently being used in Iraq and taught to the Latin American military at the School of the Americas. Better yet, speak to some of the Chilean and other victims of such torture.
Torture has been illegal in the U.S. and is prohibited by international law. Unfortunately, it still occurs. Some of the 21st century masters of torture, it seems, are Americans. Torture used to be considered Un-American and should once again be considered Un-American.
But as my friend Jack Winkle of Sebastopol, CA. recently wrote, “Now we Americans have someone in the White House sanctioning torture. We are a changed society and I suspect we will not like where it ends. My worst guess is some variation of Auschwitz or Pinochet coming home to roost.”
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