I’ve been following, at a distance, the “debates” on torture. Since I’m in a race against time to finish a novel, I’ve pretty much punched out of current events. My husband, the writer Philip Gold, sends me articles he thinks I should read, such as this one on Russian death squads in Chechnya. Those who have read previous posts here know that I do not subscribe to the belief that Chechnya can be allowed to go its own way, any more than the American South could be. I have no way to evaluate this article: it could be entirely true (it is certainly entirely plausible), parts of it could be true, or it could be entirely made up by men who are very disturbed by “normal” combat operations. Certainly, many of the atrocity stories from Vietnam fall into the latter category.
Relevant to the larger issue of torture, two things caught my eye. One of the sources, “Andrei”, described becoming extremely angry and losing control with a prisoner. Stories like this, when true, are common to all units that use torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques. ” One of the best reasons to treat prisoners humanely is that otherwise disciplined troops who are permitted, encouraged, or ordered to treat prisoners inhumanely will become undisciplined, and discipline is key to a successful military unit, i.e., not an organized group of criminals. The second source, “Vladimir,” said, “Only a very small circle of my men took part in this work [torture]. Some of those we abducted were tougher than others but eventually everyone talks when you give them the right treatment. … It’s dirty and difficult work. You would not be human if you enjoyed it but it was the only way to get this filth to talk… Those who carried it out always volunteered. It would not be right to order one of your men to torture someone. It can be morally and psychologically very tough.'” Leaving aside the apparent internal inconsistency that “Vladimir” says he formed a death squad but that only a very few of his men took part in the torture of captives, “Vladimir” is also saying he knows he has made some of his men into monsters.
The use of torture is not only the attempted destruction of the human being under torture, it is the certain destruction of the torturer as well. Some have very serious problems controlling their anger at what they have become; others like it.
Missing from all the hysteria and handwringing about the American use of torture (and, far more commonly, abuse and harsh treatment, because given some of the things I know can be done, I have a hard time seeing waterboarding as torture) is a serious understanding of what it does to the torturers and interrogators.