“[W]ithout torture the F.L.N.’s terrorist network would never have been overcome.… The ‘Battle of Algiers’ could not have been won by General Massu without the use of torture.”
~ Edward Behr, French war correspondent and no fan of torture1
We ended last week with a couple of examples of what people in certain quarters don’t want to admit to, that torture can work, effectively and reliably, to gather useful intelligence.2 Though certain intellectually dishonest lefties might sneer at a mere two examples, two is sufficient to prove the point, which is limited to, “Yes, it can work.”
This is not the same as saying that it always works, that all other methods, always fail, that it or anything else is or even can be a panacea, nor even that it should be used, generally, if it is to be used at all. The point is that it can work, that, in its simplest terms, the fear of pain and death can very frequently or even usually cause cooperation. Indeed, as the quote given above illustrates, during the Battle of Algiers, during the French-Algerian war of 1954-1962, widespread use of torture was so effective that the enemy organization within the city of Algiers was effectively destroyed.3 One has to be a bizarre fantasist, or – Lord, forgive us our redundancies – a certain kind of lefty, to believe that pain and fear cannot be reliably and effectively used to elicit cooperation.4
How does it work, then, to elicit that form of cooperation we might call, “giving up the truth?” After all, “people will say anything under torture.” But then, isn’t “anything” a big enough category to include “Truth”? Of course, by definition it is. The trick is filtering out the lies from the truth.
There are several ways to do this. One is inherent in the nature of the lie; it is a made up, usually hastily made up, untruth, that has no particular support in the real world, is not a matter of personal experience, and requires vast concentration to keep straight. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for the more despicable of lefties – the kind for whom the lie that advances the cause is always preferable to the truth that hinders it – that it is hard to concentrate to keep the lie or the series of lies straight when in agony or terror. When failure to keep them straight means continued agony and terror, the temptation must be there to tell the truth, which doesn’t require much concentration, in order to end the pain and fear. Some will resist that fiercely, even so. One doubts that many will.
The danger in this – I speak of danger to intelligence gathering here, not of the danger to souls – is when you grab someone who really has no truth to tell. This is especially a danger when it’s a lie that you want him to convince you is the truth. In effect, that was frequently going on with regard to, say, sundry witchcraft hysterias and the Spanish Inquisitions.5
A better way, generally, where practical, is dependent on good bureaucratic procedure in keeping and organizing known information. By this I mean that a prisoner is questioned about things that you know and have good reason – yes, having good reason is important – to believe that he knows, too. The objective there is to catch him in a lie, then apply duress. (Duress is a euphemism for, “Oh, my God! Stop! Stop! Please, stop!”) Do that a few times and he, not knowing what you do know and do not know, will be inclined to tell the truth.
A third way is useable when you have two or more people you know have the same information. Think here of a safe house, somewhere in Baghdad. That safe house is fed from another series of safe houses. You’ve arrested two brothers who are running the Baghdad house and know where the other houses are. When the brothers are separated and the stories match, you probably have the truth. How do you get the stories to match if the brothers don’t want to cooperate? See the euphemism above.
A fourth way involves immediate feedback. That’s the essence of the “ticking time bomb scenario,” which the left likes to deprecate or insist has never happened. Their deprecations and insistence would be much more telling were it not for the two instances I cited to last week, both of which involved immediate feedback and one of which was, in fact, a case of a ticking time bomb. To paraphrase the technique in extreme form:
“The pain stops when we have the bomb, Achmed, or when it goes off. If it goes off before we have it, the pain will stop, but we have a gender reassignment surgical team standing by to turn you into a girl, and an execution team to nail you to a cross – strictly in accordance with Sura Five of the Holy Quran, as related by the Prophet, PBUH, of course. We also have your DNA analyzed and your family is going to join you on crosses, too, if the bomb goes off. It takes a really long time to die on the cross, my friend, and we will not be as merciful as the Romans were and break your legs after three days.”
Fortunately, so far as we can tell, simply severe torture or even threat of death – see last week’s examples – is usually sufficient for the ticking time bomb scenario without resort to really barbarous measures.
And now for the downsides, in both directions.
A friend of mine, one LTC (Ret.) James S. Corum, fine historian and author, and former Dean of the Baltic Defense College, in Estonia, wrote a really good book, which I commend to you, Bad Strategies: How Great Powers Fail in Counterinsurgency.6 I have my issues with the book, mind you, notably that X was “often” able to acquire Z intelligence without torture, isn’t the same thing as “torture never works,” which is what Jim probably wanted to say but knew better.7 But he did hit on a point that I tend agree with, namely, that torture isn’t effectively useable by some societies, because the open knowledge that those societies are torturing will so undermine the domestic front that the war effort, the willingness to continue the war, will simply collapse. That’s the other lesson of the Battle of Algiers; yes, the French won the battle and torture enabled them to do but, but the price was that they lost the war. They didn’t lose the war because the fact that they used torture motivated the Algerians to resist the better and more fiercely. The lost because the self-image of France as torturer, so soon after four years of torturous Nazi occupation, was more than the French public could deal with.
I can’t say that was noble on the part of the French public because I don’t think it was. I think they just were too weak to know and accept the truth or rather, the truths. These were that, sorry, but the Nazis were by no means unique, nor was France all that special, and, sad to say, if you lose the war, a lot of things much worse than torture – oh, and along with a great deal of torture, too, of course – are going to happen. I rather like the French, actually, but I cannot respect the motive that amounts to nothing more than, “Don’t upset my complacency.”
On the other hand, were the French any worse for that than we are? No.
Still, Corum’s point remains; if your society will not stomach torture, you are going to lose – to give up on – the larger goal if you engage in it.
Even that, though, doesn’t resolve the question, because unwillingness to engage in or support engaging in torture isn’t an absolute, fixed for all times and all circumstances. Neither law nor custom are quite that strong.
Let us lose a city to a nuke. Let some especially virulent strain of smallpox be released into the population. The America that is revulsed by torture now is very likely to become, in either of those cases, the America that will stop at nothing. You can see in the Senate bill I mentioned last week, and the timing of it, how long it’s taken to even go half way to making a law forbidding torture. I guarantee you, in the event of an induced plague or nuking, one that torture might have prevented, that the overturning of that law – even should it pass, which is by no means certain – will take somewhere between two and three weeks. Thus, interestingly, it may happen that a ban on torture will lead to much more torture than if there had never been a ban. Life’s funny that way.
So, my recommendations? Write your congressional representative and encourage him to kill this amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill and then for the House to really think about what we’re going to do in the future on a question that’s more complex than people want to admit, rather than just reacting, and that with Feinstein’s ovaries.
2 I write here of what we might call “active torture” as opposed to the generally heightened level of cooperation we get from the more passive fear of torture and death our captives bring to captivity with them.
3 See, generally, Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957
4 There is, of course, at least one other kind of lefty. This is the kind who knows it can work reliably but will simply lie about it, spew irrelevancies, throw out smoke, divert the eye from evidence, or use any other means whatsoever rather than leave a weapon in the hands of his political foes. Note the frequency with which lefties of that sort, once in power, resort to terror, murder, and torture en masse. Their opposition is neither principled nor moral, but merely tactical. Given the kind of regimes these sorts bring about, and the sheer immense scale of the terror, torture, and murder those regimes engage in, keeping them out of power, using “any means necessary,” is an inherently moral act of self-defense. By the way, ever notice how very little outrage any of them showed about the kidnapping, torture, and breaking of CIA Agent William Francis Buckley, or how very effective it seems to have been in getting him to reveal his network of agents? See: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/2011/07/11/engaging-hezbollah-or-hezbollah-controlled-lebanon/
5 A point often elided over, however, is that Spain for much of that time was under threat from Moslem forces, and did have substantial numbers of hidden Moslems inside it, always believed to be ready to spy, to support a raid, to rebel, or to join in an invasion. There was a fair amount of evidence to support those beliefs, too. One notes that in getting rid of the internal threat, Spain managed to preserve itself from a resurgent Islam, and to provide the largest contingent by far at the decisive Battle of Lepanto, AKA Corvalis.
6 In fact, I recommend everything Jim’s ever written and he’s written nearly as much as I have.
7 Jim’s very bright. Others – morons, by and large – can cite to “proper police work” as a panacea; I’m pretty sure he knows there is no panacea, even if he wishes there were.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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