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On Torture, From Someone Who Knows

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June 26, 2009

Civil liberties and human rights organizations around the country are calling for accountability for torture. I’m amazed and profoundly disappointed that this has apparently become necessary in our country.

Upon graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1961, I had the honor of serving in the United States Navy. I served 20 years as an active duty commissioned officer. During that time, I became a naval aviator, flew combat in Vietnam, was downed over North Vietnam on April 20, 1965, and became a prisoner of war. I was repatriated on February 12, 1973, having served 2,855 days and nights as a POW — just short of eight years.

During those eight years, I and more than 90 percent of my fellow POWs were repeatedly tortured for the extortion of information to be used for political propaganda and sometimes just for retribution. Because the Vietnamese had not yet formally recognized any international treaties on treatment of prisoners — including the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War or the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture — we were not treated as POWs, but instead pronounced “criminals.”

We were regularly subject to torture, harassment, malnutrition, isolation, lack of medical care, and other degradations during our captivity. I was tortured dozens of times during my captivity. I often thought of our Constitution and the higher purpose we served — a purpose that helped me resist beyond what I thought I’d ever be capable of. Ironically, we POWs received great moral and psychological strength during our incarceration, telling each other, “Our country is civilized and would never knowingly treat people like this. Our country would never stoop to torture and the low level of treatment we were experiencing at the hands of our captors.”

We felt we had the moral high ground and took great pride in being American, above such barbarity. Besides, we all knew from experience that torture is useless, because under torture we told our tormentors whatever we thought they wanted to hear. Whenever possible, we slipped in ridiculous statements like one I used in a torture-extracted “confession,” that “only officers are allowed to use the swimming pool on the USS Midway.” Another friend wrote in a “confession” that “my commanding officer, Dick Tracy, ordered me to bomb schools and hospitals.” These are just two examples of the kind of culturally embedded nonsense people can expect to extract through torture.

Arguments have been made that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as “stress positions” do not constitute torture. Well, if you don’t think so, try going out on your driveway or sidewalk, without any clothes on, on a frigidly cold night. Kneel down on the concrete, holding your body erect with your arms extended above your head. In a very few minutes you will begin to feel real pain. Imagine several menacing tormentors hovering above you to ensure that you remain in that position. That’s torture.

Another argument attempts to qualify captives as POWs, or “detainees” or, as the Bush administration referred to the detainees, “enemy combatants.” Please — they are human beings. We are holding people in indeterminate isolation from families, Red Cross visits and requirements under international law and the Geneva Convention. From experience, I say this constitutes torture of the heart and soul.

Another nonsensical argument goes, “What if we have someone who has planted an atomic weapon in a major city and we want to find out where in time to stop it?” Do we enact a special law that violates our Constitution, treaties and statutes for this preposterous eventuality? Do we seriously think we could extract “where and when” from this individual anyway?

So now my question is: Will the American public demand that President Obama live up to his stated promise that “no one is above the law?” Will we hold the new administration to the Constitution, treaties and other statutes prohibiting such cruel and unusual punishments and demand accountability for the shameful legacy of torture that has tarnished America’s reputation over the last eight years?

I despair when I think of the personal sacrifices made by so many in U.S. wars and conflicts since 1776. If our forefathers were here to see, they would surely be angry and disappointed. And I think they would issue a clarion call for redress and setting an example for the world by holding accountable the perpetrators of these crimes.

As a torture survivor; I am concerned. We cannot afford to regress to the 15th century or stoop to the level of countries that have institutionalized torture. Even on a practical level, we must not thereby endanger our own citizens, in uniform or out, who might be kidnapped or captured by others in the future. These violations of our Constitution and rule of law have resulted in reducing our nation to the level of international pariah. Our beacon of liberty and justice no longer shines throughout the world. We no longer set the example for other nations to follow. We no longer stand on a firm foundation.

As a patriot who fought and sacrificed for our country, I ask all Americans to stand up for what is civil, humane and right. If we don’t demand accountability for the crimes that were committed in our name, then we as a nation will have effectively institutionalized the torture of the last eight years. Let’s keep the promise for ourselves and all humanity, the promise that is our United States of America.

Phillip Butler Ph.D. is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Navy light-attack carrier pilot. In 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and later was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Heart medals. After his repatriation in 1973, he earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at San Diego, and served as a Navy organizational effectiveness consultant before completing his Navy career in 1981. He then founded and owned a management consulting and professional speaking business. Today, he mentors business and organization leaders and is a community activist.

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