Did torture cost American lives?

By Christopher D. Kolenda:

Photo: US Army (creative commons)
US soldier in Iraq. Photo: US Army (creative commons)

“The enemy is the enemy, until he becomes my prisoner,” I remember Lieutenant General Hal Moore saying, “then he is my responsibility”. Moore was with co-author Joe Galloway at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1993. They were talking to officers from 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry, Moore’s unit in Vietnam, about their book We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.

The message has stuck with me ever since.

This conversation from over twenty years ago came to my mind as I read the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report about the use of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.

It makes disturbing reading. One cannot help but be horrified by the graphic descriptions of actions that Americans inflicted on detainees in the wake of the September 11 attacks – torture, in several instances.

The Senate reports a number of cases in which members of the CIA questioned the legality and efficacy of the techniques, but were allegedly rebuffed. That roughly 85% of the detention and interrogation efforts were reportedly carried out by contractors, who do not share the same oaths or professional values as CIA members, raises other important questions.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s response thankfully notes that the program will not be reinitiated under any circumstances, and carefully explains that their counterpoints to the Senate report in no way suggest an ends-justify-the-means case for the practices employed.

A recent op-ed by former Agency leaders makes no such distinctions. They emphasize that the prevailing sense of fear at the time over another attack and the (disturbing) lack of knowledge about al-Qaeda justified the need for “enhanced” techniques. The outcomes, they suggest, saved American lives.

But did unintended consequences, directly or indirectly, actually cost American lives? That question is beyond the scope of the Senate report, the Agency response, and the arguments by the former CIA leaders. It merits thoughtful attention nonetheless.

Observation #8 from the Senate report notes some of the negative effects of the program on the efforts of other agencies, such as the State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Observation #20 suggests that America’s moral standing in the world has suffered. Impacts on the Department of Defense are not mentioned.

This brings me back to the discussion with Hal Moore. Protection of civilians and combatants no longer posing a threat – wounded, sick and prisoners – even at increased risk to yourself, should distinguish American soldiers in times of war. This would be a principle in any organization that I led. It was also, I believed, a practical necessity.

Equally important was to foster a command climate that encouraged, even demanded, candid feedback. Even the best guardians need other guardians animated by common principles.

How we treat others in combat, whether they be civilians faced with impossible real-world choices, people who cannot protect themselves from violence and brutality, and incapacitated or detained fighters on the battlefield we may have been trying to kill a moment beforehand, says a lot about us.

I relied on this principle time and again as a commander in combat in Afghanistan as we dealt with the real-world complexities of fighting an insurgency – in some cases an insurrection – that wore no uniforms, blended with the population, and played by a very different set of rules.

You find yourself in a constant battle of unenviable trade-offs – balancing risk to the mission, risk to your soldiers, and protection of others, for instance. Uncertainties abound over which local actors to trust and how much, over what rules and incentives motivate them, about which information and various interpretations of it to believe, and how best to accomplish the mission and defeat your adversaries or sets of adversaries.

You also find yourself contending with a wide range of emotions. Elation over winning a battlefield engagement; visceral anger and anguish when your soldiers are wounded or killed; outrage when civilians are brutalized or killed by your enemy; sadness in the face of human suffering; anxiety and concern over setbacks; joy and satisfaction at success.

You operate in a world of fine lines, easily crossed. Elation can turn to bloodlust; anger and outrage into revenge; concern into paralysis; sadness and joy into pity and hubris. Your principles and candid people around you keep you on the right side, especially in the most difficult and dangerous and disorienting circumstances.

I found in Afghanistan that the principles of protection and candour normally carried manageable short-term risks, but had significant positive practical implications.

I was astonished to find, however, that many Afghans believed that Americans engaged in torture and human rights abuses as a matter of policy. Many, I discovered, did not see us as the ‘good guys’. They feared us. I learned over time that several opportunists had beforehand provided bogus reports to eager officials. These reports often provoked military actions against their otherwise innocent rivals. The former knew exactly what buttons to push. Their rivals swore blood-feuds against the Americans. All this made the insurgency stronger, the fighting tougher, and our job much, much harder.

My subsequent tours in Afghanistan suggest that our experience was not unique. Of course demands that our Afghan partners respect human rights rung hollow to some. Even Taliban leaders and associates would contrast their treatment of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with rumours and reports of torture of their people by Americans.

It is in this context that I suggest the need for further examination. The program did not exist in isolation. It formed part of the context in which our forces operated in combat. Over seven thousand American service members were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; tens of thousands live with wounds visible and non-visible. Many more civilians were killed or wounded. A precise answer to the cost in lives is unknowable.

There are important questions about how the program may have affected the conduct of the wars, including:

  • To what extent did the perceptions and justifications of the program, to include the actual and perceived use of torture, affect our soldiers and their mission?
  • To what extent did senior leaders’ public justifications of the program affect broader policy and strategy options in the conduct of the wars?
  • To what extent did perceptions and justifications of the program promote an ends-justify-the-means mentality within the military in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • To what extent did the perceptions and justifications foster a belief in the military that such practices were acceptable and could be used by them in combat?
  • To what extent did ‘false positives’ or erroneous reports, perhaps made out of fear of torture, lead to military actions that cost lives (civilian and military) and created unnecessary enemies?
  • To what extent did the actual and perceived use of torture compromise the military’s moral standing in the eyes of the people in Afghanistan and Iraq? In what ways did that affect the mission and its prospects of success?

The CIA is filled with people who were repulsed by the behaviours cited on the Senate report. These public servants saved American (and Afghan and Iraqi) lives while upholding the values that make the Agency great. To what extent the program that troubled them affected the conduct of the wars, and the people conducting them, merits further investigation.

Did the mentality that created and justified a program intended to save American lives cost American and civilian lives, too, and what can we learn from that?

Christopher D. Kolenda is a Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

Editors’ note: Strife and the US Foreign Policy Research group will be hosting our first annual conference 4 March 2015 at King’s College London entitled: “A world in flux? Analysis and prospects for the U.S. in global security”. Leading up to this, we will be featuring a number of articles and responses to current events related to US and global security from a variety of students, researchers, practitioners and academics. This article is part of that series. 

4 thoughts on “Did torture cost American lives?”

  1. Outstanding and thought provoking. This should be required reading. Excellent contribution from a very experienced and knowledgeable individual. I plan to share widely.

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