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Psychological Warfare: SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistence, Escape) - A School For Torture

The idea of training is focused on the teaching of practical or vocational skills that have a specific application. In the military, training is the medium in which people are prepared for warfare. The New York Times recently published Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us that refers to "a school for torture" designed to simulate the experiences of prisoners of war in Korea and Vietnam. This school is known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistence, Escape) in which trainees experience forms of torture in order to prepare themselves in the event they are captured...

Military Training: Preparation For A Direct Experience

Wikipedia defines military training in the following manner:

Training refers to the acquisition of knowledge, skills, attitudes as a result of the teaching of vocational or practical skills and knowledge and relates to specific useful skills... In military use, training means gaining the physical ability to perform and survive in combat, and learning the many skills needed in a time of war. These include how to use a variety of weapons, outdoor survival skills, and how to survive capture by the enemy, among others.

The idea of training is focused on the mastery of specific skill sets that can be applied in a specific context. In the context of the military, training is an apprenticeship in warfare. Trainees, in all probability, will directly experience war so their training program is focused on recreating those experiences as closely as possible as the best means of preparation. This process is significantly different from what we think of as education in which both knowledge and skill sets are not necessarily aimed at a direct experience.

One of the weaknesses in the Wikipedia description is that it refers only to a "physical ability." Of course, preparation for the psychological aspects of warfare are at least, and perhaps even more important. The physical aspect of military training seems to be focused on the development of automated physical responses to certain conditions. The trainee is not being asked to think about and reflect upon a situation before taking action, but are trained to physically react to a specific set of circumstances in a specified manner. Reflective thinking in warfare may be suicidal.

However, the psychological requirements of warfare training are more difficult to grasp. The effects mind and spirit of those who have engaged in warfare last far beyond the duration of the war itself. I once attempted to have a discussion with a friend of the family - a Green Beret - about his experiences in Vietnam. That discussion was clearly a place that would not be visited and it was clear from the expression on his face that he had experiences that were probably completely incomprehensible to me. He died a young man from cancer.

The movie Jarhead shows a unique side of warfare, one that is clearly focused on the psychological aspects. A "jarhead" is of course a reference to the head of a soldier. The military would like the jar to be empty; the movie demonstrates the impossibility of this notion. One of the more interesting themes in this movie surrounds the relationship of the soldier to their home - their loved ones and their family. The psychological aspects of the soldiers experiences were revealed in interesting ways throughout this movie. Indeed, one soldier commented on how unprepared he was for the psychological experience of war.

A School For Torture: SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistence, Escape)

SERE courses are run by the U.S. Air Force: SERE, the U.S. Army: SERE, and the U.S. Navy: SERE. The aspects of Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us that capture my attention are:

Pentagon officials turned to the closest thing on their organizational charts to a school for torture... SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the "confessions" they sought... A full account of how our leaders reacted to terrorism by re-engineering Red Army methods must await an independent inquiry. But the SERE model's embrace by the Pentagon's civilian leaders is further evidence that abuse tantamount to torture was national policy, not merely the product of rogue freelancers.

So the idea of a "school for torture," according to the article, is based on a curriculum designed to obtain confessions. The knowledge, skills and attitudes focused on include prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control. Instructional design is focused on producing "overwhelming stress" leading to "despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem" leading to confession and therefore knowledge the military can use against its enemy. And the standardized test is whether or not the trainee retains his or her sanity.

While the context is dramatically different, and I would not in any way suggest a direct linkage to torture, it would not be incorrect to explore education through the lens of prolonged (psychological) isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control that leads to forms of despair, anxiety and lowered self-esteem. Of course, a suggestion like this is not likely to win many freinds in the educational community, but this does not alter the reality. Students, over the course of many years in educational institutions, do experience these effects to a degree.

A Profound Disruption Of An Individual's Personality

In THE EXPERIMENT: The military trains people to withstand interrogation. Are those (i.e. - SERE) methods being misused at Guantánamo? Leonard S. Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights is quoted as saying that, “It is both illegal and deeply unethical to use techniques that profoundly disrupt someone’s personality.” The Physicians for Human Rights website reveals the core of their mission:

Since 1986, PHR members have worked to stop torture, disappearances, and political killings by governments and opposition groups; to improve health and sanitary conditions in prisons and detention centers; to investigate the physical and psychological consequences of violations of humanitarian law in internal and international conflicts; to defend medical neutrality and the right of civilians and combatants to receive medical care during times of war; to protect health professionals who are victims of violations of human rights; and to prevent medical complicity in torture and other abuses.

The issues surrounding the detainees at Guantánamo are a natural fit for these activities. While we cannot penetrate into the specifics of SERE, nor can we penetrate the reality of Guantánamo, on the surface we can easily imagine that the methods used in obtaining confessions from people does involve acts of torture. And in this context it is torture that profoundly disrupts an individual's personality.

What precisely constitutes a "profound disruption" of an individual's personality is not entirely clear, but given the techniques described it is hard to imagine that is not the case. Perhaps one of the underlying effects of any curriculum is a "profound disruption of an individual's personality." The disruption, of course, is not necessarily a negative thing since we can imagine a profound disruption in personality that is for the better. Joseph Campbell's "journey through a dark forest" is clearly a profound disruption on the pathway to bliss. However, this journey is usually self-directed, originating from deep within a person's spirit. A curriculum by its very nature originates in the desire to impose. In it's most negative sense, the desire to impose seeks to create victims (also see: Psychology: Victimization - Puppet on a String). An individual's personality disintegrates under such an imposition, identity is fragmented, and submission becomes probable.

At a June 2004 briefing, the chief of the United States Southern Command, Gen. James T. Hill, said a team from Guantánamo went "up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques" for "high-profile, high-value" detainees. General Hill had sent this list - which included prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault and the exploitation of detainees' phobias - to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who approved most of the tactics in December 2002. Some within the Pentagon warned that these tactics constituted torture...
- THE EXPERIMENT: The military trains people to withstand interrogation. Are those (i.e. - SERE) methods being misused at Guantánamo?

The Underlying Ground: Making the Hidden Visible

The facts surrounding both SERE and Guantánamo are intentionally shrouded in mystery. However, the point of exploring SERE as a system of training as well as its applications to extracting confessions at Guantánamo reveals the dark side of human interaction and learning. There are inevitable effects of any curriculum and therefore training program that are entirely separate and distinct from the knowledge, skills and attitudes promoted. These effects are akin to McLuhan's notion of an "invisible ground" or Edward Hall's notion of a "silent language." This is an important terrain attempting to understand the depth and breadth of learning.

As with all forms of media, there are a range of effects that go beyond the literal context of the medium itself. Many of these effects are psychological and influence our personality and identity. The idea of a "school for torture" brings this aspect of learning to the forefront and allows us to understand education and training from a different perspective. None of this is to say that education and training embrace torture. However, it is to say that education and training might serve to "profoundly alter an individual's personality" in mysterious and hidden ways.


  • Guantanamo Controversies: The Bible and the Koran</>
  • New York Times: Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us by M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks, Published: November 14, 2005
  • THE EXPERIMENT: The military trains people to withstand interrogation. Are those methods being misused at Guantánamo? by Jane Mayer. August 4, 2005.
  • U.S. Air Force: SERE | U.S. Army: SERE | U.S. Navy: SERE
  • Wikipedia: SERE
  • WUZZING THE TWITTS: United States of Torture by Jim Hennigan. November 8, 2005.

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Hi Harold,
It's been a while since I paid a visit to the Coach House. Mark came into near the conclusion of my work with Derrick de Kerckhove. I'll have a look at his blog.

It ranges from culturalisation in basic training to your cited torture school. The military knows how to conduct effective training and understands its ground, because getting someone to risk his/her life is an unnatural act.
Schools, businessses and others are immersed in their ground. The amazing thing is that so few people realize it. Mark Federman's Role* is an attempt to help people see themselves outside of their ground:

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