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Ben Sherwood

Ben Sherwood

Posted April 23, 2009 | 11:11 AM (EST)

Waterboarding 101: Inside the Secret School Where US Forces Learn to Survive Torture


According to The New York Times, the idea for the aggressive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on terrorism suspects came from a military training program known as SERE, an abbreviation for "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape." The Times reports the SERE program was "created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans."

What exactly is SERE? In brief, it's survival training. Each military branch offers its own version of the program to teach soldiers, sailors and aviators how to survive in hostile environments, evade and resist the enemy, and if necessary, escape. Resist, in military shorthand, means to withstand the punishment of captivity, including torture, and to find ways to fight back.

One theory behind this rough training, as I learned during my research for The Survivors Club, involves something called stress inoculation. Training operates like a vaccine: A small challenge to your system is supposed to prepare and defend you against much greater adversity. In other words, if you're exposed to enough hardship and pressure, you'll build your immunity. The more shocks to your system, the more you can withstand.

Only in harsh and realistic conditions, the military believes, can trainees begin to understand what it's like to be shot down, captured or brutalized by the enemy. The more miserable and uncomfortable, the better. Every single one of the ex-POWs I've interviewed believes this training was invaluable in surviving their ordeals.

Here's how air force survival training typically works. They take you to the remote woods of Washington state, deprive you of food and sleep, chase you around like an animal, and when they capture you, they drag you to a place called the Resistance Lab. Translation: prisoner of war school. It's located on an isolated patch of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane and it's strictly off limits to outsiders. What really goes on behind the concertina wire is classified.

According to current and former military men and women, everything inside POW school is modeled on real enemy encampments, including guard towers, razor wire, concrete cells, and metal cages. To scare you, they've even got fake graves marked with crosses. The goal is to simulate hell on earth like the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam or al-Qaeda's torture chambers in Iraq. If they even allow a visit to the latrine, you relieve yourself in a miserable hole in the ground.

Highly trained professionals serve as jailors and interrogators, putting prisoners through carefully choreographed chaos that's designed to disorient and break them down. If you're afraid of dogs, they may terrify you with snarling German shepherds just inches from your face. If you're scared of snakes (or insects), they may throw you into a pit of writhing creatures or bugs. If you're claustrophobic, they may stuff you into a series of smaller and smaller boxes or bury you underground in barrels. Throughout the experience, they wear you down with sleep deprivation, semi-starvation, and blaring music, including Sesame Street songs around the clock. They interrogate you constantly, employing enemy techniques copied from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. (According to The New York Times, those techniques include fake-drowning or waterboarding) They say they don't use excessive force, but it can be physically rough. No one likes to admit it, but bones and eardrums have been broken in the service of preparing American men and women for the reality of captivity.

Hungry, exhausted and under relentless physical and psychological pressure, many trainees lose track of time and some begin to believe they're experiencing the real thing. That's the ultimate goal: to make you crack and fail in your mission and then show you how to put yourself back together again.

The first phase is called hitting the wall--the moment when you believe you can't take another step, when you can't survive another minute, when you're willing to do anything just to stop the misery. The course is carefully designed so that everyone hits the wall. In that critical moment, when you're begging for food and rest, the trainers push you even harder. The purpose is to prove that you're stronger than you know and that you can keep going. Success isn't about your size or strength. Survival is all in your mind.