try not to think about torture. Then I read the following:
Vice-President Dick Cheney apparently defends it, a US soldier who
objects to interrogation techniques commits suicide, articles with
titles like “Torture’s Not So Bad, If It’s Done for a War Worth
Fighting,” and Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet was recently arrested and
charged with torture.
Feelings about close friends tortured
over thirty years ago in Chile rush in. Unfortunately, my experiences
with US-supported torture have been quite direct and specific.
To most people, torture is just an idea, probably abstract and
distant. Not to me. Hearing the word, I feel, rather than think. I
remember . . . a sharp pain rises in my stomach.
Cheney recently admitted on radio that the U.S. engages in
water-boarding. “Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t
regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it,” an
Oct. 26 McClatchy News Service article reports.
In water-boarding, “a prisoner is secured with his feet above his head
and has water poured on a cloth over his face. It has been
specifically widely condemned as torture,” an Oct. 28 San Francisco
Chronicle article reveals. It is only one of the many techniques
that the CIA apparently employs and tries to cover by the use of words
such as “coercion” and “aggressive interrogating tactics.”
Over thirty years ago, after being ordained a Methodist minister, I
was assigned to Chile. My ministry there started well, given the
hopefulness of Chileans for their popular and democratically elected
President Salvador Allende. My good American friend Frank Terrugi also
came to Chile to work. I started a relationship with a young woman
who was, like me, a member of a military family.
Then came Sept. 11 -- the date in 1973 that the U.S. supported
Allende’s overthrow by the dictator Gen. Pinochet. Frank was tortured
so badly that the coffin could not be opened at his funeral in
Chicago. My girlfriend was also tortured, and survived. Their
tortures stopped my life.
More than 30 years later that torture still holds a firm grip on me.
However, as with much torture, it failed. Instead of reducing my
commitments to genuine liberty, freedom, and democracy, it enhanced
them. Torture is immoral, cruel, ineffective and deeply damaging to
whomever it touches, including associated survivors and the torturers.
For example, when you join the US military, you do not expect to be
ordered to torture. If you follow those orders, you are forever
US Soldier Commits Suicide
The editor of the authoritative trade publication Editor and
Publisher, Greg Mitchell, wrote on article on Nov. 1 entitled “Revealed:
U.S. Soldier Killed Herself After Objecting to Interrogation
Techniques.” He tells the story of US Army specialist Alyssa
Peterson, 27. She died on Sept. 15, 2003, by “non-hostile weapons
discharge,” according to the military.
Her story lay dormant until longtime radio and newspaper reporter Ken
Elston decided to probe further in 2005. On Oct. 31 he reported the
following on her hometown radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona:
“Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners.
She refused to participate after only two nights. Army spokespersons
for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques
Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now
Elston reports on interviews with her colleagues, “The reactions to
the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her
personal feelings from her professional duties.” Peterson was a devout
Mormon. She is described by a friend as being “genuine, sincere, sweet
. . . a wonderful person.”
It is bad enough that the Bush administration is putting the bodies of
our military personnel in harm’s way. It is worse that some are being
order to apparently engage in war crimes, thus damaging their souls.
I hope that Peterson’s story gets out further. It is an example of how
torture deeply harms those tortured, their family members and friends,
and those ordered to torture.
Torture as More Than an Abstract Idea
For me, torture is more than merely an abstract idea or a vague
metaphor. Its reality is not just in some distant place or time, but
exists as a feeling in my body. The tortures of my friends traumatized
my nervous system, creating a scar. I go through periods of not
thinking about it. Upon reading about torture, I remember.
Others may argue abstractly about whether water-boarding is really
torture and whether torture is ever justified. But those touched
directly by torture are likely to feel its terrors when hearing about
water-boarding. I can feel and even hear the victim’s terror.
I continue to follow the oath that I took in 1966 when I was
commissioned a US Army officer to defend our country and our
Constitution. The main threats to our people today seem to come from
the Bush administration itself.
One of the worst things about the US’s illegal and immoral war in Iraq
is how it has stained our military tradition. I do not always agree
with American foreign policy, but I support a civilian-led military to
defend our country. Many people in the services and veterans feel
ashamed of the continuing actions of our military in Iraq, which bring
dishonor to our country, especially when it involves torture.
Chile’s Gen. Pinochet has been charged in numerous European and Latin
American courts with abuse during his brutal regime. On Oct. 27 he was
arrested and indicted in Chile on torture charges. The apparent
architect of the Sept. 11 coup in Chile, Henry Kissinger, also has
been wanted for years by judges in Europe and Latin America to stand
trial for war crimes. Kissinger is now an advisor to President Bush.
Terrorism in any form is terrible. Its worst form is when it is
sanctioned by the state with its substantial resources. The long and
brutal power of the US state reached Chile in the 1973 coup to kill,
maim, and torture thousands of people. Though that may seem long ago
and far away, that abuse continues to live in the bodies of those of
us who survived that time and place.
“Torture's Not So Bad”
“Torture’s Not So Bad…” by columnist Joel Stein in a recent Los
Angeles Times may have been meant ironically to make his point,
“What is it we’re doing over there?” But his column was in bad taste
-- an abstract use of the word “torture” as an idea and metaphor,
without any sense of how painful such uses can be to those actually
touched by torture. Stein does not appear to understand torture and
may not have had any direct experience with it. He should stop
re-triggering those of us who have had experience with the trauma of
Stein wants us to “stop distracting ourselves with discussions about
how we conduct this war.” Those discussions are important, not only
with respect to this war, but for recent and future wars. We still
have veterans dying from Agent Orange from Vietnam. We have soldiers
returning from this war with sicknesses caused by the use of weapons
with depleted uranium. Who knows what horrors will be visited upon
soldiers by their own government in the next wars. Stein should stop
distracting us from discussing the larger issues that modern warfare
I would not be able to put these words down on paper without my
decade-long participation in the Veterans Writing Group, lead by
Maxine Hong Kingston. We recently published our first book
Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Kingston.
Listening to the stories of other vets and telling my own has not been
easy. Kingston encourages us to “go into the dark of forgotten things”
and then “write the unspeakable.” I still have a long way to go to be
able to properly describe my deepest feelings about torture.
Have you ever been tortured? Probably not. (I hope not.) However, you
may have used the word to convey what the dictionary describes as
“severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion” and as
“mental anguish.” Before you use the word “torture” again to describe
some pain, please study US “aggressive interrogation tactics”
currently being used in Iraq and taught to the Latin American military
at the School of the Americas. Better yet, speak to some of the
Chilean and other victims of such torture.
Torture has been illegal in the U.S. and is prohibited by
international law. Unfortunately, it still occurs. Some of the 21st
century masters of torture, it seems, are Americans. Torture used to
be considered Un-American and should once again be considered
But as my friend Jack Winkle of Sebastopol, CA. recently wrote, “Now
we Americans have someone in the White House sanctioning torture. We
are a changed society and I suspect we will not like where it ends. My
worst guess is some variation of Auschwitz or Pinochet coming home to
Dr. Shepherd Bliss is a retired
college teacher and former officer in the U.S. Army who now farms in
Northern California. He can be reached at: