My opinion is fact, period: On rhetoric, waterboarding, and torture

Upfront: Malcom Nance’s bio is incredible. Whatever else is the case, he clearly knows what he is talking about. My criticism is not against his knowledge, but rather the way he presents his argument in “Waterboarding is torture… period,” an article posted in the Small Wars Journal. For instance:

Yet, once captive I believe that the better angels of our nature and our nation’s core values would eventually convince any terrorist that they indeed have erred in their murderous ways.

makes no sense as a logical argument. Among other things, it implies either that no unrepentant terrorists have died in US custody or else implies a requirement for infinite life.

Well, that said, of course it is not a logical argument. It’s a rhetorical argument. It’s meant to sound good and feel good and subvert reason with intuition. Even though Nance’s argument is on Small Wars Journal, it thus reads more like a political tract that an objective analysis of a technique.

Nance’s three bulleted points likewise work better as bromides than as lemas:

Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period

No logical argument for this is given — merely it is asserted several times that arguments against it exist.


Waterboarding is not a simulation.

What follows is a semantic distinction between two virtual phenomenons: the simulated nd the controlled. I’m not sure how such a distinction is relevent, nor does Nance provide any cypher to help those who are not initiated.


If you support the use of waterboarding on enemy captives, you support the use of that torture on any future American captives.

This is an empirical question and probably demonstrably false, as the set of survey respondents who who support waterboarding on enemy captives is probably distinct from those that support such a technique on “any future American captives.” But again, in fairness to Nance, reason, logic, and facts do not concern his claim: Only the sound of the words does.

Alternatively, one might interpret Nance to be saying that we should seek a policy of reciprocity with regards to treatment of detainees with al Qaeda. However, he appears to reject this notion:

We must now double our efforts to prepare for its inevitable and uncontrolled use of by our future enemies.

I have no idea why criticisms of torture are so poor. My guess is that those who get the public ear achieve resonance on something other than logical validity of argument, while others have a hard time translating their first hand knowledge into such an argument.

(Many thanks to Eddie of Hidden Unities for passing on this link.)

32 thoughts on “My opinion is fact, period: On rhetoric, waterboarding, and torture”

  1. > If you support the use of waterboarding on enemy captives, you support the use of that torture on any future American captives.

    Really? And here I thought I supported the use of waterboarding against illegal combatants, the very sort who have beheaded non-combatant hostages… or are we to believe that such actions were as a result of waterboarding not yet committed or known?

    Unlike the terrorists and illegal combatants we capture on the battlefield, our soldiers are protected (depending on who captures them) by the Geneva conventions (see portions on carrying weapons openly and uniformed combat), perhaps Nace needs to do a bit more reading.

  2. lemas = lemmas or lemmata [1]

    A couple of the two most relevant definitions given at that link:

    1. a subsidiary proposition introduced in proving some other proposition; a helping theorem. [ Unabridged]

    1. A subsidiary proposition assumed to be valid and used to demonstrate a principal proposition. [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]

    So, you see, assumptions can form lemmata.

    “I have no idea why criticisms of torture are so poor. “

    With regard to torture: I believe you will find that every argument possible for or anti torture will have as its basis or bases unprovable lemmata, or biases. Whether utilitarian, moralistic, etc., the argument will come from a prevailing world view formed in the miasma of other assumptions about reality.

    One might as easily say that the Universe itself has reached its life-sustaining state through a series of extremely destructive occurrences; why then must humans turn from destruction, torture, and so many other Universal properties?

    Given the many assumption-based lemmata, there is really no wonder that we are in a constant state of di-lemma.


  3. nor does Nance provide any cypher to help those who are not initiated.

    I think his meaning is quite clear.

    Simulated waterboarding – like the kind some so-called journalists have gone through on TV – is as close to real waterboarding as playful “rough sex” is to being anally raped in prison. Aka. ITS NOT EVEN CLOSE TO THE SAME EXPERIENCE and anyone who says it is is either stupid or a liar.

    If you have the power to stop your interrogators and call off the waterboarding session – as all the phonies who have pretended to “have it done to themselves” have done- then it IS NOT REALLY WATERBOARDING!!!! It is not REAL waterboarding unless you are in the same helpless condition as a real captive and have to endure it until THEY, not you, decide it ends.

    Taking it for 3-5 seconds and then saying “STOP!! …. Boy did that suck” is NOT EVEN CLOSE to having it done for much longer by someone who doesn't listen when you say “stop”.

  4. Brendan,

    Clearly, allowing “honor” (to use Nance's term) to tie our hands puts honor on the side of the bad guys — a terrible turn of events.


    Intention to spell correctly is correct spelling, period. 🙂

    The accumulation of objectives other than victory, freedom etc (things like “do not torture the enemy”) are a form of mission creep.


    Likewise, I that a judge's tour of a prison is NOT EVEN CLOSE to a life sentence. And should not be a reason not to use such a sentence.

  5. Dan,

    I'm afraid you'll run into the argument that refusing to torture is part of the victory and freedom. You'll probably run into the arguments that other things — like, oh, Gay Marriage, Bible-base legislation, the Freedom of Choice and the Pro-life philosophies, etc. — are all a part of ultimate victory and freedom.

    How will you, or any of us, separate these things for a good many people?

    –especially given the “Long War” and “total war” and “globalization” etc. memes, in which all is inextricably linked to all.

  6. Curtis,

    Your clarity and precision are always appreciated.

    I am pretty sure that one might find Global Warming and Christian religions who would say that their version of the salvation of man [1] is more important than U.S. victory, and that they would sacrifice the US to speed us past the tribulation.

    How many of the Anti-Torture Religionists would likewise be so honest with their claims?

    There are political demands, and technical demands, but confusing one for the other is a great mistake.


  7. “Unlike the terrorists and illegal combatants we capture on the battlefield, our soldiers are protected (depending on who captures them) by the Geneva conventions (see portions on carrying weapons openly and uniformed combat), perhaps Nace needs to do a bit more reading.”
    Hey, you mean that when Iran (which _did not_ torture British sailors) captures American soldiers and waterboards them daily, the complaints about Geneva conventions will not be laughed at by all the world?
    I understand that you support some sort of Roman law with one rules for citizens and another for barbarians, but _conventions_ don't work that way.

    “Nace needs to do a bit more reading” bit is simply insulting.

  8. “Unlike the terrorists and illegal combatants we capture on the battlefield, our soldiers are protected (depending on who captures them) by the Geneva conventions (see portions on carrying weapons openly and uniformed combat), perhaps Nace needs to do a bit more reading.”

    You are wrong, since it also states in the Geneva convention that all prisoners should be treated according to the rules set for regular combatants. The Geneva convention does not allow Torture under ANY circumstances. The notion that a country can classify it's own enemy, leads to the demonisation of rebellious forces and declassification of their actual status. Pretty much what happened to the resistance in Europe in WW2, and what the Geneva convention was set to change.

    How clear can he be as to water boarding being torture, as he explains it's controlled murder before they revive the subject again?
    Talking about the Geneva convention, would make you realise that even inducing fear into a subject is considered torture, let alone the manhandling involved in water boarding or their controlled death and revivement..
    The whole thing with Unlawful combatants is to circumvent the torture rules, which it doesn't if you read the convention right.

    It's not the anti torture people that can't word themselves right, it seems someone here has a problem reading.
    Nace couldn't be more clear, but you chose to cite vaguer passages instead of the clear ones.
    And for one read the convention as it does NOT allow torture under any circumstances.

    Torture is against your constitution as your country signed the Geneva convention, and you are bound by your constitution to uphold the treaties, and conventions you signed with other countries.
    Therefor starting agressive wars, engaging in Torture and rendition are direct violations of your law, and international law.

    As for honor, Condone your enemies methods and be like them.
    Don't claim moral high ground, if you pass out the window the document that ensured that highground, and upon which you agreed it was that same moral highground, by signing it.

  9. “Wow, how did I wind up so far from the norm (of this group) regarding waterboarding(or torture)?

    I disagree with the wet panties party that some forms of sensory methods(i.e. stress positions) are torture, but I've always drawn a line in the sand that some things are simply out of bounds. If it is something that can lead directly to debilitating injury or death I place it out of bounds. You can strip the prisoner, lock him in a cell without windows with the lights on 24/7, and turn the temperature down (but not to the point of hypothermia); but waterboarding? Oh hell no.

    Pragmatic argument.:
    I'm guided on this by my relationships with mil professionals. One of whom was an intel officer in Panama during the hunt for Noriega and the take down of the country. Simply put, kinetic interrogation has its place. The goal is to break one's will so they give you the info you want. YOu place just enough pressure to get them to talk(and make a recording you can threaten to release to their confederates), and use that as a lever to get them to tell you more. You don't 'bring the noise' and then have to sift thru reams, and reams, and reams of info for the real deal. Generating too much info is almost worse than none at all since you then have to spend all that time and effort analyzing it.

    Torture quite simply is 'bringing the noise' and is very impractical in intel gathering as it simply breaks the guy to severely. He says anything, including the truth, which you then have to sift thru.

    I put waterboarding and things that cause real pain and injury outside the usable tool box. That includes simulated execution, hanging from an elevated position with arms behind back, electricity use of any kind, bamboo under the fingernails, that sort of thing.

    Note, I've left a rather wide swath of things still in the box that the wet panties party detest. Like sensory dep, hunger, some stress positions, etc., spreading lies about said individual, and the infamous women's panties on head. But real torture? Just isn't practical.

    We signed the Geneva conventions. We're bound by them. We can hang the combatants by law, but we can't torture them—totally declared outside the boundaries by the GC. We agreed to those terms to be not decalred 'pirates' long ago. Pirate nations get trashed by coalitions dontcha know.
    We are honor bound to obey those laws, as we, collectively, agreed to them.

    That obligation remains whether or not our enemy chooses to abide by the rules. You can't track down and kill the man who stole your tv—it's against the rules you choose to abide by for civilized society to exist—-even if he breaks them all the time.
    Moral: (scroll for a while)

    I don't think I need to go farther than that with Dan, but those who aren't Catholic I've got nothing for you. “

  10. “You can strip the prisoner, lock him in a cell without windows with the lights on 24/7”
    Sleep deprivation, if done for a certain amount of time, causes a very strong and permanent damage to a person's psyche. It was the favourite torture method in Stalin's GULAG, its effects are described at length in Solzhenitsyn's book.
    Also, since a person that was subject to a sleep deprivation usually suffers hallucinations etc., there's _no way at all_ this technique could result in gaining useful information, only in false confessions and delirious nonsense.

  11. To quote:

    Solzhenitsyn describes the experience of prisoner Anna Skripnikova in 1952: “Sivakov, Chief of the Investigative Department of the Ordzhonikidze State Security Administration, said to her: 'The prison doctor reports you have a blood pressure of 240/120. That's too low, you bitch! We're going to drive it up to 340 so you'll kick the bucket, you viper, and with no black and blue marks; no beatings; no broken bones. We'll just not let you sleep.'

    Sleep deprivation is, in fact, one of the most cruel tortures imaginable. It doesn't just hurt you (after all, after crossing a pain barrier, you don't feel pain that much), it completely destroys your mind. It's not hard to understand once you try to really imagine not sleeping for more than a week.

  12. True, it can be. Along with psychological measures people seem to think of as the only acceptable methods. YOu can talk someone into neurosis too.

    I call bullshit as well. I've seen the work Herr Low Intensity Conflict got on Noriega's location using this exact technique. HLIC knew exactly how long to sweat the guy in time dep to get him to talk. No damage to the jackalope, but they found Noriega holed up in the Vatican's embassy based on some of the info gotten outta the guy.

    It can be used maliciously, sure. But so can insulin. That's why my set of rules of what is and isn't torture has the rule of direct and permanent damage that is completely unavoidable with the technique. WHich is why putting someone in a cold room, cold but not hypothermia inducing, for 15 hours is kosher. He may come down with a cold. He may get sick. But he isn't going to directly die or be seriously harmed if it's done to him for X number of hours(not days).

    AS for not sleeping for a week, btdtgtts. Granted I wasn't in a cell, but I've done some of my best work when not sleeping at all for days.

  13. Treaties such as Geneva convention are “laws of the land” in the same way that any act of Congress is — the Congress adopts it as a matter of policy, but is free to change it at any time. The agreement of the other treater signators is not a fact in choosing to breech a treaty, or modifying how the executive should interpret it, etc.

    The American breach of the Fort Laramie Treaty (and subsequent obliteration of the Great Sioux Nation) may have been a rotten thing to do, but was entirely Constitutional. Fort Laramie was no more or less a “real” treaty than Geneva. Both are tools of American policies and desires of the Congress. Either can be scrapped at any time, as Fort Laramie already was.

  14. I've got a few questions about torture myself.
    I think it's probably most useful as a threat, so terrorists can't tell themselves “this is the worst they can do, hold on a little bit longer and I'm done.”

    What I think we must do is give our operators true support–a clear definition so they don't have the rules change retroactively, and political support for being rough/not getting the info as the politicians decide. This “declare it illegal but break the law if we need to” nonsense is an evasion of responsibility on the part of those elected to make the decisions. Senator McCain should know better.

  15. ry

    I assume that in your Catechism link you are referring to this stapement in 2297

    “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

    Let us accept Malcom Nance's assertion that waterboarding is torture. Since US forces are not using waterboarding to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents or satisfy hatred but rather to otain information that can be used to break up terrorist organizations and defeat jihadi plans it would seem that there is no religious prohibition against Catholics engaging in such procedures.

    Many of the things I read on the subject of waterboarding of terrorists strike me as similar to this article in “The Guardian” and especially the comments about the evil wrongness of mining the moon because it would damage the fragile environment there as well as violating the sacred mystery of the moon.,,2200256,00.html

    The legal requirements of the Geneva Convention seem to be that enemy soldiers have to receive the same food, housing and conditions as our own soldiers. As Mr.Nance states authoritatively, our own soldiers are waterboarded routinely.

    That would seem to leave only the question of efficacy. From what I have read, the challenge in interrogation is to get someone to begin talking. People lie all the time during interrogation, but observing what they lie about can be valuable. The one thing that most interrogators have trouble dealing with is somebody who just clams up and don't say nothing. That is actually a good tactic for not particularly bright jihadis to adopt since their interrogator is almost surely going to be smarter than they are and is likely to see through their lies and trick them into revealing more than they realize. Waterboarding is likely to get such a person to talk in much less time than keeping them naked, chained in an uncomfortable position in a cold room for 15 hours. For time sensitive information, a few hours might make a significant difference.

    I have never been an interrogator but I suspect that like most other things, some tools work better than others under certain circumstances. Perhaps one in a hundred or maybe only one in a thousand interrogations will go better with waterboarding but that one in a thousand might be very important.

  16. You are all sick fuckers.

    Arguing a idiotic technical point versus torture is just fucking dumb. Of course the question of torture boils down to ethics and morals, and not to a fucking technical definition.

    You Americans employ torture, and hence are NO FUCKING BETTER than the persons that attack you abroad and home.

    That's how it is. You turn the entire world against you, including your friends (read that as “not only your enemies, which already loathe you, and given your tactics, would like to inflict more and more pain on every American citizen”)

    Think about that for a while.

    .. and keep thinking, while you realize that your high-tech weapons won't do you any good against the enemies at stake, and that you actually breed new enemies using your force around the world. It is actually a sick kind of funny to see your intense belief in “bigger, better guns”.

    @Mark in Texas: What when the 99 or 999 other persons go home and tell their stories? What if 2 in 100, or 2 in 1000 of these persons you've tortured actually goes against you as a consequence? Or are you suggesting that you kill them all instead? Then what about their relatives?..

    Oh, the sheer naivety. You are so incredibly … lost.

  17. Karl,

    Excellent questions! I think I agree with your answers!

    Also check out Eddie's questions [1], which he kindly guest-posted here.


    Excellent comment.


    Your first paragraph is an ad hominem attack.

    I agree with your second paragraph.

    Wrt your third paragraph, your confusion of “European elite opinion” with “the world” is sitll common in much of America, as well. Fortunately, such a conflation is becoming a thing of the past.

    I'm not sure what you are talking about in re: “bigger, better guns.” I don't think you'll find many true-blue advocates of the Future Combat System here…

    Regarding your question to Mark, tales of torture will be generated whether torture is used or not. This has both negative (“the Americans are unjust”) and positive (“the Americans are fearsome”) consequences.


    From the conclusion of Endre's post: [2]

    “Dudes – I come close to want you all to die horribly, knowing such facts. What the FUCK do you think those “crazy muslims” want?”

    The sympathy of many Europeans for Islamists is not just in the imagination of the netroots after all!


  18. I can understand the value of removing unwarranted emotion to resolve a difficult situation, but I have a hard time remaining neutral on torture. It's a pretty sick reminder of the state of things in America when the claims of an author to restore humanity and morality to the nightmare that is our foreign policy are derided on semantic grounds. Half of the comments I've seen here are talking about legal ways to get away with torture. If the author of this article cannot understand that by torturing people around the world, we lose any legitimate claim to object to similar treatment in the future, then perhaps he should stop fretting over the wording of Mr. Nance's plea for reason and address the ethical and moral bankruptcy inherent in even debating the legality of torture for any reason. To anyone here who is so keen on waterboarding that they'd allow any agency associated with the US to partake in it, I suggest filling your bathtub, lying down in it, and drowning yourself five or six times with a friend nearby to save you, and see how attractive and humane it seems once you have endured the pain and fear of death. For added realism, your waterboarding-buddy should lack all moral scruples and humanity, and should revel in your terror. Have fun.

  19. So like, wow, speak truth to power and stuff, dude.

    Some of us deal with the more practical things, in the real world. We know of situations where the moral absolutism that comes cheap sitting behind a computer really don't allow for that when you're the guy at the point.

    So, taking the uniform/clothes of a detainee, using some make-up, and having your staff make noises like you're beating a detainee(but really aren't, he's conveniently stashed in yet another room) is torture and shouldn't be done, huh? Fine. Milk and cookies and asking how their day was is all that's allowed. Thank you Human Rights Watch and your insanely overbroad def'n.

    Nobody around here wants to torture anyone. Never have and we never will want to. That isn't the point, which you apparently missed. So come back when you're ready to talk like a grown up, but for now go back to the kiddie table to have some lemonade, 'kay?

  20. I just noticed Eddie's comment. Dang. WIsh I'd seen it earlier. He's rather right. Being a Navy guy he's actually had classes in what the GCs say and mean. He's right, you can't torture even illegal combatants. You can detain them, interrogate them, or send them to trial and then hang them if found guilty(technically, but unlikely to happen). But you cannot torture them.

    Where I do disagree, and this is based on the advice of military professionals who know both Nance and Harrington(having worked with them), is that the def'n of fear is overly broad. Pretending to drop people out of helicopters or putting revolvers to their heads is one thing. But misdirection that induces fear is something else. The previous two are likely to generate a life time of struggling with the trauma. the latter doesn't. BUt under the current, overly broad, interpretation that people run with it's 'torture'.

    ANd Eddie, please don't use the 'if we torture others will torture us' argument. On the whole whatever we've done has had little effect on whether our own personnel get tortured. Systematically the Japanese tortured our captured men while we treated the few IJA we captured were treated according to Geneva. The Germans were a mixed bag even though we sent Wehrmacht personnel to TExas to play baseball. The treatment of US personnel by the Immun Gun(DPRK) and the North Vietnamese gov't are well know(double taps to the head and the Hanoi Hilton) despite us treating their captured personnel better then they were by their own gov't and in accordance with Geneva. How we treat our prisoners has zero effect in how people treat our personnel when they're captured. It's much more of a 'who do you want to see when you look in the mirror' question than anything else. I simply hate that erroneous argument, my good man.

  21. Endre in Norway

    Thank you for your reply. I always enjoy reading the self satisfied musings of my moral superiors in Europe who enjoy a free ride on the security provided by the blood and treasure of the United States.

    I apologize that my writing was unclear to the point that you apparently thought I was advocating waterboarding for everybody even if it was only needed for one in a thousand cases. To clarify what I meant to say, kindness might work better in some cases, moderately severe questioning might work better in some cases and occasionally there will be some individuals who will respond only to the harshest methods. Well trained and experienced interrogators would be expected to have the professional judgement to know which techniques would work best with which subjects and to choose appropriate methods.

    Since I presume that you are too sophisticated to watch Fox News, you might have missed this interview:

    If this report is correct, only three al Qaeda suspects have been waterboarded. That would be even less often than the one in a thousand figure I had picked out of the air. One of those was Khalid Sheikh Mohamed who apparently did provide useful information that did save lives.

  22. John,

    “If the author of this article cannot understand that by torturing people around the world, we lose any legitimate claim to object to similar treatment in the future, then perhaps he should stop fretting over the wording of Mr. Nance's plea for reason and address the ethical and moral bankruptcy inherent in even debating the legality of torture for any reason”

    How is this to be understood?

    If we wage a war, does this mean we give up all legitimate claim to object to wars waged against us?

    If not, then why is killing people by the thousand better than hurting them by the dozen?


    Well put.

    Mark in Texas,


    PS: I've deleted yaig's comment, as it was a personal attack and not a substantive contribution to the discussion.

  23. Dan,

    More than a year ago in reference to a discussion on torture, you mentioned wanting to see evidence of its use causing issues with our European allies.

    A recent brouhaha has erupted in Britain over an alleged American threat to withhold intelligence cooperation if a British court released its findings of an investigation into the torture claims of a British resident currently held @ Gitmo.

    MP Davis (who is making this allegation) seems to be a fairly reasonable British Conservative who has of late been making a big deal about British civil liberties in the age of terror. I don’t see him yet as a Craig Murray type so I will give his accusation for now a bit of credence.

  24. Dan,
    I apologize for not remembering where you made, but do recall it from a point I claimed about our use of torture harming some of our relationships abroad in Europe (especially with counter-intelligence efforts and information sharing).
    You asked for me to show some proof and all I had at the time were a few lukewarm complaints from the Swedes, Germans and Spanish, plus the Italian prosecutor going after his own police chief and the CIA agents in absentia.
    Now, this is potentially more substantial. Maybe.

  25. Far be it from me to contradict myself, but political posturing right before an election doesn’t seem any more or less substantial than the empty cannons the rhetoric we’ve heard for the last few years.

    So I don’t know what’s different about this time, or how it relates to something I may have said in the past.

  26. I will be most interested if this is true or not. Again, he does not have the scent of Craig Murray or Joseph Wilson about him, so I will take him with a bit more than a grain of salt.

  27. More detail here. Apparently the two British judges involved made mention of this in their judgment.

    “Two British High Court judges ruled against releasing documents describing the treatment of a British detainee at the Guantanamo Bay prison, but made clear their reluctance, saying that the United States had threatened to withhold intelligence cooperation with Britain if the information were made public.”

  28. British media have copies of the threatening letter from the State Department from August 2008.

    “Channel 4 revealed that a week later the State Department wrote again to the Foreign Office to make clear the consequences if British courts released the paperwork detailing allegations of torture by US and British intelligence services.

    “To the extent the UK proceedings are currently aimed at ensuring that the documents at issue will be before the convening authority before she makes her referral decision, this development further demonstrates the relief sought through these proceedings has been otherwise accomplished and no further action by the court is required,” the letter said.

    “Ordering the disclosure of the US intelligence information now would have only the marginal effects of serious and lasting damage to the US-UK intelligence sharing relationship, and thus the national security of the UK …”

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