Vietnam POWs and Torture


One reason Sen. John McCain has so much credibility when he says waterboarding is torture is that he was in fact tortured as a POW in Vietnam. Still, the waterboarding story is a little more complicated than that. As my former WH colleague, Marc Thiessen, notes, at least some of Senator McCain’s fellow POWs have no problem with waterboarding captured al Qaeda terrorists. Here’s how Col. Bud Day, a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his courage as a POW, puts it:

“I am a supporter of waterboarding. It is not torture. Torture is really hurting someone. Waterboarding is just scaring someone, with no long-term injurious effects. It is a scare tactic that works.”

I [Marc Thiessen] asked Day in an e-mail what he would say to the CIA officer who waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, if he had the chance to speak with him.  Day replied immediately: “YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.” 

Like Day, Col. Leo Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during the Vietnam War.  He experienced excruciating torture during his captivity — his back broken, his body wrenched apart.  He says what the CIA did to al-Qaeda terrorists in its custody was not torture:

“To me, waterboarding is intensive interrogation. It is not torture. Torture involves extreme, brutal pain — breaking bones, passing out from pain, beatings so severe that blood spatters the walls . . . when you pop shoulders out of joints.. . . In my mind, there’s a difference, and in most POWs’ minds there’s a difference.. . . I would not hesitate a second to use ‘enhanced interrogation,’ including waterboarding, if it would save the lives of innocent people.”

Read the whole thing. Admiral Jeremiah Denton is another former Vietnam POW who parts company with Senator McCain on this one.

There are 4 comments.

  1. Inactive

    One problem I have with John McCain’s position is the fact that Torture can also be applied for differing reasons.

    McCain was a Prisoner for a Prolonged Period. Therefore any knowledge he had was of diminished value. I would submit that the Torture he suffered was for the purpose of the Torturer’s Personal Enjoyment. Yes, some people actually LIKE to torture others.

    The Waterboarding differs from those instances in Many Ways.1) Waterboarding does not have periods of Prolonged Suffering2) Waterboarding does not induce Lasting or Permanent bodily injury3) Waterboarding does not cause visible expressions of pain and suffering by its subject.4) and most important, The People doing the Waterboarding aren’t getting their Jollies by doing so.

    McCain seems to have fallen into the Media Induced trap that Any Discomfort is Torture and All Torture is taking place for its own sake.

    Loosing the will to defend yourself is not a good path to take for prolonged survival.

    • #1
    • May 17, 2011 at 8:58 am
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  2. Inactive

    For a lot of these jihadists, a clean prison cell, with no insects, is a big step up in living conditions. Waterboarding just reminds them that they’re not on vacation yet. They still have some serious work to do.

    • #2
    • May 17, 2011 at 9:38 am
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  3. Founder

    Thanks for this, Bill (as also for your beat of a column in the Journal today). Col. Bud Day has just provided the most succinct, accessible and memorable summary of the difference between torture and waterboarding that I’ve ever come across.

    “I am a supporter of waterboarding. It is not torture. Torture is really hurting someone. Waterboarding is just scaring someone, with no long-term injurious effects. It is a scare tactic that works.”

    That is just wonderfully stated.

    • #3
    • May 17, 2011 at 9:54 am
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  4. Member

    In the Hanoi Hilton, the torture was not intended to extract information – after their first few weeks of imprisonment, any information the prisoners had was too stale to be of military value. Those prisoners were tortured to provide propaganda material. The Viet Cong wanted to publish audio, video and photographs of Americans denouncing America. And in fact, torture induced John McCain to finally give his captors something they valued. Whereas physical torture took years to break McCain, waterboarding worked a lot faster to induce KSM to give the US useful information. McCain is simply wrong on this issue.

    • #4
    • May 18, 2011 at 2:04 am
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