Waterboarding: The Ultimate Mind Game

He heard them approaching. He knew capture was imminent. Once captured, he knew too, as the senior member among the prisoners, he, in particular, would be selected for rough treatment. Back at their base camp, his captors began to interrogate him. He resisted. The folly of doing so readily became apparent. He knew what was coming would not be a pleasant experience for he would be used as an example to the others.

He was strapped to a board the size of a door. Initially level, the board was elevated 18 inches at one end so his feet were higher than his head. A canteen full of water was poured down his nose and a wet wash cloth immediately placed over his entire face. The procedure had the intended effect as he endured the frightening sensation of drowning.

He knew they would not kill him but, as it continued, he began to wonder. Finally, the wash cloth was removed and the board leveled. He immediately gasped for air. As the shock of what he had just endured began to subside and his tormentors started to let him up, he made a bad decision. He made an unflattering comment about his captors and their parentage. He quickly realized anger had prevailed over his better judgment. He was subjected to the procedure a second time — after which he greeted his interrogators with a much more cooperative mindset.

His name is Jerry Wages. In 1969, he was a Navy commander with orders to Vietnam. But, before going, he had to undergo Survival, Evade, Resistance & Escape (SERE) training in the mountains near San Diego.

Sent for a week to survive off the land and evade capture by his trainers, Wages was but one of a hundred students in a group ultimately captured and subjected to various forms of harassment, rough treatment and a procedure some politicians now call torture — “waterboarding.”

Among the experts who claim waterboarding is torture are psychologists, lawyers, physicians, Congressmen and even former SERE trainers — but none of those speaking out seem to possess the firsthand experience Wages can claim. He truly can say, “Been there; done that — twice.” But it is exactly this personal, firsthand experience that enables Wages to provide a perspective on waterboarding no one else to date has offered.

While “experts” seem committed insisting that waterboarding as torture, Wages can address its impact on two levels — its effectiveness in achieving the interrogator’s objective quickly and any lingering physical and/or psychological impact it may have on the subject.

To understand waterboarding’s effectiveness in getting an uncooperative subject to give interrogators what they seek, one first needs to know a little about Jerry Wages. A former collegiate boxer and sparring partner to a future lightweight champion, he is a mountain of a man. Even going through SERE at age 40, his physical prowess exceeded that of most men half his age. He was tough and hardened. And, as the senior officer of the student group, he was determined not to be broken by his interrogators.

That determination was short-lived, as it is for anyone subjected to the procedure.
Accordingly, it is a very effective tool for interrogators to use in extracting information quickly from a difficult subject. This was evidenced too by virtue of the wealth of information surrendered by three major terrorist planners involved in attacks against Americans who were captured and subjected to the technique in 2002.

But does waterboarding qualify as torture? Wages suggests it does not.

While it is clearly a de-humanizing and unpleasant procedure that breaks one’s morale and will, he believes it is not torture. As a boxer, Wages took some devastating hits that were far more brutal and damaging to his body than was waterboarding. But even immediately after his second waterboarding experience, there were no lingering effects of physical bodily injury manifesting what he had just gone through — seldom the case when torture is applied.

The psychological impact from such a procedure on a subject is also important — for it gives one an appreciation as to how quickly limits can be reached on one’s will to resist, regardless of a predisposition not to cooperate. In applying the waterboarding technique to terrorist interrogations today, Wages suggests just one change — adding a physician to the interrogation team to monitor safe application and to avoid abuses by overzealous interrogators.

We continue to struggle with the political correctness of using waterboarding on terrorists suspected of withholding information critical to saving lives. Wages favors using the technique to tap into such live-saving information. After all, this procedure was used against US citizens in a training environment to teach students how quickly the human will can be broken, without causing lingering physical injuries. Therefore, it can be similarly used against terrorists who also need only understand the limits of their own determination, thereby yielding information to save lives they would otherwise seek to take.

As Wages can attest, waterboarding is the ultimate mind game. And, it is one that needs to be played with terrorists hell-bent on causing the loss of innocent human lives.

[Editors’ Note:  I continue to get e-mails from active duty and retired naval aviators who were waterboarded in SERE training as recently as 2001. They, like Wages, don’t believe it is torture. And, to a man, they believe it should be used on terrorist suspects held overseas. Jed Babbin.]