Michael's Dispatches

Water Torture


16 March 2009
There has been much discussion recently about what constitutes torture.  Between research/travel in preparation for a return to Afghanistan and Iraq, I have been working on a couple of dispatches regarding torture.  Meanwhile, several U.S. military officers -- all combat veterans -- have weighed in privately.  All are staunchly opposed to torture.  At least my opposition to torture is in good company with these veterans.  We can beat the terrorists without it, and in fact can do far better without using barbaric methods.  We get huge amounts of information from normal people when they realize we are morally superior to the terrorists.  High ground is always tough to keep, and moral high ground is particularly tough to hold.  But we can do it and will win battles because of that high ground.

But what is torture?  What is the definition?

According the United States Government, water boarding is in fact torture.  Please carefully read this story -- sent to me by an American officer with multiple combat tours and the scars to show for it -- and please consider making a thoughtful comment.

Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime

By Evan Wallach
Washington Post
Sunday, November 4, 2007; Page B01

As a JAG in the Nevada National Guard, I used to lecture the soldiers of the 72nd Military Police Company every year about their legal obligations when they guarded prisoners. I'd always conclude by saying, "I know you won't remember everything I told you today, but just remember what your mom told you: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." That's a pretty good standard for life and for the law, and even though I left the unit in 1995, I like to think that some of my teaching had carried over when the 72nd refused to participate in misconduct at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

This matter requires much thoughtful conversation.

Your writer,

Michael Yon

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 13 years ago
    Wikipedia has a pretty good treatment of the subject. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torture

    I, and I am sure others, were waterboarded at SERE school. That was a highly controlled environment that was fully monitored by doctors and psychiatrists, and as such, we knew we wouldn't die or even suffer any serious harm. It was done because the enemy might do it. We, of course, wouldn't because it was against international law and we knew the N. Vietnamese did not sign up for the Geneva Accords. Our moral standards are such that we would not murder prisoners....but we have...and these are official findings.

    If we lose our moral high ground, we lose our soul as a country. Torture is not America...at least I hope not.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dane Guzowski · 13 years ago

    Thanks for defining at least one thing (water boarding) you believe to be torture. I (and I am sure many others) kept asking "what" you believed torture to be.

    I agree with you that we must have the moral high ground. However I also believe there are many with whom we are in conflict who do not believe we have any moral standing at all - merely because of WHO we are. It is a difficult question. As in the case of Col. West (who fired a gun next to a prisoner's head in order to get information that saved soldiers lives) there will be men who serve our country with great honor and conscience who might have to make a terrible decision between their careers and protecting the troops in their charge.

    All I can do is trust in their training and dedication to our country and keep them in my prayers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charles Maxwell, CDR · 13 years ago
    Moral standards ... that's a righteous shield to stand behind, especially when you have no skin in the game. But, allow me to break some crystal for a moment. I was a Geneva Card holder for 25 years. I read the classics, Tsun Tsu, Clausewitz, etc... and I get it. I have a real problem with Yon's absolute position - waterboarding is torture and morally wrong. Well Mike, so is war! Does that mean we shouldn't fight when we've been attacked or when war has been declared on us and attacks continue despite our civilized Kantian desire for dialogue? I hear an awful lot of jaw boning about how bad America is and how evil we are. I don't hear much about American goodness. I'm not an evil person and I've stuck my Hobbsian neck out on a few occasions to save the life of another! I'm pretty tired of the people who say "war is immoral' when going to war may well be the only moral thing to do when evil surrounds and commits to killing innocents! Same for the people who have no real responsible position of authority (life and death decisions) who think they know better than those living life and death decisions everyday! Let me ask...if you knew several US cities would go down in a WMD attack and the terrorist you have in custody knows the plan, would you play patsy with him and watch your America brothers and sisters go up in nuclear flame? You have 0 seconds - GO!... By the way, I would include other forms of interrogation in addition to waterboarding to squeeze answers out of any scum terrorist who seeks the deaths of my beloved fellow Americans. You've seen goodness and you've seen evil...who gets a pass today? Let's not give away the farm. The enemy has only to strike once but, we have to defend 100% of the time. Who has the advantage? Let's not show all of our cards! Sometimes you have to wrap the truth in a lie to overcome evil. I'm all over that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brian Macker · 13 years ago
    Of course it is torture. Spanish water torture to be precise. Used during the Inquisition.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    CFH · 13 years ago
    Michael, you write: "According the United States Government, water boarding is in fact torture."

    I read the linked article and found no statement to this effect. The article only shows that waterboarding has been regarded as torture _in the past_ and _by certain courts_. But citing cases in military courts from WWII or even decades ago, and citing cases from _civil_ courts, does _not_ show that waterboarding is _currently_ prohibited as torture under _current_ law in _military_ jurisdiction. Don't misunderstand me: I'm prepared to be shown that it is legally defined as torture by US law in the military jurisdiction and that the Bush administration thereby in fact violated the law; but this article does _not_ show that to be the case.

    (I'll also note re: the linked article that if our soldiers really adopted the author's Golden Rule dictum, they'd never fire a shot at the enemy, since no one wants to be shot at themselves. In war, soldiers _have_ to do _lots_ of things unto others that they would not want done unto themselves. In fact, that's not a bad _definition_ of war.)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    FGM · 13 years ago
    Theres's lot's of discussion on the issue but still, I've read no definition of the word "Torture". I've read, "waterboarding is torture". Before we debate on what coercive technique is or isn't torture, we should first agree on a definition of the term. Let me offer this as start.
    "Torture is the deliberate and premeditated infliction of severe and permanent bodily or psychological injury to prisoners who have minimal intelligence value."
    Based on that definition, I don't consider the waterboarding of Al Quaeda terrorists to be torture. Consider KSM. He was waterboarded and is perfectly fine now and we got lots of intell out of him very quickly. Alternatively, I would consider most of what occurred in Abu Gharaib to be torture.
    If you care to dispute, please offer your definition of torture first.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    robertb · 13 years ago
    FYI, what your mom told you (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you), she got from Jesus. Just being a stickler for accurate citations.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Crafty Hunter · 13 years ago
    There is no doubt in the mind of any sane person that waterboarding as applied to alleged enemy combatants is torture. Playing at waterboarding in training is a world apart from the effect that forced drowning has on someone who can't be sure his captors care much if he lives or dies. The basic physical distress is made torture by this great fear of death by suffocation. People who claim that waterboarding isn't torture are frankly and bluntly sociopathic scum. That some of them may be "our" sociopathic scum doesn't change that reality.

    Having said that, the question of when, if ever, torture is justified is completely separate from the question of what is torture with which to begin. If I felt certain that a man was an Islamic terrorist holding out on information about a nuclear weapon about to detonate in an American city, I believe I'd use pliers to rip out his fingernails and a small jeweller's blowtorch to touch him up here and there, to great effect. I really wouldn't enjoy it, and would know perfectly well I'd have nightmares after and possibly a black stain on my soul, but I would run that risk.

    The question as implied becomes much more difficult in cases of uncertainty, and evades the problem of who will guard the guardians. Terrorism and security are complex problems, and I don't envy those who must deal with them. Regardless, I have only contempt for any side's amoral sociopathic scum. People who see other people as bugs need very much to be kept away from positions of power.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SSBN · 13 years ago
    Christopher Hitchens volunteered to undergo the treatment and the video is available at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/video/2008/hitchens_video200808.

    Traditionally, torture has always been about inflicting pain. I suppose you could expand its definition to include psychic pain, but I submit that that is a modern notion and the controversy surrounding it is not at all settled. Moreover, the lefty, Bush-hating, America-disdaining ideologues who are the most voiciferous critics of waterboarding have never demonstrated interest in the psychic pain issue anyway-- their only contribution has been to disgorge bile.

    Hitchens gets one thing wrong. Early on, he says that waterboarding doesn't _simulate_ the feeling of drowning, it _is_ drowning. Well, he's wrong. His lungs did not fill with water. Therefore he wasn't drowning; QED. But he does testify very convincingly that it's an extremely stressful experience; he withstood it for 17 seconds.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Cox · 13 years ago
    ...I'll know it when I see it.

    It seems to me that there's almost two separate arguments that are typically made by those who want to turn a blind eye to what the Bush Administration apparently not only allowed, but encouraged (to the point of having John Yoo write special memos to give a free pass to those doing the activities).

    The first argument has already been made here-that torture is just fine if it's to try and prevent, say, Las Vegas from going up in a mushroom cloud.

    These folks have no problem with torture. They're also apparently not bothered by the reports that torture doesn't actually do much good or that we might use it on the wrong guy, a guy who has no information to give; instead, they're always going on about how it can SAVE AMERICAN LIVES and therefore it's excusable.

    The second argument is that we, the USA, shouldn't torture- but that things like waterboarding aren't really torture.

    It seems to me that Yon is asking us, folks, to put aside the first argument for the purposes of this dispatch. In other words, we're assuming that torture IS wrong no matter what the circumstances. You're welcome to disagree, of course, but you're going to screw up the discussion we should be having at our host's request here if you insist on making your argument.

    So I propose for now we set aside the whole "is it ever justified" question and just assume, FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT, that it is not. I know, some of you disagree, that's fine, let's pretend it is for now, okay? Thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack Bamford · 13 years ago
    "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." After I got beyond my gag reflex at hearing this from a lawyer, I saw that the advice holds in unexpected contexts.

    I care a lot about my dignity and honor. I try not to soil either, ever. But I can picture myself water boarding KSM in certain circumstances --- the imminent atrocity scenario, for example.

    I picture myself administering the water board process. Mr. Wallace asks me to stay my hand because I wouldn't want to endure the water boarding myself. But I would never have planned to burn thousands of children, women and innocents alive in the first place.

    Nonetheless, I would pour as much water on KSM's face as permitted by the outer boundaries of my personal code of honor. I would not allow Mr. Mohammed's to die. But I wouldn't tell him I wouldn't either. I would walk out at the end of the whole thing feeling the same as I do after climbing out of a septic tank I have fixed. Disgusted at the stench, but secure in the knowledge that I had done a dirty job for my family's well being and that the smell would wash off.

    It's possible that Mr. Wallace's arguments are legalistically valid, but it is certain that they are unfair and dishonest. Everything hinges on the specific circumstances of the situation --- one sure way of knowing you are wrong is when find yourself making sweeping generalizations.

    Do not imagine that singing a lullaby cannot be torture. By all means, condemn torture in its obvious forms. But bear in mind that torture is not determined by the implements at hand --- it is defined by how they are used.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    brityank · 13 years ago
    Can we agree there are differing levels and concepts of torture?

    Mild physical torture is how we train ourselves, and the body adapts to the regimen by strengthening both the body and the mind. Tell me you really like running to the point of exhaustion; yet pushing there increases your stamina and distance.

    We train our kids in kindergarten and church to sit still and pay attention, yet they would rather be off chasing butterflies or each other; to them isn't that torture?

    As several others have said, the ends do matter. Col. West righteously did what he needed to to save his men and his objective, and also took on the mantle of criminality willingly to achieve that objective. To allow yourself the luxury of morality, and knowing that morality will send your men into certain death is the cowards way out.

    We have a moral code that is embedded into our legal system. Even our enemies know, and use that system against us to achieve their aims. I am comfortable letting our legal system make any adjudication based on our rules, not those of our enemies perceptions.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 13 years ago
    Torture, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, is:
    ƒ?? any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.[1]

    Raising the "chicken little" scenario that several cities will be smoked in a WMD release unless we torture "this guy" who "theoretically" knows enough about everything to stop is just as bogus as the spectre of mushroom clouds over our cities if we don't invade Iraq. What we are discussing is a moral and legal issue transcending either the right or left wing nuts. A better issue is "Does torture really work?"

    We don't know what KSM revealed. We don't know if information obtained from him prevented any future attacks on our soil. We only have the word of those who raised the mushroom cloud spectre and I am frankly skeptical.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    smellthecoffee · 13 years ago
    Christopher Hitchens voluntarily submitted to being water-boarded. Other journalists have also submitted to waterboarding in order to write about the experience. American military undergo waterboarding as part of their training in some cases. Would any of the above willingly submit to having electrical wires attached to their genitalia and having shocks administered? Would any of them voluntarily submit to being burned with lit cigarettes? Or having bamboo splinters stuck under their fingernails? No, no, and no, and you know it. So what's the difference? Because they know, a priori, that waterboarding is different. They know, I submit, that while it is extremely unpleasant, it is not torture. Did Mr. Hitchens, for example, after being waterboarded, go out and have lunch?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    newpetrol · 13 years ago
    On torture, Michael Yon says "We can beat the terrorists without it".

    Sorry to proffer a LOL on this subject Poor choice of words.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ronnie dobbs · 13 years ago
    'I'd always conclude by saying, "I know you won't remember everything I told you today, but just remember what your mom told you: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'

    Well, in that case, we'd better stop shooting at them then. I mean, I don't want them to shoot at me, now do I?

    I think a good working definition of torture is that if you need to visit the hospital (not a shrink) or end up in the morgue after interrogation, you've likely been tortured. So, no, waterboarding is not torture. Uncomfortable, unpleasant, and maybe unnecessary? Ok, sure. But torture? In the same category with being decapitated, having holes drilled into joints and limbs with power tools, having your head put in a vise, being hanged by hooks, all of which were in an al-Qaida torture manual? Yeah, all that was there - strangely, waterboarding wasn't mentioned in it. I think this is also torture: having to decide between jumping from the 80th floor of a skyscraper or being burned/crushed to death by same. Is any of that the same as waterboarding? Yeah, I don't think so, man.

    And, btw, Wikipedia does NOT treat the subject well, or accurately, at all. And the UN aint' Webster's, buddy-ro.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JPinNY · 13 years ago
    I think that politicians and others on their moral high-horse need to butt out. Solders in active combat need, and should, be able to do whatever is necessary to achieve the mission. Handcuffing them with rules of engagement that diametrically oppose the objectives of the mission sets them up for failure or worse, death. But I digress. Torture is one tool in the toolbox. Do I feel bad that a group of terrorists were "abused" and humiliated an Abu Girhab? ABSOLUTELY NOT! These prisoners would just as soon saw your head off with a dull knife!

    War is war. It's not pretty, neat or clean. I just read a GREAT book called "Lone Survivor - The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10" by Marcus Lattrell & Patrick Robinson. One scene Marcus describes in Afghanistan is where his SEAL team came across a group of "Goat Herders". Training dictates that they had to kill these "farmers" since they could not ascertain what side they were on. The team discussed the situation and voted to let them go. An hour later they were attacked by at least 150 Taliban warriors. The reason I mention this is that the team discussed the consequences of killing these farmers. Being sent to prison for "murder" after being crucified by the liberal media wasn't too attractive to these SEALS, however, if that was the case, then they would have dealt with it. Incidentally, how can there be a "murder" charge when you are at war in an active combat area? That just doesn't make sense to me. At the end of the day, as I said they let them go. A decision that cost the lives of of the countries bravest warriors.

    My point is that the enemy doesn't play by the rules. They never have, and they never will. If water boarding, or playing loud rap music or any other method is used to get information from these human pieces of garbage, then I say do it. In war, I think the ends do justify the means. Do whatever is necessary. The public doesn't need to know. In fact, most of the public probably couldn't stomach 5 minutes in an active combat zone.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cheryl Brooks · 13 years ago
    Call me nieve..............but can someone please explain what waterboarding is to me. It sounds to be something awful and I cannot condone torture in any form. I agree with the soldier who wrote this story. I always also try to go by "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Waiting on a reply please.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joe Price · 13 years ago
    Not touching of what is torture or was our conduct in compliance with the Geneva convention, it all strikes me as a debate on the meaning of "is" and that is misdirect. A waste of time. Everything has to have an objective, a benefit.

    The benefit of war is a better peace. As noted above war is an atrocity and immoral, but we wage it to achieve the better peace. So when it comes to torture, there are several aspects that can be cost-benefited.

    If we do torture, we lose our moral high ground, and frankly at the end of the day that is pretty much all we have. So assuming there is a benefit to torture, losing it all (what makes us unique and special in the history of humanity) is probably not worth it.

    Now I would like someone to show me the "benefit" of torture, any torture. Being a student of history and an intel professional, and knowing many intel professionals, I don't know a single one who can cite you a single incident where torture produced any information that would constitute useful intelligence. Just ask SEN McCain, he and many others will tell you, that they will say whatever is necessary to make the pain stop. While there may be nuggets of information in that gut spilling; names, units, etc. It is not useful intelligence, i.e. information that is actionable. And the mental anguish that gut spilling inflicts on the individual is arguable far worse than the physical pain. Again I refer to the words of SEN McCain.

    Elucidation, what professionals do to get people to fess up, does produce a wealth of information. Saddam Hussein spilled it, and KSM spilled it...over time. So again, even assuming torture worked, the type of information is only of value at a strategic level and therefore frankly derivable or accruable from other sources. Now the only two so called strategic surprise we have suffered, Pearl harbor and 9/11 were hardly surprise given the abundance of intelligence. If we failed to appreciate or prepare adequately for either event, again, not grounds for torture, but grounds for better intel analysis.

    So that leaves tactical intelligence and LTC West's actions. He believed that torturing his captives could prevent tactical surprise. I would posit, that in an active shooting war, tactical surprise is a function of gross incompetence. The commander knows attack is possible if not imminent from any number of directions and prepares accordingly. Attack in war can not be eliminated, simply minimized. That is war. So again, sacrificing it all, what makes us unique and special, to prevent the unpreventable (combat in war) is admirable but faulty because it is unrealistic and the benefit does not exceed the cost.

    Frankly debating the the meaning of is, or what constitutes the gray edge of torture, is torture. Unless someone can provide overwhelming evidence of the benefit of torture that exceeds the cost (loss of what makes America not just great but exceptional in human history) this is a waste of time and effort. An act of redirect in what is really a national war crimes self trial. Since we don't want to face up to our (national) misdeeds with the honor and integrity with which we spent our lives serving, we will have to settle for a hung jury of ourselves.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Yehudit · 13 years ago
    " ... what your mom told you (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you), she got from Jesus. ...."

    And Jesus got it from Rabbi Hillel and Deuteronomy. Just being a stickler for accurate citations.

    Skilled interrogators don't need gross physical methods. But based on accounts by expert interrogators, they are very hard skills to learn and not everyone has the aptitude.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AVN · 13 years ago
    My comment is that I think an excessive amount of attention is being focused on waterboarding. From what we know, three people have been waterboarded since 2001 in US custody. While I personally think waterboarding is torture, I think the debate over waterboarding has been excessively partisan and largely worthless. The CIA waterboarded the three most valuable detainees we had, did it under very controlled conditions, and only did it during a very vulnerable period from 2001-200 where the US was extremely worried about follow-on attacks from AQ. We were in a race against the clock to see if we could learn about follow-on attacks and disrupt them in time. Once we were able to reassure ourselves that massive follow-on attacks either weren't in the offing, or we disrupted them (probably a combo of both), the CIA and the Bush Admin stopped using waterboarding. The issue has largely been solved for many years already. What Bush SHOULD HAVE DONE, is explicitly pardon those involved in the three interrogations, while condemning waterboarding as torture and explaining the circumstances as to why it was tolerated in three cases.

    What is of far more important value is the OTHER tactics that the Red Cross and human rights groups complain about: loud music, cold or hot temperatures, stress positions, barking dogs nearby, and sleep deprivation. In my opinion, none of these are automatically torture. Yet the critics of these methods routinely characterize them as torture and the media dutifully lists them right alongside waterboarding. In fact, waterboarding is in a whole different category. Loud music isn't even close to being the same league as waterboarding. A chilly or stuffy cell is not torture. Obviously, throwing a guy into a meat locker for days and exposing them to frostbite or hypothermia conditions would be torture. Blowing a guy's eardrums out with 180 dB noises would be torture. Keeping a guy awake for so long that he's at risk of cardiac failure is torture. But keeping a suspect off balance, disoriented, and anxious is not torture.

    The debate over methods of interrogations has not been objective or honest.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Foster · 13 years ago
    I think many may labor under a misconception of the meaning of the Golden Rule... the Golden Rule does not exist in a vacuum, but is to be applied based on the circumstances involved.

    For instance, in the case of deciding to waterboard a terror-suspect, the application of the Golden Rule is not, simply, "well, I would not want to be waterboarded, so I shan't waterboard others", but rather to place yourself in the mindset of the other person... "even though I plotted the deaths of thousands on 9/11 (in the case of KSM) and am likely plotting further mayhem, I expect that others shan't waterboard me because they themselves would not like to be waterboarded even if they themselves had plotted the deaths of thousands on 9/11 and are likely plotting further mayhem." How does that statement make any sense? If I was KSM, I couldn't use the Golden Rule in a philosophically or logically consistent manner to expect to NOT be waterboarded myself...

    The "de facto" application of the Golden Rule, as implied above, fails to take into account the motivations of those you would "do unto", and, as such, is an absolutely worthless philosophy (although certainly a meet philosophy for modern liberalism), especially for a GOVERNMENT... the Golden Rule is a model for personal behavior, not for the behavior of a government (or its agents), especially in a time of war.

    It is reminiscent of use of the Golden Rule to justify expansion of entitlement spending: "well, I wouldn't like to be poor and hungry myself, so I shouldn't allow anyone else to be poor and hungry, period." It fails to take into account "accountability". "Would I expect others to feed and clothe me if I have failed to make any reasonable effort to feed and clothe myself?" The latter is a more pragmatic question, and certainly nothing requires pragmatism so much as war.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill W · 13 years ago
    I think we can make a moral case for using waterboarding to protect freedom. To maintain the moral high ground, we must get clear that waterboarding, or any other physical or mental stress, isn't, by itself, torture. According to the UN definition, it depends on context. I think waterboarding isn't torture when we use it only in "a highly controlled environment" - that avoids the "severe" threshold - and we use it only to "obtain information" (the weakest link in the UN's definition of torture). I say the morality of protecting freedom and saving lives trumps the hurt feelings of someone who would target innocents to further a cause.

    I, too, was waterboarded at SERE school, Scott, but you appear to have forgotten why we were subjected to SERE school. While command certainly sought to avoid the compromise of the 2 days of tactical information we low ranking warfighters might have in our heads, they were much more concerned that we stay alive and that we learn not to be overwhelmed by the utter immorality of our enemies. The lesson of SERE school was to resist the incomprehensible, to Americans, depravity of officials in a society that isn't free. To resist despite being broken, to not let being broken be a source of shame, to force the enemy to start from square one every time.

    The NV, in the mold of all dictatorships, sought "confessions" from the champions of freedom they captured; brainwashing, if you will. Besides the barbaric, clearly "severe" techniques they employed, it's the context. It's the very real chance of death in an unmonitored environment and the demand to "confess" to "war crimes" and to denounce liberty that truly made it torture. The NV officals, again, like all officals in oppressed societies, cared not a whit about gaining any information to save lives other than their own, but only to extend their power.

    The use of mental and physical pain by any society to further its ends is fraught with the hazards of human frailty, but I believe our institutions are up to the challenge. That's moral high ground, moral strength, that we can openly identify and narrowly apply safe, overseen, but intense stress on clearly identified, stateless enemy agents to protect lives and liberty throughout the world. Our current, stateless enemy is at an extreme logistical disadvantage and their high level commanders must compensate by being in the field by stealth. I think we need to send our stateless enemies the message that, when we capture any one of them, we will impassionately and effectively work our way up to those high level agents. That unambiguous message, alone, will cause major uncertainty and disruption among their cells when one of them is captured, much less what we might find out if we actually put some stress on our captive.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill W · 13 years ago
    respones to various comments:

    "stay my hand because I wouldn't want to endure the water boarding myself". All SERE instructors, certainly, and CIA interrogators, reportedly, experience waterboarding, and worse. Repeatedly.

    "These folks have no problem with torture. They're also apparently not bothered by the reports that torture doesn't actually do much good". I'm bothered that you would ignoring the definition of torture put forth by the UN (me, using the UN to support an argument?!) and put together a nonsense sentence as a result. I have huge problems with torture, as any freedom loving person would. I'm also sure the reports are accurate because they're refering to stress inflected by state actors to obtains "confessions". Those confessions are surely unreliable. That's clearly torture according to the UN definition and probably accounts for 99.999% of the use of stress by officals. Among the remaining 0.001%, falls the efforts of our interrogators that results in reliable, actionable, verifiable intelligence like, say, passwords to encrypted disks or web sites, weapons cache and safe house locations, locations of secure drop boxes, bank account numbers, etc.

    " or that we might use it on the wrong guy". As always, freedom loving people seek to avoid injustice. That we have used waterboarding on only captives speaks to just how careful we are.

    "Playing at waterboarding in training is a world apart from the effect that forced drowning has on someone who can't be sure his captors care much if he lives or dies.". There is no playing at waterboarding. It works exactly the same way on all subjects, regardless of whether you trust your operator or not. It's a very primal distress with very little frontal lobe involvement. Certainly, I quickly lost the ability to reflect on the motives of my operator when I went through it.
    Please, stop with the drowning nonsense, any water in the lungs in an accident on the part of the operator and immediately ends the session.

    " who do not believe we have any moral standing at all - merely because of WHO we are." We have moral standing because of our institutions and our respect for the instutions above and beyond the people that operate them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Singleton · 13 years ago
    I am very thankful that we had people who got priceless information out of KSM and his two AQ buddies that saved lives ... and I could care less what method they used to get it. These people mutilate captives and cut off heads on video. They must be laughing at our perceived weakness over this issue. I understand KSM spilled the beans after just thirty second or so of water being poured over his face and into his nose. My ONLY regret is that they didn't pour a little water over the face of his nephew Ramzi Yousef who bombed the WTC in 199 in an attempt to kill 25,000 Americans. Maybe they would have learned something to prevent his uncle KSB from taking down the trade center on 9/11. It was an act of war, not a criminal action as Clinton considered it.
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    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 13 years ago
    Lots of justification going on here, sort of like "Oh, she's only a little pregnant"

    Bill, I knew very clearly the purpose of SERE school. I completed it 2 weeks before I went in country as an advisor on a RVN gunboat.

    Not sure why we are parsing what constitutes torture. The definition has been posted, same language as in treaties we signed. The elephant in the room is "is torture effective and is that (torturers) who we are?"
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    Greg Q · 13 years ago
    Hmm, so I guess we shouldn't throw murderers and kidnappers in jail, because I'd hate to have that happen to me.


    The Geneva Conventions impose restrictions on our troops. Restrictions that make their job harder, adn make them easier to kill. That's the cost.

    The Geneva Conventions supposedly give benefits to our troops: the proper treatment of POWs. Countries follow the Conventions because the rewards (decent treatment for their POWs) are worth the costs (lower effectiveness for troops, higher chance they'll get killed in battle).

    Our enemies are not paying the costs of the Geneva Conventions. They do not follow the rules (uniforms, not hiding behind civilians, treating POWs properly), it is therefore WRONG to give them the benefits.

    When you give unlawful combatants the benefits of the Geneva Conventions, you cheapen the Conventions. When you treat dishonorable scum like honorable soldiers, you spit on the honor of honorable soldiers. It is Gresham's Law made flesh: you are treating a counterfeit soldier as if he were a real one, thus lowering the value of being a real one.

    People who do not wear distinctive markings as fighters, who hide behind civilians, who do not have a chain or command, or who have a chain of command that routinely murders innocent civilians and/or legal combatant POWs, those people are scum. What they DESERVE, and what they should get, is a court martial, rigorous interrogation (including drugs, sleep deprivation, and torture), and then, once they've been drained of any useful information, summary execution.

    They have no honor. Treating them as if they do cheapens the honor of those who DO have it.
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    Zach Foreman · 13 years ago
    If it were that easy, then there would be no discussion. However, why not apply the golden rule to other situations. Would you want to be locked up far away from you home, deprived of seeing your family and friends for years? Well, then it is immoral and there should be no incarceration, even of guilty parties. Would you want to be shot at or bombed? No? Well, then the US should decommission all it's bombers and not allow soldiers to carry guns. So the first problem is that the golden rule is too broad, not taking into account moral nuances, such as innocence or guilt, aggression or defense.
    The second problem is that not everyone has the same idea as what constitutes happiness or pleasure. A masochist would have no problem torturing someone else, since he would want it done to himself. More broadly, many would NOT want done to them what other's wouldn't mind (this matters in the context of torture, recall the Israeli flag draped on a prisoner, or being forced to wear pink, or women's clothing or for the Koran to touch the ground).
    It ends up making torture a bit incoherent. Waterboarding IS torture if the interrogator doesn't want to be waterboarded, but it ISN'T torture if the interrogator wants (or is indifferent) to being waterboarded. So we just need to find a really, really messed up person to conduct all our waterboarding. Some people like to cut themselves, some people like to be whipped. I'm sure we could find one person in the country who likes being waterboarded and then problem solved, right?
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    Eric Jasz · 13 years ago
    All examples given involved military personnel or the police, which is not the focus of the waterboarding debate in America.

    "After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war."
    "pursued lower-ranking Japanese war criminals in trials before their own tribunals"
    "U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for using the 'water cure'"
    "In 198 , federal prosecutors charged a Texas sheriff"

    The vast majority of Americans will agree that our military and police should not waterboard, but a large handful would allow intelligence officials to waterboard if there is reason to believe the prisoner has intelligence of a pending attack (as was the case with KSM).

    Claiming that there are some cases of "severe psychological trauma" or "panic attacks" does not constitute torture: some rich suburban momma boys will crap their pants and have panic attacks if they're brought in for questioning at a police station...is that torture?

    The President should have to sign off on every instance of waterboarding. We had the moral high ground well before the media went nuts over Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and waterboarding...and what did the Islamic Jihadists do? Oh yeah, they beheaded prisoners.
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    buyguy · 13 years ago
    Interesting discussion, and net of which is "it depends." It depends on the definition of torture, it depends on the situation, it depends on who, when, where, under what authority, who is the subject of torture and who is the administrator of torture.

    We've been called in recent years a nation of relativists, of people who reject the idea of there being objective truth -- your truth isn't mine -- etc.

    We search for the truth, but in this discussion, we haven't found it. Will we? Ever?
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    J Findley · 13 years ago
    Loud music? Lack of sleep? Stress situations? I knew it. My kids have been torturing me for years.
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    Bill W · 13 years ago

    Please allow me to reword my sentence to 'you didn't fully explain why'.
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    Steve Waterman · 13 years ago
    OK, I can see that this discussion is going nowhere. Let's just bring home ALL the troops, make heroin legal, tax the hell out of it and execute anybody who does any illegal dealing in it. No more freelance dope growers, all government controlled and TAXED. After all, money is the object here, because I can tell our government doesn't care a rats ass about the troops. Make every person who has served in combat exempt from paying income tax FOR LIFE. Make it a federal crime to attempt to attain combat status falsely. OK, and while we are at it, bring back the draft. Increase the budget for the CIA and increase the language training budget for people who learn Arabic, both written and spoken. A bonus will be paid to anybody who meets certain proficiency in that language. This should also include Farsi. Chinese would be added to the list, too.

    If we can stop our enemies before they attack, we win. If we can out-intelligence them, we win. Do not allow the politicians to defeat us on our own home turf. Defend the country from within and make the enemy FEAR us. Right now we are pretty much the laughing stock of the world, except for those Al Queda slime who have been dispatched to the 'Mustang Ranch' in the sky.

    Rid the country of illegal aliens, including foreign students who have 'overstayed their visas.' Criminalize hiring illegals, pick your own fruit. Any person producing forged documents shall be deported, if they are American citizens, jailed for a long time. This includes drivers' licenses and SS cards.

    We gotta straighten this stuff out, or we are history.

    Standing by to dismount soap box.......
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    David Schieber · 13 years ago
    Dick Cheney interviewed yesterday by the associated press said waterboarding "was absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the U.S. I think that's a great success story. It was dont legally. It was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles," Cheney said.

    I agree with his assessment and agree with his statement that we are now less safe with Obama's follow the field manual orders.
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    e williamson · 13 years ago
    No one can doubt the fact that torture can lead to good intelligence information. Also no one can deny the fact that current interrogation methods can lead to good intelligence information as well. Each method has it's on pitfalls. Yet the debate is not really about methodology but ideology.

    Our ideology is that we are not like our enemies and fight with honor even when our enemies do not. This allows us to strategically partner with our allies and gives us Information Operation ammunition when we fight to win hearts and minds.

    While torturing individuals can lead to strategic successes, i.e. preventing a terrorist attack. i wonder if it will set us back strategically i.e. the affected target audience assumes that we are no better than the terrorist themselves.

    While the need to prevent terrorist events is high on the priority list... dealing with the fundamental issues that allow terrorists to thrive should be even higher. In the case of torture we will not gain any strategic advantage if we are seen as using methods unbecoming of a benevolent state.
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    Dale · 13 years ago
    OK - its a very funny recollection when you are old enough to not remember the ass paddling or shame brought down by 'the man' aka dad. However I was subject to unspeakable acts of torture and humiliation by my siblings growing up. Asking me if I wanted a piece of candy and throwing it in the dirt and laughing.

    You know all those great endearing bonding moments we've all had as kids. But you know, I didn't worry that I'd not get along in life and live another day. This anal attitude of forced interrogations is going to do nothing but kill the spirit of those whom want to kick ass and take names. If something else non-violent works then get the stats together and win the hearts and minds of those in charge.

    You say "water boarding is torture as declared by the US government". That's a stretch that doesn't bely the political nature of that pronouncement. This country was founded and won by extreme violence and you are simply in denial of what constitutes that ultimate collision between ideology and having the tenacity to implement using muscle to back it up when all other measures fail.
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    michael Stafford-Hil · 13 years ago
    There seems to me to be a fundamental difference between interrogation of criminal suspects in order to get them to confess crimes, (which needs to respect inherent dignity--must avoid all torture) and interrogation of enemy combatants to thwart attacks in progress during a war. If it is ok (acc to the laws of war) to nuke a city of civilians in order to persuade (coerce) surrender, or shoot down an airliner full of innocents to stop it from crashing into the capitol, how can it be worse to waterboard a principal "illegal combatant" who is in the act of destroying innocent life? KSM was a master planner of ongoing attacks. His silence --his refusal to disclose information concerning such was not a right to avoid self incrimination; it was part and parcel of the attack. And as such can (legally, I feel) be countered by another act of war. Of course there are and must be rules, and no one down the chain of command has (or should have) the power to nuke a city, shoot down an airliner or waterboard, but the commander in chief must have this power to protect the innocents that he is sworn to protect. As I understand it, the three instances of waterboarding were done by executive order of the president. (And I'm ok with that) Abusing every detainee to see what he knows is wrong and counterproductive; and violations of the field manual should be transparently prosecuted. But let us not be worshipers of "moral high ground" when it threatens our citizens. Boot Hill is high ground, but it is not moral for a leader to commit his people there rather than their enemies.
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    JM Hanes · 13 years ago
    Evan Wallach's essay is part of the problem not the solution.

    Small wonder that Wallach attributes the Golden Rule to Mom, because if he were instructing soldiers in the field to ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" no one would take him seriously. He entertains no distinction between torture used to elicit "actionable intelligence," torture used to extract unwilling confessions for either propaganda or pseudo-legal purposes, and torture as a punitive or experimental measure in and of itself. So too, Wallach makes no distinction between military and civilian justice which differ for tried and tested, critically important, reasons.

    I'm not making an argument for torture, but I am suggesting that if clarity is our objective, blurring obvious existing lines is no place to start. I hope to respond more fully to the questions you are posing, but we must extricate ourselves from a morass of false choices and anecdotal assertions before any truly productive discussion can begin. If the issue were black and white, it would have been resolved long ago. The moral and legal compromise in the exigent circumstances scenario offered up by John McCain in Congress, is perhaps the clearest evidence of the agonizing complexities we face.
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    Nomadic Kirk · 13 years ago
    your writing is great
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    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 13 years ago
    Bill, I understand what you were trying to say. No apology necessary. The usual crossthread.
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    JWP · 13 years ago
    I wonder why no one has referred to Michael's point that the 72nd MPs refused to participate in AbuGhraib?
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    P. Nielson · 13 years ago
    OK, If I must be tortured, then I will take the waterboard. At least I should survive with all my parts. So, if I must torture someone, then at least I will limit it to the waterboard.

    The Golden Rule of Torture.
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    Nelda · 13 years ago
    I just want to reinforce what Michael Stafford-Hill wrote today at 18:26. After reading his comments, I thought "that's precisely what I would like to say" and I would just be reiterating what he wrote in perhaps different words! So please go back and thoughtfully read his entry.

    I stopped reading Michael Yon's email when I got to the word "normal" in this sentence: "We get huge amounts of information from normal people when they realize we are morally superior to the terrorists." I can't imagine a scenario where we would be interrogating "normal" people to get information about terror threats or war movements and plans!! And like I said before, Michael, (and I'm a kind and gentle woman) I would want a "Jack Bauer" to do whatever is necessary if the lives of our people are in jeopardy.
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    Mary W · 13 years ago
    The original Bible (not the one Mohammed rewrote in the 6th century, saying Jews and Christians were in error and replacing Jesus with himself as the main character) says, "Vengence is the Lord's." It might be a duty to stop someone from doing evil. It might even be a duty to kill someone to stop them. Taking someone's freedom away is punishment that prevents them from doing evil. But, to torture someone is vengence. We are smarter than that. We can trick them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nelda · 13 years ago
    I should have said when I read the word "normal" I momentarily stopped reading, to think about and wonder why he would use the word "normal" to refer to an enemy who is likely a terrorist. And I also want to say, with others, thanks Michael for reporting to us from the front and also for having an open forum. May God bless you and keep you safe.
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    The Clinger · 13 years ago
    After experiencing water boarding, thus graphically identifying water boarding as ƒ??torture,ƒ? Christopher Hitchens may not be the most convincing choice to use to suggest further discussion that water boarding should not be eliminated as a severely limited interrogation choice. Hitchensƒ?? article ƒ??Jefferson Versus the Muslim Piratesƒ? offers one account that does identify the war on terror as history or a veteran will find war and is as Carl von Clausewitz wrote in ƒ??On War,ƒ? ƒ??In the conduct of war, perception cannot be governed by laws; the complex phenomena of war are not so uniform, nor the uniform phenomena so complex, as to make laws more useful than the simple truth. Where a simple point of view and plain language are sufficient, it would be pedantic and affected to make them complex and involved. Nor can the theory of war apply the concept of law to action, since no prescriptive formulation universal enough to deserve the name of law can be applied to the constant change and diversity of the phenomena of war.ƒ? It may be torture but by the other truth we ignore who and what our adversaryƒ??s methods and intent dictates they will ultimately do to us and with us. When flying a kite is a crime then how different could any Dhimmi principles not be as egregiously judged as waterboarding? Should the principle be heads, hands and fingers sawed off, thrown off buildings or just stoning?
    Christopher wrote in ƒ??Jefferson Versus the Muslim Piratesƒ? about the comments the Muslim ambassador to London made in 1785 to Americanƒ??s London delegates. They asked what gave the Muslims pirates the right to prey upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, and Jefferson and Adams were informed ƒ??it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.ƒ? That 72 virgins in Paradise may just be a recent Islamic Marketing facilitating murder bomberƒ??s recruitment. Nothing I have read convinces me that the attitude of the origins and instigators of the war on terror has any designs on the Western Dhimmi except our demise and subjugation to their Sharia laws. Before 9/11 the highest numbers of fatalities against the West were inflicted by Hezbollah and my sources say Arafat, a Supper Sunni, trained the revolutionary guard. That intriguing information should suggest ever greater implications toward the West with the Fatwa Ayatollah Khomeini issued against a Western citizen Salmon Rushdie for writing ƒ??Satanic Verses.ƒ? That Fatwa was issued in 1988 and with that Fatwa Rushdieƒ??s translatorƒ??s Japanese Hitoshi Igarashi throat was slashed while his Japanese Muslim community applauded his murder, followed with knife attacks on Italian Ettore Capriolo, Norwegian William Nygaard, and Delhi Muslim resident supporter was severely beaten for protesting against the ban and had to stay away from his own university.
    Hitchens described as the brave and combative individual was recently beaten by suspected Syrian Social Nationalist Party members when he was in Beirut Lebanon and against advice defaced a Nazi spinning swastika commemorative Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) sign where Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982. That beating witnessed by a Lebanese police office but not stopped because of his fear of the SSNP. Having been the victim of such an attack will he still harbor the same sentiments about torture?

    If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. Gen Sun Tzu
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    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 13 years ago
    Waterboarding is, by definition, torture. Some would say "mild" torture, but torture nonetheless. Torture is a war crime. The United States has sanctioned waterboarding, ergo the United States has committed War Crimes. The Geneva Convention emerged from WWII in reaction to Nazi actions. Arguably, Abu Ghraib cost us more in loss of American lives and reputation than was gained by any "intel" we could ever have obtained. Equating torture to screaming kids or nagging wives is not the thoughtful commentary requested by Michael.

    Interestingly, former Pres. Bush is about to visit Canada. Canada has very strict laws against War Crimes. According to their laws, anyone SUSPECTED of committing War Crimes is to be arrested and tried or extradited to a country that will try the individual. There is a strong and loud faction that wants him arrested. Stay tuned.
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    BH · 13 years ago
    Hello - first let me say thank for at least addressing the matter - I have read several of the dispatches/responses from your readers and although I agree that we should NOT use torture as the sole means to wrestle with adversaries or as the cornerstone of our engagement strategy when viewed in the totality of the struggle what some are defining as torture is without a doubt a useful tool in our current struggle - unlike tactical operations where successes and failures are reported on regularly through many media outlets, torture and the subsequent extraction of vital information are not something that make CNN nor is it something fully understood by both the general populace or the even many in the military. Warfare and the art of the fight are prosecuted on many fronts - torture will always be a part of the fight even if we donƒ??t want it to be.

    The Far side Comics once had a posting showing the cowboys "circling the wagons" and the Indians firing flaming arrows to which the cowboys responded with stated bewilderment -"that's not fair" ƒ?? in many ways the irony of that cartoon is the irony we wrestle with when attempting to win this fight - the enemy will exact its own brand of punishment on those it takes from the battlefield - just review the beheading videos scattered about the internet - we did not initiate this fight or the manner in which it is prosecuted HOWEVER we must be prepared to see it through and win it because our adversaries will stop at nothing to ensure they receive the victory. I am not advocating from the slicing and dicing of heads of radicals - just the opposite - the fact that they know we "could" torture certain individuals is a deterrent in and of itself

    I am sure that as you step into the "hinterland" in Afghanistan and meet some of the folks dealing with these fanatics you will get another view on the subject. It is easy to state "we should never torture prisonersƒ? when you are 6000 miles away but unless you see first hand what is going on and why "torture" works (in certain cases) and why it is a necessary evil in others then you donƒ??t have the full picture. Having spent a continual year operating in the Helmand Province suffice to say that many of these "thugs" that we have rounded up do not care that we have those back in the US that will fight for their rights. What they do care about is using and all means to exact devastating losses against our troops, our allies and those that do not agree with their perverted sense if Islam. Now until you can fully understand THAT this discussion of torture is mootƒ??as it shifts from methodology to ideology.

    Good luck in your travels - I look forward to reading more

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    Larry Frost · 13 years ago
    Any comment on this subject is dangerous. Our climate at home is so dangerous that anyone daring to disagree - even in details - with this general position will be subject to extreme measures, including potential loss of job and other things. No free discussion of this issue is possible and the current administration makes it worse.
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    Bluejammy · 13 years ago
    Charles Maxwell: You are dead on brother, well said.

    CFH: You too, nicely put, could have done with out the underscores though.

    So if my Mom is a white supremacist that makes it ok to kill Jews, Blacks, and others? I mean thatƒ??s what she taught me. Please tell me this idiot JAG officer was not that na??ve.

    Two things bother me that there is no way of getting around. Whoƒ??s morality? Itƒ??s obvious by the fast differences in the two major political parties that we have a very different view on morality. Then there are the minor parties and independents. So from a political standpoint we are not ƒ??morally the sameƒ?. So if torture is morally wrong why is it ƒ??okƒ? to saw an unborn child into pieces as part of an abortion or stick a needle into its skull? I mean itƒ??s legal in the US right? It must be OK. These are the same people who are taking the moral high ground. The moral high ground comment is dumbfounding to me; I mean it is an absolute asinine comment.

    My second issue is that there are a lot of unknowns? Does torture, mental or physical, produce results? So many of us care not to get are hands ƒ??dirtyƒ? so we really donƒ??t have a clue. We have this moral barometer that says itƒ??s not ok. Give me a break.

    Jack Nicholson said it best: Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties you want me on that wall; you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you," and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to. Yes I know itƒ??s a movie but it cuts to the chase quite nicely. (Damn that gives me goose bumps!)

    I think Michael that you should talk to the Israeli government and tell them to take the moral high ground with Ahmadinejad. Even though he wants to annihilate Israel, and has stated so, the moral high ground here would be to talk about it, maybe by him a cup of tea.

    My feeling of the whole situation is this. I want to tech my child to be a good person, have a strong sense of morality and strong Christian values. However, as my children get older they will realize that life is complicated and sometimes there are decisions that they will have to make that may have them question what is morally right. Now the outcome of those decisions may be minimal or monumental, it all depends on what is at stake. None the less they will have to make a decision and be at peace with it.

    Malcom X once said: ƒ??By any means necessaryƒ? I am all for that when it comes to protecting our soldiers, freedom, and my family.

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