The National Shame of the US Military's 'Slow Torture' of Bradley Manning

Stripping before men still clothed is the first step toward weakening the prisoner’s psychological defense. … But stripping is also sexually laden. It transposes sexual gestures, acts and innuendo from a strip club to the torture chamber. Thus sex is always present in the torture chamber whether the victim is a man or a woman. The sexing of torture is deeply grounded in the recesses of the torturer’s psyche.

-Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algeria to Baghdad

The process – employed in the name of “security” – which involves the mutual destruction of human dignity, seems to be an integral part of most police and specialized agency methods.

-Breyten Breytenbach, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

Ever since I first read about the program to routinely strip PFC Bradley Manning, conceived by his jailers at Quantico Brig in Virginia, I have been trying to figure out in this time of moral fatigue how to express how morally outrageous this behavior by US military personnel is.

For anyone who has been away on vacation to Planet Apathy, Manning is imprisoned for allegedly releasing classified materials to WikiLeaks. He has recently been charged with 22 crimes, including “aiding the enemy,” which can carry the death penalty. His jailers apparently hope young Manning will incriminate the big fish Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. Assange just lost an initial extradition hearing in a case brought by Sweden, which wants to extradite him from Britain to question him on controversial sexual allegations. It is widely suspected the US hopes to extradite him to the US once he’s in custody in Sweden.

Bradley Manning, Quantico Brig and a naked detainee in Abu Ghraib under the Saddam regimeBradley Manning, Quantico Brig and a naked detainee in Abu Ghraib under the Saddam regime

Whether or not The New York Times and other newspapers that have printed some of the WikiLeaks material – and the American people who read and benefited from the information — are considered “the enemy” was not made clear by the military. The Times now regularly cites information from the releases to shed light on how our elected government works around the world.

Relevant to all this are the many signs that our military is becoming quite desperate not to lose face over its two problematic military occupations. This fits nicely into Marnia Lazreg’s thesis that torture (in her case, in the Algeria War) is a tool of the “twilight of empire.” At this historical juncture, the fear within our government of something like WikiLeaks must be incredible.

Given the circumstance of the lifting of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the fact Manning is openly gay, it’s fair to ask what possible reason there is to make the young man stand outside his cell naked for “inspection” or to force him to sit naked in his cell for seven hours at a time.

A Quantico Brig lieutenant named Brian Villiard told The Times this kind of treatment is “not punitive.” This drone officer then said he could not explain the brig’s behavior “without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

Moving up the chain of command, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoffrey Morrell told The Times the reasons they needed to strip Manning buck naked were due to “the seriousness of the charges he’s facing (and) the national security implications.”

All right! Enough of the PR-flak Orwellian crap. Everyone with a modicum of sense knows why the Quantico jailers are stripping Bradley Manning. They are stripping him because they have the power to strip him and they want to strip him. And they know that the majority of Americans and the mainstream press don’t give a damn what happens to this young man.

A friend asked me, “Why don’t they just water-board him?” It’s simple: They would if they could, but they can’t. Manning is an American and he has advocates. They can’t get away with the sorts of torture we used in the past in places like the Philippines and Vietnam and that the French used during their war in Algeria. The French experience is broken down and analyzed by Marna Lazreg in her book cited above based on archival research, diaries and interviews with torturers.

But do not fear: Our very resourceful and secret CIA learned from the French and, over the years with your tax dollars, added their own research on the topic. Here’s Alfred McCoy from his great book A Question Of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War To the War On Terror:

“From 1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually – a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.” This research produced “a new approach to torture that was psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as ‘no-touch torture.’“ It has also been referred to as “slow torture.”

Much of this has now become institutionalized and is inserted into prison manuals as standard operating procedures taught to guards and the rest of the military prison institution. It’s a case of that frog in slowly heated-up water: it’s now how things are done.

It’s a juggling act of the academic extremes, the real-life limitations, questions as to how effective secrecy can keep things hidden and, ultimately, what the public will accept.

Slow torture takes a lot more time than the classic parrot’s perch, thumb-screws and water boarding. The new tools are absolute control, time, sensory deprivation, humiliating demands like stripping and the deprivation of all human contact except with the detainee’s interrogator.

In the case of Manning, the military has to be creative, since the ideal slow, no-touch torture formula is challenged by the fact Manning is enough of a public figure they must allow lawyers and friends like David House to visit him.

In what may be the most classic case of slow-torture, because he was considered a national pariah, the military was able to hold US citizen Jose Padilla for three years at a Charleston, South Carolina Navy brig without his seeing a lawyer or anyone else other than his interrogators. By the time Padilla was tried for something totally unrelated to what he was arrested for, he was a walking zombie.

The remarks quoted above from Lazreg focused on the sexual nature of torture among the French in Algeria. The white South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, also quoted above, affirms her observations. He was arrested, humiliated and abused, and then later wrote about his experiences. He writes about the relationship between detainee and interrogator this way:

“The interrogator’s power is absolute and having the detainee know it is his most efficacious weapon.” Detainees will hold out, he says, but in the end confessions are inevitable. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, he writes, the detainee “will be raped. His problem is to realize it, to handle it, and to know that it is the humanity he shares with the aggressor that is being raped.”

Finally, he writes, “The self-disgust of the prisoner comes from the alienation he has been brought to.” As McCoy points out about the development of the no-touch, slow-torture regimen, the goal is to instill in the mind of the detainee the idea he is the source of his own debasement.

Now, in 2011, under the Quantico regimen of slow torture, what about the sexual aspect of making a young gay man stand buck naked before other men?

We can agree that the humiliation and “torture” Manning is being put through is not of the overt, brutally sadistic nature undertaken by the French in Algeria. But that is the whole point. It’s 2011, and soldiers can’t get away with that stuff anymore, although they tried in Abu Ghraib and no doubt still do in some of the darker, more hidden recesses of US military reality.

You can almost hear the likes of Donald Rumsfeld comparing the treatment of Manning to a fraternity hazing or the naked line-up of young men, hands cupped over genitals, for the assembly-line physical examination before basic training.

It’s interesting to ask: Would a more traditionally machismo, heterosexual male be treated the way Manning is being treated? Would they routinely strip a woman and make her do what they are making Manning do?

In this light, it’s fair to ask: Is the US military actually sexually abusing Manning, figuring they can get away with it because of traditional strains of brutal American homophobia that project repressed feelings onto openly gay men in order to destroy those repressed feelings within? Does such treatment of a young gay male seem acceptable and natural to them in the same vein that certain right-wing elements find acceptable and natural the incredible instances of racism we see directed against President Barack Obama?

Whatever the deeper psychological realities may be -– and they can be debated — it’s quite clear the United States military is doing its best to destroy young Bradley Manning.

Many of us feel he is a hero. Why? We feel he’s a hero because our government – especially our military – is so deeply entrenched in secrecy that it amounts to a national crisis. Militarism and outrageously expensive wars are destroying this nation. The only way to break the pattern is with openness, and that openness is not going to come voluntarily. In the case of WikiLeaks, that welcomed openness may even come with its own dangers of collateral damage.

It’s clear that government and military oppression here a home will have to get a lot worse before we see anything like Tahrir Square. For one, the voices in the middle and at the bottom have been effectively divided and, thus, conquered. The Obama Administration and the military know this well. So Mr. Obama feels safe in allowing the slow torture of Bradley Manning to go on under his watch. He knows few Americans care about a lone gay kid being abused in a cell in Quantico, Virginia.

Remember: While Manning’s treatment may not be “medieval” in nature, there is absolutely no good reason for treating him this way. There is no reason for it other than as psychological abuse to break down and destroy a human life — in this case a human life many of us hold in high regard for the moral actions he allegedly took.

The US government is counting on the American people to be as morally obtuse and frightened as are the citizens of a totalitarian culture who look the other way while atrocities go down — lest they be noticed and flagged as “one of them.” We are in danger of becoming a nation of “good Germans,” people like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes: People who “see nah-thing!”

Many of us do see it, and we don‘t plan to shut up. Plus, we have good memories. Breytenbach again: “It is incumbent upon all of us who are concerned to provoke a public exposition and debate of the issue.”