Leo Thorsness: Torture thoughts on Memorial Day

Leo Thorsness is the Minnesota native who was awarded the Medal of Honor for unbelievable heroics in aerial combat over North Vietnam in April 1967. Within a few days of his heroics on his Medal of Honor mission, Col. Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam and taken into captivity. In captivity he was tortured by the North Vietnamese for 18 straight days and periodically thereafter until his release in 1973.

Col. Thorsness recounts his experiences in Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey, about which I wrote at length here. In its own modest way, it is a great and timely book.

Thinking of Memorial Day in the context of current controversies, Col. Thorsness wrote the folllowing column:

Think Memorial Day and veterans usually come to mind. Think veterans and our national debate about torture comes to mind.

Of the 350 “old timer” Vietnam POWs, the majority were severely tortured by the North Vietnamese. Ironically the Department of Defense did not formally study torture after the POWs were released in 1973. We provided our military an actual “torture database library” but to this day, the Pentagon has never tapped the resource to help clarify national debate about “what is torture.”

I and many other Vietnam POWs were tortured severely – some were tortured to death. Several POWs wrote books after our release in 1973 describing the torture in detail. Mike McGrath’s book had extensive drawings vividly depicting types of torture the North Vietnamese used. (A gallery of McGrath’s drawings is accessible here.)

When I wrote Surviving Hell in 2008, initially I did not include discussions of torture, knowing that others had earlier described it. My editors encouraged me to add it; if our younger population reads only current books, they may perceive that the treatment at Abu Grab and Gitmo was real torture. I added my experience being tortured so that readers will know that there is abuse and humiliation, and there is torture.

If someone surveyed the surviving Vietnam POWs, we would likely not agree on one definition of torture. In fact, we wouldn’t agree if waterboarding is torture. For example, John McCain, Bud Day and I were recently together. Bud is one of the toughest and most tortured Vietnam POWs. John thinks waterboarding is torture; Bud and I believe it is harsh treatment, but not torture. Other POWs would have varying opinions. I don’t claim to be right; we just disagree. But as someone who has been severely tortured over an extended time, my first hand view on torture is this:

Torture, when used by an expert, can produce useful, truthful information. I base that on my experience. I believe that during torture, there is a narrow “window of truth” as pain (often multiple kinds) is increased. Beyond that point, if torture increases, the person breaks, or dies if he continues to resist.

Everyone has a different physical and mental threshold of pain that he can tolerate. If the interrogator is well trained he can identify when that point is reached – the point when if slightly more pain is inflicted, a person no longer can “hold out,” just giving (following the Geneva Convention) name, rank, serial number and date of birth. At that precise point, a very narrow torture “window of truth” exists. At that moment a person may give useful or truthful information to stop the pain. As slightly more pain is applied, the person “loses it” and will say anything he thinks will stop the torture – any lie, any story, and any random words or sounds

This torture “window of truth” is theory to some. Having been there, it is fact to me. While in torture I had the sickening feeling deep within my soul that maybe I would tell the truth as that horrendous pain increased. It is unpleasant, but I can still dredge up the memory of that window of truth feeling as the pain level intensified.

Our world is not completely good or evil. To proclaim we will never use any form of enhanced interrogations causes our friends to think we are naïve and eases our enemies’ recruitment of radical terrorists to plot attacks on innocent kids, men and women – or any infidel. If I were to catch a “mad bomber” running away from an explosive I would not hesitate a second to use “enhanced interrogation,” including waterboarding, if it would save lives of innocent people.

Our [president] does not impress radical terrorists like those who slit the throat of Daniel Pearl in 2002 simply because he was Jewish, and broadcast the sight and sound of his dying gurgling. Publicizing our enhanced interrogation techniques only emboldens those who will hurt us.

At the end of the second paragraph of his column, Col. Thorsness adds the following footnote: “Kepler Space University is beginning a study of Vietnam POW torture, headed by Professor Robert Krone, Col., USAF (ret.).” Thanks to Col. Thorsness for permission to post his column here today.


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