The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically.
To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

— Flyer advertising the movie The Battle of Algiers, from
the Directorate for Special Operations and Low
Intensity Conflict, the Pentagon, September 20031


23
Why Governments Don't Learn

In 1972, an RUC policeman threatened a prisoner with a technique that had “never failed yet.” His magic technique was to set fire to a twig, blow it out, and stick it up the prisoner's nostrils five or six times. However, the prisoner said nothing under this torture and was released shortly thereafter.2 But the policeman was unlikely to be daunted by this failure. As the previous chapters have suggested, torturers persist in using techniques even in the face of repeated failure. Because the policeman firmly believed the technique never failed, he was just as likely to try using the same trick the next day on another prisoner.

When officers resort to playing Metallica and lighting twigs, when the Pentagon watches Marxist-nationalist movies to understand how torture and terrorism work—one has to ask: why is it that governments never seem to learn or, at least, remember past failures? Why do many governments keep torturing for information? Or as Chris Mackey, the U.S. interrogator in Afghanistan, asks, “If coercion doesn't work, why would the agency “CIA” go to the trouble?”3

In these final chapters, I consider why we do not learn from past experience when it comes to torture. In this chapter, I consider failures in institutional learning: how knowledge does not accumulate and how it is neglected when it does. Next, I consider if institutions would learn better if governments legally regulated torture and subjected it to routine evaluation. But fortunately or unfortunately, the same factors that inhibit institutional learning about torture also make its public supervision impossibly difficult.

The best way to learn is to care for our memories of the past properly. As Alan Dershowitz rightly says in his introduction to the army report on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, “We neither taught nor learned a lesson from the

-519-

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Torture and Democracy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xv
  • Acknowledgments xix
  • Torture and Democracy xxv
  • Introduction 1
  • I - Torture and Democracy 33
  • 1: Modern Torture and Its Observers 35
  • 2: Torture and Democracy 45
  • II - Remembering Stalinism and Nazism 65
  • 3: Lights, Heat, and Sweat 69
  • 4: Whips and Water 91
  • 5: Bathtubs 108
  • III - A History of Electric Stealth 121
  • 6: Shock 123
  • 7: Magnetos 144
  • 8: Currents 167
  • 9: Singing the World Electric 190
  • 10: Prods, Tasers, and Stun Guns 225
  • 11: Stun City 239
  • IV - Other Stealth Traditions 259
  • 12: Sticks and Bones 269
  • 13: Water, Sleep, and Spice 279
  • 14: Stress and Duress 294
  • 15: Forced Standing and Other Positions 316
  • 16: Fists and Exercises 334
  • 17: Old and New Restraints 347
  • 18: Noise 360
  • 19: Drugs and Doctors 385
  • V - Politics and Memory 403
  • 20: Supply and Demand for Clean Torture 405
  • 21: Does Torture Work? 446
  • 22: What the Apologists Say 480
  • 23: Why Governments Don't Learn 519
  • 24: The Great Age of Torture in Modern Memory 537
  • A - A List of Clean Tortures 553
  • B - Issues of Method 557
  • C - Organization and Explanations 566
  • D - A Note on Sources for American Torture During the Vietnam War 581
  • Notes 593
  • Selected Bibliography 781
  • Index 819
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