The Politics of Torture:

The Findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

David Tombs - 21 September 2015

Archibald Baxter. Conté drawing by Theo Schoon. Foreword of Archibald Baxter, We Will not Cease. Christchurch NZ: Caxton Press, 1968

Archibald Baxter. Conté drawing by Theo Schoon. Foreword of Archibald Baxter, We Will not Cease. Christchurch NZ: Caxton Press, 1968


This evening I will be speaking about the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014), which has strongly criticised the interrogation programme overseen by the CIA in aftermath of 9/11. I hope to connect this to studies of torture practices under authoritarian regimes in Latin America, and suggest that it is also relevant to the field punishment of Archibald Baxter, and other conscience objectors, in World War I.

1. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

Outside cover of Senate Intelligence Committee, The Findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014)

Outside cover of Senate Intelligence Committee, The Findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014)

On the 3 December 2014, the Findings, and Executive Summary of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture were finally declassified and released. The report documents ‘the abuses and countless mistakes made between late 2001 and early 2009’.
Dianne Feinstein, the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, notes in her Foreword to the declassified documents:

‘On April 3, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted to send the Findings and Conclusions and the Executive Summary of its final Study on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to the President for declassification and subsequent public release.  This action marked the culmination of a monumental effort that officially began with the Committee's decision to initiate the Study in March 2009, but which had its roots in an investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes of CIA detainee interrogations that began in December 2007.

In the process, from early 2009 to late 2012, a small group of Committee staff reviewed more than six million pages of CIA materials. This included operational cables; intelligence reports; internal memoranda; emails; briefing materials; interview transcripts; contracts; and other records.

The declassified parts of the report quickly became widely available on the internet and as eBooks. The full Committee Study, which totals more than 6,700 pages, remains classified but is now an official Senate report. It drew on more than six million pages of CIA materials, which included operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials, interview transcripts, contracts, and other records.

For the sake of clarity, when I speak of the report this evening, unless indicated otherwise, what I mean is the 524 declassified pages of the report. This covers the Foreword (6 pages), the Findings (19 pages) and the Executive Summary (499 pages), and I have done a two-page summary of the Findings, which might be of interest.

Also for clarity, the use of the term torture in association with the CIA programme is of course disputed by some.  For political reasons the CIA and Republican White House consistently avoided the term, and used the euphemistic language of ‘enhanced interrogation’ instead. This euphemism, and the misleading distinction it promoted, enabled the CIA and the administration to claim that they rejected torture in principle and in practice, whilst at the same time sanctioning the use of torture techniques against suspects in the so-called war on terror. The Office of Legal Counsel provided legal arguments to support this distinction, but the Senate Committee report insists that the programme involved torture. It indicates that of the 119 known detainees, at least 39 were tortured by the CIA, and in at least six cases, the CIA used torture on suspects before evaluating whether they would be willing to cooperate. 

The sheer size and scale of the report probably mean that it will not be read as widely as it should. It is a truly remarkable document. It is correctly described as monumental, but this should be seen as a recognition of not just its size and scale, but also because it deserves to be a longstanding monument and reminder for a particularly disturbing period in history. 

One of the most striking features of the report is that whilst it makes public a lot of specific information and detail on the CIA programme for the first time, in some ways it does not tell us anything new about torture. To a quite extraordinary extent, it confirms the same lessons that have been learnt and reported about torture in many other contexts. As Feinstein notes in the Foreword, the CIA themselves already knew these lessons.

As the Study describes, prior to the attacks of September 2001, the CIA itself determined from its own experience with coercive interrogations, that such techniques "do not produce intelligence," "will probably result in false answers," and had historically proven to be ineffective. Yet these conclusions were ignored. 

The Senate report confirms, in the same way that other reports, inquiries and academic literature on torture in other contexts in recent decades have also shown that the CIA was correct in this assessment. Torture does not produce intelligence, at least in the sense of accurate, reliable, actionable intelligence. 

With this in mind, it is worth looking at the Findings in a bit more detail. The 20 findings indicate a number of failures, which might be grouped as follows:

First, and foremost, ineffectiveness, the CIA programme was not an effective instrument for actionable intelligence (#1)

Second, misrepresentation, the CIA misrepresented its findings to oversight bodies (the Dept. of Justice #5, Congress #6, the White House #7, CIA Inspector General #9), by repeatedly over-stating the programme’s effectiveness and value (#2), and under-stating its brutality and nature (#3 and #4), and it also misled the media (#10)

Third, mismanagement, the CIA was unprepared to carry out the programme effectively (#11), its management of the programme was deeply flawed (#12 and #13), it sub-contracted the programme to 2 external consultants (#15), it failed the evaluate the effectiveness of the techniques used (#16), it rarely held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, or systemic and individual failures (#17), it ignored numerous internal critiques and objections (#18).


  • in addition to the enhanced techniques approved as part of the programme there were also coercive techniques which had not been approved by the Dept. of Justice or CIA headquarters (#14)
  • the programme was inherently unsustainable (#19)
  • the programme impeded the mission of other agencies (#9); and damaged the standing of the US in the world, which resulted in significant monetary and non-monetary costs

In light of this, the fact that the report does not tell us something new about the value of torture does not mean that it is unimportant. I would suggest the contrary. By confirming well-known lessons in relation to the CIA’s programme from 2001-2006, the report does more than just uphold the important principles that the CIA and the White House chose to deliberately denigrate, dismiss and obfuscate. It is worth reading because it provides such a thorough and compelling evidence base for the common sense arguments that critics of torture often wish to make, but which they cannot always give documented evidence for.

For example, the objections that …

  • Torture produces false, useless or unreliable information
  • In cases where torture has been sanctioned there has invariably been a rapid spread of the torture practices used, and targets that they applied to, beyond the initial policy
  • The use of torture contaminates the justice system, it prevents due legal process, and prosecutions become impossible.

The Report shows that this happened, and that it happened to a quite extraordinary degree. In some of the public debates around torture, an argument for torture is made in response to a dilemma for which the resort to torture is presented as a regrettable expediency. Torture is said to be justified in such situations, because it is balanced against an even worse alternative.

The well-known example that is often used is the so-called ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. In this scenario it is suggested that security forces might know about a bomb that set to explode with the likely loss of many innocent lives (in many cases, the innocence of potential victims being further reinforced by the supposed location being a school or similar target). In such a case, if a terrorist or criminal would only disclose the location of the bomb through torture, then it suggests that torture would be justified as a last resort, to save innocent lives.

This type of argument sets aside the ethical principles that oppose torture on any grounds, and ignores or seeks to suspend the legal principles which should prevent it in any circumstances. Instead the argument is pragmatic, and asks for a decision between two admitted evils. For many people, framing the decision in this way provides a sufficient pragmatic justification for torture.

For this reason, some opponents of torture caution against basing opposition to torture on the pragmatic grounds that torture is ineffective. They argue that resorting to this argument might be taken as tacit justification that if torture was effective then it would okay. They therefore suggest that it is better to argue against torture on more principled grounds, either in terms that it is always ethically wrong, or that it is always and absolutely prescribed under international law.

To my mind, the objections to torture that come from ethical or legal principles are compelling in their own right, but I don’t see why alongside these there cannot also be strong pragmatic arguments that torture is ineffective for intelligence.  

It is not that torture cannot get any information, it is that it usually gets too much. A torture victim is motivated to tell the torturer whatever the torturer wishes to hear.

The fact that torture is ineffective for intelligence, because any information given during torture is unreliable, has been apparent for as long as torture has been used. The possibility that someone subjected to torture may fabricate information is obvious. In most cases, torture is an effective way to get people to talk, but not a reliable way to get accurate information. It is not that torture cannot get any information, it is that it usually gets too much. A torture victim is motivated to tell the torturer whatever the torturer wishes to hear. In some cases, information extracted under torture might be true, but in many cases it won’t be. For example, if the victim does not have the information they have good reason to make something up, I think most of us would do that. Or in some cases a person subjected to torture might have the information, but might chose to lie about it. The point is that although torture can be used to get information, it is bound to get a lot of inaccurate information, and although it can also get accurate information, it has no reliable way of discerning the inaccurate from the accurate. In this sense, it is too indiscriminate to be effective.

This problem with torture is so obvious, that it is hard to imagine how it could elude an intelligence agency, and in fact as Feinstein noted in her Foreword, the CIA were indeed well aware of this. This raises an important question over why torture was used. Was it simply a woefully misguided attempt to do something that would obviously never work, or should deeper questions be asked about why torture was used? Might the programme reflect an alternative objective? I want to come back to this shortly, but before doing so, I would suggest to you that Report is important because it sheds light on the what sort of balance there is between useful and useless information gathered through torture.

The picture the report offers is that not that most information given under torture is actionable intelligence and that exceptions to this are unusual; it is not even a matter of a roughly even fifty-fifty balance. It is not even even that most information is inactionable but a minority, or even some, is actionable. The report indicates that in a six-year period NO information was actionable. 

The report reviews 119 known individuals ... and concluded that in none of these is there evidence of actionable intelligence

The report reviews each of the 119 known individuals who were held in CIA custody, including detailed reviews of those cases that the CIA identified as evidence of its success, and concluded that in none of these is there evidence of actionable intelligence. This is a staggering conclusion, even given the obvious weakness of torture as an indiscriminate technique, the law of averages might be expected to show some results. For a six-year torture programme to fail to gather a single piece of actionable intelligence from 119 individuals is an amazing record of failure.

To my mind it should strengthen the position of those who want to argue that torture is not just wrong it is also ineffective for intelligence. The Report indicates that the torture programme was ineffective beyond the wildest parody of just how ineffective any government programme might be. What would we make of a programme or organisation that received such generous government resourcing for six years, yet failed to to produce even one example of what it was meant to be doing.

It might seem that the debate in the US on the legitimacy of torture is now over. President Obama signed an order in January 2009, which prohibited the CIA from holding detainees other than on a ‘short-term, transitory basis’ and limited authorized interrogation techniques to those recognised in the Army Field Manual’. However, Feinstein points out ‘these limitations are not part of U.S. law and could be overturned by a future president with the stroke of a pen. They should be enshrined in legislation’.

This is salutary, given that in the current Republican leadership contest for the 2016 presidential election, some candidates hold open the possibility that waterboarding might be a legitimate interrogation practice. One of the lessons of torture seems to be that the consensus that torture is abhorrent only holds until the next time that it is seen to be expedient. If and when the argument resurfaces the the Report should strengthen the case of those who wish to argue that torture is not just unethical and illegal, but also extraordinarily ineffective. Any future debate about how to respond to ticking-bombs should include this 119-0 statistic, and the fact that positive rapport building between interrogators and detainees has much better success rate.

To say that the CIA interrogation programme had a bad record would be extreme understatement; it is not just bad it is such catastrophically poor performance that it suggests that something else must be going on. 

2. The Politics of Torture in Latin America

Marcusrg, ‘Torture, never again’ a monument in Recife, Brasil, CC BY 2.0

Marcusrg, ‘Torture, never again’ a monument in Recife, Brasil, CC BY 2.0

The likelihood that something else is going on will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with studies on torture in other contexts. My own awareness of these dynamics developed through study of torture practices adopted by authoritarian regimes in Latin America, especially between the late 1960s to the 1980s. This includes the military regimes in Brazil (1964-1985), Chile 1973-1989, Argentina (1976-83) as well as administrations in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1970s and 1980s which were either led by the military, or willing to give the military a free hand.

This monument to victims of torture was erected in Recife in Brazil, as a memorial to political prisoners tortured by the military. It features this statue as its centrepiece.

It seemed appropriate to look at the Senate report alongside these Latin American reports this evening for two reasons. First, because in the same month that the Senate Report was released, a major report by Brazil's National Truth Commission was also released. This 2000-page report was the culmination of nearly three years of official inquiry. It offers a detailed investigation of abuses by the military dictatorship, including killings, torture, sexual violence and forced disappearances. It also recommended that those responsible be punished - despite a 1979 amnesty law that has blocked prosecutions. 

‘Parrot perch protest against Torture’. Antonio Cruz/ABr, ‘Pau de arara protesto Brasilia 2012’, CC BY 3.0 Brazil

‘Parrot perch protest against Torture’. Antonio Cruz/ABr, ‘Pau de arara protesto Brasilia 2012’, CC BY 3.0 Brazil

A second, reason for looking at CIA programme alongside Latin America is that there is good evidence that the US actively helped security forces in Latin America to develop their torture programmes, beginning with the Brazilian military in the 1960s, and then with Brazilian help expanding this to other countries in the 1970s.

I have not yet had a chance to look at the Brazil National Truth Commission Report, but an earlier report on torture in Brazil, by the Archdiocese of San Paulo, with support from the World Council of Churches, provides detailed documentation, which are actually based on military records. What this indicates, along with other studies of torture in Latin America, is at least three important lessons about what I am calling the ‘politics of torture.’

First, the Use of Torture to Break Down and then Re-Build the Prisoner

i) Combining Physical Punishment and Psychological Punishment

Torture practices often combined physical punishments with psychological punishments. In many cases the psychological punishments were reported as harder to endure, and also longer lasting. Psychological tortures often involved humiliations and efforts to undermine the victim’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Often torture sought to erode the victim’s sense of personal identity. The effect of this was to reduce their resilience and make them increasingly amenable to control by the torturer.

ii) Torture sought to break and force submission

Torture could be used to break the prisoner, and force them to say or do whatever the torturer wishes them to do. The complete submission of the torture victim to the torturer is often one of the goals. From the torturer’s perspective, it can be seen as a breaking down of one reality, in which the victim and the torturer are in opposition, and then replacing this with a new reality, in which the victim has been fully won over to the side of the torturer. There has been interesting work on how this sense of power, and apparent restoration of harmony, might satisfy a distorted sense of need for authoritarian regimes.

The torture of Theon Greyjoy by Ramsay Snow in the TV series Game of Thrones presents an extreme example of this.

iii) Torture and self-blame

In breaking the prisoner down in order to re-build them in a new way, Latin American torturers often sought to shift blame for the abuses away from themselves and onto the prisoner. This could be done by constantly telling the prisoner that he or she was really responsible, since he or she had chosen to act against the state. In some cases, the torturer could also blame the prisoner for making the continued torture necessary. Torturers told prisoners that they were prolonging their own mistreatment by resisting the torture, and that they could make it stop by accepting the torturer’s power and accommodating the torturer’s wishes. 

The Senate report suggests that achieving total control of detainees was one of the prominent features of the CIA programme.

Second, The Target of Torture 

A second lesson on torture from Latin America, is that in many countries the logic behind torture was state terror rather than intelligence.  Often ‘suspects’ had little or no information to offer, but this did not matter much since torture was not designed to discover information, but to intimidate wider society. Torture was usually conducted in secret, and this created an uncertainty and mystique around it. This uncertainty often added to the traumatic impact torture practices had on the wider public. Doubt and uncertainty over exactly what was happening, both fed a sense of fear in wider society and contributed to a sense of paralysis that undermined effective political opposition. Both of these made organised opposition to the regime more difficult.

it appears that torture [was] also intended to send a message to other members of the military that they too would be subjected to similar treatment should they oppose the ruling group.

In addition, in at least some cases, it appears that torture and other human rights abuses against alleged opponents of the regime were also intended to send a message to other members of the military that they too would be subjected to similar treatment should they oppose the ruling group. This suggestion has been made especially in the case of Augusto Pinochet’s so called ‘caravan of death’. In this one of Pinochet’s trusted commanders toured the country in a helicopter shortly after the 1973 coup, and selected target’s for execution. These were people who had been arrested or seized in the days after the coup and were being held in military custody. According to witnesses minimal effort was made to interrogate them or assess what information they might have, instead they simply executed.

This political dimension of torture in Latin America – in which its purpose was primarily to send a message to others – provides a second lesson for any assessment of the CIA programme. To what extent was its primary purpose, intentionally or otherwise, more about sending a message to the world, and to any potential enemies, that hostile activities against the US could expect harsh punishment.

The Senate Committee report points out that the impact of the programme did deep damage to the US and its standing in the world. To understand why the CIA resorted to torture, when they themselves already knew it was unlikely to produce actionable intelligence, suggests a political reason along these lines. Torture would probably not help get intelligence, but it sent a political message that violence against the US would be met with extreme counter violence. 

Third, The Success of Torture in Creating Confessions

A third lesson from Latin America, is that despite the obvious problems that torture had as an instrument to gather intelligence, it was nonetheless highly successful in another area, and that was in creating confessions. Even the most determined prisoner would found it difficult to resist repeated torture. Over time, the prisoner was very likely to tell the torturer whatever they thought the torture wished to hear.

This target for a period of silence was a recognition that most people could not be expected to hold out against torture for long, and were likely to eventually share whatever they knew.

If the prisoner had significant information, then there was a good chance that they would divulge this. The challenge was not to share anything on comrades within the first 24, or 48 hours, so as to give others a chance to escape. This target for a period of silence was a recognition that most people could not be expected to hold out against torture for long, and were likely to eventually share whatever they knew. 

One of the interesting side-lines in the Senate Report is the apparent ability of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is usually referred to as KSM, to withhold information despite very severe torture. In a number of instances, he initially withheld information from interrogators, until it became clear that the CIA had learnt it from another source, after which he no longer needed to remain silent.

For prisoners in Latin America, this sort of resistance was too difficult. Torture quickly destroyed both their body and soul, and made them willing to do or say anything that would make the torture stop. Since what the torturer wanted above all was usually a confession, this is exactly what the prisoner usually gave. Torture was a very poor tool for reliable intelligence but a very powerful tool for confessions.

Confessions provided evidence to reassure the public that authoritarian measures were necessary

Confessions were important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they seemed to justify the torture. For the torturer himself (or occasionally herself) the confession proved that they had done their job and exposed a subversive. For the torturers superiors in the security forces or military, the confession could be used to justify their policies and to widen their work. It proved that the threat of subversion was real and need an active response. This strengthened their arguments for greater resourcing and for more freedom to conduct their work, without interference from the legal system or human rights advocates. A constant stream of confessions also made an impact on public opinion. Confessions provided evidence to reassure the public that authoritarian measures were necessary, that the country really was under a sustained attack from subversives, and that the military and security forces were the only organisations who were willing and able to defend the Fatherland.

Recognising the success of torture techniques in the creation of confessions is a critical step for understanding how torture can both fail and succeed at the same time. Whilst it inevitably fails to get accurate reliable information, it can nonetheless be relied upon to consistently generate the confessions that justify its use. Moreover, very often these confessions will often name others, and thus provide further suspects who can be interrogated, tortured and in due course confess whatever is needed from them. Thus establishing a self-reinforcing circle of apparent success, that expands and expands. 

I have not yet done a study of the Senate Committee report in terms of confessions, but in light of what studies of torture in Latin America tell us, it would be an obvious issue to look at. In a number of place the Senate Committee mentions detainees who confessed to things under torture and then subsequently retracted them, and these cases could be looked at in more detail. To what extent confessions took precedence over intelligence in the CIA programme deserves careful scrutiny. It would not be unusual if it did, and might explain why the results on intelligence were so poor, but this is not something the Report addresses and so requires further investigation. However, one issue that the Report mentions, Finding 13, which might have a bearing on this, is that the two consultants that the CIA sub-contracted the programme out to both had a background in the US SERE programme, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.

The SERE programme was originally a response to the mistreatment of US prisoners by North Korea in the Korean war. A number of US prisoners were presented on Korean television to denounce the war and the US. In their appearance and speech it seemed that these prisoners were acting as propaganda mouth pieces for their captors, and they had been subjected to ‘brain-washing’ (the term was new at the time) during their detention.

The SERE programme was developed with the intention of helping US personnel resist brain-washing in the future. As part of SERE training, US personnel were first subjected to harsh mistreatments which were designed to break them down and make them compliant to their supposed captors. The programme was intended to train them in how to resist this breakdown.

Although SERE was designed to be training against the psychological impact of torture, at different points the torture techniques that it used had also been adopted by other US agencies for the interrogation of prisoners. When the CIA found itself in charge of a dramatically extended interrogation programme, they were encouraged by then Vice-President Dick Cheney to adopt a more aggressive stance. The Report says that the White House did not authorise CIA torture, but Cheney’s comments during an interview on NBC five days after 9/11, ‘We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will’ provided encouragement to move in this direction. 

Faced with this situation, the CIA turned to the SERE programme to give ideas what torture techniques could be used against prisoners, and how to use them. The two consultants it brought in were both involved with SERE and drew on it extensively to develop CIA interrogations. They seem to have given no attention to the problem that SERE torture techniques were designed to get propaganda confessions, rather than accurate intelligence. To what extent this helps to explain how the programme failed so badly as a source of intelligence is beyond the scope of this lecture, but it needs to be looked at. Even if the CIA did not intend to do so, they created a programme that was very likely to replicate the experiences of other countries in prioritising confession over information.

Drawing these points together, these three lessons on the politics of torture from Latin America might be summarised as:

  • First, torture typically combines physical and psychological punishment, which together attack both the outer body and the inner health of the victim. Severe torture can destroy the victim’s own sense of identity and make the victim entirely submissive to the torturer, who can then rebuild the victim’s sense of identity in a way that suits them. As part of this process, torturers often seek to transfer the blame and responsibility for what they were doing from themselves to the victim, repeating to the victim that they had only themselves to blame.  
  • Second, the target for torture was not limited to the individual detainee who was subjected to it, but it served a much wider purpose to threaten, and even terrorise, others that they might also be subjected to the same mistreatment, and therefore should also submit themselves to the power of the authorities
  • Third, although torture is a very poor instrument for deriving intelligence, it is a very reliable instrument for creating confessions, especially when prisoners became broken and submissive. The confessions themselves are not reliable, but in many ways this does not matter. Even unreliable confessions serve a useful political purpose in justifying the torture programme because they showed, or at least they appeared to show, that the threat to the state was real.

I suggest that these three lessons from torture by Latin American regimes help explain why a CIA torture programme, which was so ineffective for intelligence, could nonetheless be sustained for six years as a triumphant success. Essentially you have to understand the politics involved.

Much more could be said about this, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts in the Q&A. However, my other purpose this evening is to link this discussion to the mistreatment of Archibald Baxter and other conscientious objectors in World War I, and to ask what light it might shed on this mistreatment.

3. The Field Punishment of Archibald Baxter

Baxter’s book We Will not Cease describes how in 1917, when Baxter was 35 years old, he was taken from his home and handed over to military authorities, and taken to Trentham near Wellington. The camp commander gave orders that objectors who were not excused through prior membership of a pacifist religious denomination, should be sent to the Western Front despite their objections.  Baxter and 13 other objectors (included two brothers) were shipped to Plymouth via Cape Town. After time in detention at Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain, they were sent on to France (on the border of France and Belgium). When Baxter still refused to follow military orders he was sentenced to 28 days of Field Punishment No 1. Initially he was sent to the nearby punishment compound [at Oudrdoum]. However, when the soldiers at this first compound [Oudrdoum] refused to carry out the field punishment he was then moved to a second nearby punishment compound [near Dickebusch], known as Mud Farm, and subjected to up to four hours of field punishment a day.

Contemporary illustration of Field Punishment No1. (Public Domain)

Contemporary illustration of Field Punishment No1. (Public Domain)

Field Punishment No 1, or FP1, had been introduced by the British army in 1881 to replace flogging for breaches of military discipline. During World War I it was over 60,000 times, and the military practice of punishment by securing soldiers to fixed objects was not abolished until the 1920s. A total of 28 days was supposed to be the most that a commanding officer could order for field punishment, by contrast a court-martial could order up to 90 days. 
FP1 involved securing the prisoner to be punished to a fence or stake, using handcuffs or ropes, and then leaving him to stand for hours. The expectation seems to have been that a prisoner would be secured this way for up to 3 out of every 4 days, which amounted to 21 days of the 28, though there was probably little that could be done if this was exceeded.
The 2014 television film, Field Punishment No 1, provides a graphic sense of the harshness of Baxter’s field punishment, based on Baxter’s description of it in We Will Not Cease.

‘Right-oh,’ he said. ‘Come along. I’ve got my orders.’ He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.
A few minutes after the sergeant had left me I began to think of the length of my sentence and it rose up before me like amountain. The pain grew steadily worse until by the end of half an hour it seemed absolutely unendurable. Between my set teeth I said, “Oh God, this is too much. I can’t bear it.” But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the sati faction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst, strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender.The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.
— Archibald Baxter, We will not cease P.112

In light of this evening’s lecture and the earlier discussion of Latin American torture, there are three points about the Field Punishment No. 1 that are worth elaborating upon.

First, FP1 was what my colleague here at Otago Martin Tolich, calls an ‘exemplary’ punishment. Martin has done a lot of work on Baxter, including visits to Mud Farm, and I found his work very helpful in preparing for this evening’s talk. I think he is absolutely right about what the punishment was meant to achieve. It was intended to make an example of the prisoner. This was to signal to a wider audience that failures of discipline would not be tolerated. As discussed above, this message to a wider audience was also a feature of many Latin American tortures, and may also shed light on US torture practices.

Baxter poster created as part of a Peace Posters series to mark the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. Illustrator Marama Mayrick and historian Ryan Bodman, 2015. Used with kind permission.

Baxter poster created as part of a Peace Posters series to mark the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. Illustrator Marama Mayrick and historian Ryan Bodman, 2015. Used with kind permission.

Second, a key aspect of this exemplary purpose was to force Baxter to submit, and to publicise this submission to others. As Baxter was told in his conversations with military authorities in the passage I read out from Michael King at the start: ‘Its your submission we want, Baxter, not your service’. This is not quite the same as offering a confession, in the way that victims of torture in Latin America were often forced to offer, but it has some similarity to it. It is about offering a least a tacit acknowledgement that the military authority is right after all.

Third, Baxter’s account makes clear that as a form of punishment, FP1 was what we would now call as stress punishment. It is possible that the way that the punishment was used against Baxter involved much more physical stress than it was supposed to. The 1914 Military Manual stated that it should not be used in such a way to cause physical harm. This  sketch was issued to illustrate how Field Punishment No 1 was meant to be done. There was meant to be room for movement for both the feet and the arms.  Even if it was not intentional, any constrained position maintained over a period of time can become stressful, and the position he was tied in greatly increased this.

Baxter’ comment on the similarities between Field Punishment and crucifixion is telling.
It is no great surprise that the military had stopped using the outstretched arms position, with instruction to ‘Make the post look entirely unlike the Cross’. Any suggestion that the British military had used FP1 to ‘crucify’ 60,000 of its own prisoners would have been in a publicity disaster. 

Given Baxter’s description of field punishment as crucifioxn, a couple of similarities between crucifixion and Field Punishment merit further comment.

First, crucifixion was an extreme stress position, which used the victim’s body against himself.  In fact, crucifixion took this further than is usual for stress positions, because it was an over-stress position, over time it would result in death. Crucifixion constrained the body so as to initially make breathing difficult.  As the victim’s strength declined, his ability to pull himself upwards to make breathing possible became increasingly difficult. Eventually he would lose the battle and suffocate. However, this process would take hours and sometimes even days of agony.

Second, crucifixion was a public performance that was intended to both punish the individual and also to send a message to others. The Romans wanted everyone in the territories they held to know what was likely to happen to anyone who oppose them. It is in regard to these intentions, to punish and to send a message to others, that connects crucifixion as a form of torture to the ‘politics of torture’ discussed this evening. 

Just as it was wrong to torture Baxter and other principled objectors in World War I, so it is wrong to use torture in any circumstances. And, as the Senate Committee Report shows, it is not just wrong, but it is almost certain to be ineffective as a means of gathering meaningful intelligence. This may seem to be such an obvious problem with the use of torture that it becomes hard to understand why torture is used, but it would be naïve to think that this means that torture will not be used. A common purpose of tortue is to send a political message. I have suggested this evening, that in fact, the use of torture to send  a political message is a similarity between the CIA programme and the use of torture in Latin America, and  is linked in turn to the use of Field Punishment to threaten and punish Baxter and others in the First World War. 

  1. Dianne Feinstein, Foreword in Senate Intelligence Committee, The Findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014) p. 2

  2. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 2.

  3. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 5

  4. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 5. Feinstein notes: ‘While the Committee did not interview CIA officials in the context of the Committee Study, it had access to and drew from the interviews of numerous CIA officials conducted by the CIA's Inspector General and the CIA Oral History program on subjects that lie at the heart of the Committee Study, as well as past testimony to the Committee’; Foreword, p. 5.

  5. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 3.

  6. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 4.

  7. Feinstein, Foreword, p. 4.

  8. During a speech to present the report President Dilma Rousseff, broke briefly into tears and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

  9. Interview on NBC (16 September 2001). In the same way, the legal advice that distinguished between enhanced interrogation and torture encouraged the CIA to continue when they became uncertain whether or not they had the support of the Bush White House.

  10. Field Punishment No 1 normally involved, in addition to hard labour, up to 2 hours a day tied to the stake for up to three consecutive days before a break on the fourth day. If this was observed it made for a maximum of 21 days out of 28 days in total. However, since Baxter as a conscientious objector refused to follow orders, instead of being subject to hard labour, he faced additional hours punishment tied to the stake.

  11. Archibald Baxter, We Will not Cease (Auckland: Cape Catley, 2003; originally London: Victor Gollancz , 1939), pp. 122-12

  12. Martin Tolich, ‘Pardoning Exemplary Punishment: An Analysis of First World War Torture and Executions’

  13. See Clive Emsley, ‘Why Crucify Tommy’ in History Today (November 2012), pp. 27-33 (30-31). Emsley’s title ‘Why Crucify Tommy’ is taken from an article by Robert Blatchford  in the Illustrated Sunday Herald (29 October 1916), which carried the same title.

  14. Cited by Emsley, ‘Why Crucify Tommy’, p 30

  15. There was a storm in the newspapers over a story that German soldiers had crucified a Canadian soldier at Ypres in Belgium in 1915. The solider was subsequently named as Sargent Harry Brant. The German government denounced the allegations as propaganda and a British Parliamentary investigation found no evidence to confirm it. A 1918 carved wood sculpture depicting the incident by Francis Derwent Wood was withdrawn from an exhibition in 1919 following a German request to the Canadian government to withdraw it unless there was evidence to support it. However, in 2002 the British television Channel 4 documentary series ‘Secret History’ broadcast a programme based on research by Iain Overton which alleged that there was new evidence in support of the story but the soldier’s name was Sargent Harry Band (and not Brant)