Chris Hitchens Gets Waterboarded: "Believe Me, It’s Torture"

Writer and friend of neoconservative causes Chris Hitchens previously wrote that there was a distinction between "extreme interrogation" techniques like waterboarding and actual torture. Critics invited Hitchens to challenge his assumptions and experience the technique himself. Recently he did just that, submitting himself to waterboarding at SERE. His article is not just a firsthand report of the experience of being waterboarded but a discussion of the practical considerations of sanctioning waterboarding as a coercive interrogation technique and the practical value of the kind of information that can be obtained through torture from people inclined to fabricate information even without being compelled to do so.

Chris Hitchens' article is published this month in Vanity Fair.

(See also The Guardian.)

I was pushed onto a sloping board and positioned with my head lower than my heart. (That’s the main point: the angle can be slight or steep.) Then my legs were lashed together so that the board and I were one single and trussed unit.

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You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions.

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I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

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I fought down the first, and some of the second, wave of nausea and terror but soon found that I was an abject prisoner of my gag reflex. The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.”

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If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

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What I do recall clearly, though, is a hard finger feeling for my solar plexus as the water was being poured. What was that for? “That’s to find out if you are trying to cheat, and timing your breathing to the doses. If you try that, we can outsmart you. We have all kinds of enhancements.” I was briefly embarrassed that I hadn’t earned or warranted these refinements, but it hit me yet again that this is certainly the language of torture.