I don’t think any of us are under any illusions about how tough training needs to be to prepare our soldiers for potential capture, but a group of former recruits have said their training crossed the line into torture, and they want an apology from the military for it.
I spoke with Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and now a lawyer representing one of the complainants, about a case that he hopes will be a wakeup call to transform the investigation function of the military police. The nub of the case is this: in 1984 a group of 33 recruits were given prisoner of war training at Base Wainwright that involved being corralled together naked in a military cell, sprayed with cold water, with windows open at minus 20 Celsius, denied food and toilets, and subjected to blaring music for 40 hours straight. One of the complainants said he was so cold he stopped shivering and was terrified he was going to die. The recruits were as young as 19 and some have suffered lifelong nightmares and symptoms of PTSD since the incident occurred.
There is no question that some of our soldiers need some kind of aggressive training in the event they find themselves in the hands of the enemy. In truth, it is likely only highly trained Special Forces who would ever find themselves in such a situation. When you think about how war has changed in the last 35 years, arguably this training is more important now with a brutal enemy like ISIS, than it would have been at a time when the Cold War was coming to a close in the mid-1980s. Men and women in uniform – those who face the prospect of capture – certainly do need to be tested to their physical and mental limits to ensure they can handle it. I think we need to be realistic about that.
However, just because some recruits may ultimately need this specialized advanced training, it doesn’t follow that all recruits need it, especially with no advance preparation. A lot of people join the armed forces largely to get a good education and to serve in a non-combat role, not to be subjected to physical and mental abuse. The purpose of training should be to create tough-minded individuals capable of withstanding the rigorous of war should they be deployed. It shouldn’t be an attempt to weed out the weaklings and break their mind and spirit right out of the gate. What’s the point of that?
When military police were first asked to look into this by Drapeau’s clients in 2015 it was a whitewash. There were no attempts to get to the bottom of the complaints, find out what occurred or discover how widespread these cruel practices were. Drapeau is pressing for a proper investigation. He says that those in the service need to have confidence that the military is able to investigate its own, and if they can’t, they need to hand off to a civilian authority. Without this kind of accountability, soldiers will not have confidence that senior officers will ever be held accountable for wrongdoing.
As for Drapeau’s clients, they aren’t seeking retribution or compensation. At the moment, they just want an acknowledgement of what happened to them and an apology. That’s not too much to ask.