McChrystal: Torture's a 'Slippery Slope, You Can’t Climb Back Up'

The retired general says it didn’t work and is a "slippery slope you can’t climb back up."

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Stanley McChrystal

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, out promoting his new memoir, was at the Aspen Institute today and had some interesting comments about "enhanced interrogation techniques," also known as torture. His team used them a bit in Iraq, he said, but he has ultimately come to the conclusion that such tactics don't work.

McChrystal of course was a key U.S. general in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before being forced out of the Army when his staff made dumb and disrespectful remarks about the Obama administration to a Rolling Stone reporter.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

He said that when he arrived in Iraq in 2003, his team was "originally authorized enhanced techniques" (though he pointedly said that they did not include water boarding). He went on that they

used them a little bit in the first few months after I took over and then just stopped because one, we realized—I didn't feel good about it and they weren't working so we did away—it took me about nine months before I was completely convinced, the summer of 2004, completely convinced the only way to operate is … sitting down and just talking with people

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the U.S. Withdraw from Iraq Too Soon?]

He recounted a story from the spring or summer of 2004 when two Iraqis, a 13 year old and an adult were captured. He said that the teen, while having a Coke with some of the troops (while the adult was being interrogated), mentioned that they had recently been visited by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the lead terrorist in the country at that time. This disclosure prompted a couple of special operations troops on hand used to use a Taser on the adult to try to get more information from him (the interrogator was out of the room at the time, McChrystal said). His reaction is worth quoting at length:

I fired them and punished them. Threw them out of the unit even though they were long-service commandos, great professionals, etc. because this couldn't happen … At the same time if you turn around and put yourself in their position they're watching their buddies get killed, they've got a chance potentially to get information to get this guy in real time. If they'd gotten him that day we would have saved thousands and thousands of Iraqi lives. But the point being I don't second guess my decision at all. If you allow mistreatment, it's a slippery slope, you can't climb back up. And at the end it destroys you. But I ask people to always understand that when you are knee-deep in blood, and we were, when you go into basements that have been turned into torture chambers by al Qaeda—I mean extraordinary stuff, I couldn't even describe to you how ugly it was … if you see that then you'll understand

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Special Operations Be Given More Autonomy?]

McChrystal's record on torture isn't pure. But better to see the light on the proverbial road to Damascus than not at all. And I think it is worth keeping in mind what he said about context and state of mind. I'm not sure that the French are correct that to understand is to forgive. But understanding is important.

McChrystal said:

When you get to war, it's ugly. That doesn't mean you should turn ugly, it means we need to understand that. You are unleashing the beast. And you've got to put it in perspective and of course what we've got to do is try to control it. Because it can be the seeds of your own destruction.