I'm about 1/4th of the way through Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" (thanks, Lauren, for the xmas gift!). Klein explores the links between disasters (whether state-created or natural) that befall a country and the privitization of public institution (twin shocks, to borrow her language). In the first chapter, Klein describes how the CIA came to use Ewan Cameron's psychological research in the 1950s. She writes of a meeting between different intelligent agencies and academic in 1951.
"The subject of the meeting was growing concern in the Western intelligence community that the Communists has somehow discovered how to 'brainwash' prisoners of war. The evidence was the fact that American GIs taken captive in Korea were going before cameras, seemingly willingly, and denouncing capitalism and imperialism. According to the declassified minutes from the Ritz meeting, those in attendance...were convinced that Western powers urgently needed to discover how the Communists were extracting these remarkable confessions. With that in mind, the first step was to conduct 'a clinical study of actual cases' to see how brainwashing might work. The stated goal of this research was not for Western powers to start using mind control on prisoners, it was to prepare Western soldiers for whatever coercive techniques they might encounter if they were taken hostage."
Last night, I finished watching the original Manchurian Candidate, made in 1962. It's central plot point rests on the fear that Klein describes in the above passage, that the Communists were capable of brainwashing prisoners of war, and then takes it a step further. In the movie the captured platoon doesn't go on television and denounce Western imperialism, but rather, a member of the platoon (Laurence Harvey playing Raymond Shaw) is a sleeper agent, activated as an assassin each time someone suggests to him that he play some solitaire and he sees a queen of diamond.
There are few clues in the movie about how this is accomplished, the main one being that they were brainwashed at a fictional place called the Pavlovian Institute, which suggests that the creators of Manchurian Candidate envisioned brainwashing as being related to behaviorist techniques. Behaviorism involves offering reinforcement to reward or punish specific behavior. As Klein describes the research of Cameron (in 1957 the CIA gave him his first grant), his goal was not to erase specific behaviors, but rather to erase the person entirely and begin again with a blank slate. To achieve this goal, he used new inventions to give extremely intense shock therapy sessions, sensory deprivation, and extended sleep. Cameron was conducting this research on his patients, who were left much much worse off after being in his care.
Klein is very clear in pointing out that the experiments Cameron engaged in with CIA funding "are consistently described as 'mind control' and 'brainwashing.' The word 'torture' is almost never used."
This semantics game is meant to remind the reader of today, our own on-going semantics game with "enemy combatant" and "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the discussion that seems to have centered itself around the practice of waterboarding. The Manchurian Candidate represents the (not outdated) idea that torture/brainwashing might be used to make a person an effective tool for the interrogators. In the Manchurian Candidate, they created an assassin, today, it's claimed we are trying to create "sources of information." Klein's narrative and Cameron's research state, however, that we are not trying to create a tool, but rather obliterate a person. Rather than the person, it is his/her absolute obliteration that is the tool, the weapon, and the objective is terror.
For more information from a unique perspective about waterboarding please check out this post.