How much did the US govt know about torture not working in the early 60's? Information isn't the point here - convincing/coercing a rebellious superhuman raised since he was 3 to be a super-soldier to do as he's told is the goal. Military upbringing kept him cheerfully obedient for 20-odd years, but now the plot has hit the fan and he's killed several people in a bid to gtfo. So the brass is obviously freaking out. Would they have known torture was a Bad Plan? Or were we still figuring that out?
That’s a genuinely interesting question.
I think it isn’t just about the information that was available at the time but who would have access to it and who would read it. It also depends on whether we’re talking about scientific data or anecdotal accounts. People have been saying torture doesn’t work for literally hundreds of years. But it’s only within the last 100 years or so that we’ve had systematic scientific experimentation back that up.
There’s also the significant issue of whether anyone would listen to information they didn’t want to hear. There have been several scientific studies which strongly suggest we as a species are very bad at listening to data that contradicts our strongly held beliefs.
Which means that if these characters strongly believe torture is effective they will probably argue for torture whether they’ve seen evidence to refute their belief or not.
And conversely characters who strongly believe that torture doesn’t work will argue against torture whether they have evidence or not.
Some of the experiments on sensory deprivation would have already been conducted by this time, but I’m not sure how widely available the results were within the military. I’m not sure how much effective communication there was between high ranking individuals across departments.
There had been analysis of Soviet ‘brainwashing’ techniques by that time, with the conclusion that the tortures used were not unusual and indeed had been used by the Chicago police force for decades. I’m not sure how many people in the military will have had access to that report though.
And the report itself is not exactly ‘anti-torture’ or even really saying that torture doesn’t work. Just that Russian torture at the time was neither unique nor unusual.
What keeps coming to mind for me is actually medical ethics.
One of the experiments that comes up in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was doctors injecting live cancer cells from Henrietta into patients without telling them what the injections were or why they were doing it. Doctors administering the injections were instructed not to tell patients and most of them went along with it.
Until the head researcher Southam made an arrangement with the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn in 1963 to use some of their patients in his experiments. Three Jewish doctors refused to inject anything in the patients if they couldn’t tell the patients what it was.
They cited Nuremberg.
When the hospital carried on with the experiments the doctors sent a resignation letter to their boss. And the papers.
Now both Southam and the hospital director claimed they’d never heard of Nuremberg.
In 1963 two people at the top of their field in the US who were both heavily involved in experimental research on humans said they had not heard of the only ethical guidelines for experimentation on human beings. And other doctors backed them up.
What I’m driving at here is that I’m not sure it matters for your story whether the research existed or not. Because there is a lot of precedent for people in positions of authority being unaware of or ignoring things they thought might be detrimental to them.
Which means that I think this question basically comes back to making a decision based on what’s right for the story.
Do you want this character to be tortured? And if so why? How would it affect the story you want to tell? Not just the character or the plot or even the relationships between the characters but the mood and atmosphere of the story?
How comfortable are you with writing it?
I don’t mean the gore. Gore is easy. How comfortable are you getting inside your character’s head when they are suffering? How comfortable are you getting inside a torturer’s head when they hurting someone? Because believe me that is not a very pleasant thing to have floating around your brain for the days/weeks/months it takes to write something.
How comfortable are you with introducing something that would leave a mark over the rest of the book? Because done well, this isn’t just a one-off incident that the character can then walk away from; it’s something that will affect them for the rest of the time you write about them.
Keeping in mind that referencing and having a conversation within the story about torture is very different to using torture.
It sounds like whatever you pick that conversation is going to come up in your story. I’d suggest making it a debate and giving the audience some insight into who wants what to happen and why. Whichever side ‘wins’ having the discussion in your story will probably help the story.
Going back to specific experiments: Shalev references the isolation prison systems of the 19th century as providing clear evidence of the damaging effects of solitary confinement. I get the impression that the information was either not well known or ignored in the US because solitary became a large and integral part of the US prison system. This is despite the fact some of these historical prisons were in the US.
Donald Hebb’s ethical experiments on sensory deprivation took place in the early 50s. Baldwin was discussing sensory deprivation with the CIA in 1955 and Lilly quit his work on sensory deprivation in 1958 in part because of how CIA officials wanted to use his research.
So the CIA knew about the damaging effects of sensory deprivation in particular in the early 50s but were still pursuing unethical experiments on the subject in 1958. Which does not, in my opinion, show a great ability to pay attention to results.
The report on Soviet ‘brainwashing’ by doctors H Wolff and L Hinkle began in 1953. It was handed in to the CIA in 1956.
The Wickersham commission, a report on torture by US police, was conducted in the 1920s.
I do not know how widely available the CIA reports would have been to the US military. They don’t seem to have been public knowledge in the 60s but high ranking military officials might have been able to read them, since I know very little about the way the US military works I don’t know.
The Wickersham commission however was public knowledge as were the reports by individual isolation prisons.
So there were a good number of reports that your characters could potentially reference and draw on for information.
My suggestion? Have the debate in the story. Have the military characters discuss whether they think ‘tougher’ tactics would work, whether they’re ethical and whether it’s worth the risk. (Because it is a risk, they risk losing their supersoldier)
Have the characters draw on the reports I’ve mentioned and have them draw on their own experience as well. Because the men you’re talking about will probably remember the Second World War. Some of them will have been in Europe and seen the liberation of the camps.
Use that. You can get one helluva an emotional scene out of this, whether it leads to torture or not.
I hope that helps. :)