Torture is one of the most extreme and brutal crimes that man can commit. Yet almost anyone can be trained to become a torturer. The documentary Your Neighbour’s Son compellingly shows how ordinary recruits were trained to become torturers in less than three months. The documentary which is now available on the internet is based on the training of the recruits of the military police under the colonel’s regime (1967-1974) in Greece. More important than the fact that it was in Greece is that this documentary shows the dangers of extreme military training. It shows that, to quote Gibson and Haritos-Fatouros: ‘There is a cruel method in the madness of teaching people to torture. Almost anyone can learn it.’
Armies have to train their recruits in order to train and prepare them for a war and make sure they can overcome their fear to be killed and the almost natural inclination not to kill. This requires a fairly tough training and recruits in almost all armies are made to work hard and trained to survive under difficult circumstances and thus many of them suffer during training. But the training at the Greek torture school went a lot further. Recruits were ordinary conscripts who had been selected from the regular army. They had no idea what they were selected for but were told that they had to be proud to have been selected as the unit they were selected for was an elite force. Immediately upon arrival at the training centre, however, a completely unexpected and unprecedented physical and psychological abuse started. The recruits were continuously insulted; humiliated; beaten, kicked, and flogged. They had to conduct extreme physical exercises up to the point of collapse. At night they had to undergo drills preventing them from getting any rest and sleep. This completely exhausted them. Whenever any of the recruits was no longer able to fulfil the demands or whenever an officer felt like it the recruit was singled out, humiliated, ridiculed and punished in front of his peers. Sometimes the entire group was punished for the fact that one recruit failed to fulfil an exercise in time ensuring that he was ousted from the group. The task were often ridiculous and painful like walking on their knees on a road full of sharp stones or eating their caps. Punishments could be extremely cruel: in some cases they were made to run behind a car for miles, dragged behind a motorcycle, put through mock executions or forced to eat a burning cigarette. During basic training recruits were regularly deprived of basic physical and psychological needs such as food, sleep and toilet facilities. Such basic needs were turned into privileges they had to earn and they were ordered to perform all kinds of absurd, irrational and humiliating tasks.
During the training period a sense of fear and distrust was created: the recruits continuously felt insecure and threatened in this violent atmosphere in which they were completely at the mercy of their superiors who continuously insulted, threatened, ridiculed and violently abused them. Especially the unpredictability of the superiors’ will, his complete power compared to the absolute powerlessness of the recruits, and the arbitrary nature of the abuse in combination with their demand of absolute obedience and loyalty made the recruits do whatever was asked of them. The recruits didn’t know what the training aimed to achieve nor did they know how long it would last and this made them feel lonely, threatened, utterly at a loss and completely helpless. This utter helplessness ultimately resulted in complete, blind and unquestioning obedience. One of the recruits testified: ‘They changed us into instruments. People without a will of their own. Who obey … You were trained not to think.’
There are many similarities between ordinary military training and the training these recruits had to undergo. The main difference is however the extreme nature of the training. The recruits at the Greek torture school were trained to a point at which their obedience and loyalty was not just functional but absolute and unquestionable. They were trained to a point that they would obey any order, no matter what the order was. After the initial three months of training the strongest, most obedient and most trustworthy recruits were selected to become chief prison wardens – a euphemism for torturers. In a second training period they got slowly but gradually involved in actual torture. Soon thereafter the best ones became chief torturers.
After the fall of the colonels regime, one of the chief torturers Petrou went to police to turn himself in. He admitted that he was a torturer and had tortured many people but he also said that he was trained to do so. During the subsequent trial the training methods were revealed and the widespread use of torture became publicly known. At the trial sentences were passed up to 23 years imprisonment. Petrou was given a six year sentence.
- Amnesty International (1977). Torture in Greece: the first torturers trial 1975, London: Amnesty International Publications
- Gibson, J.T. & M. Haritos-Fatouras (1986). The education of a torturer, Psychology Today, 50-52 and 56-58.
- Grossman, D. (1996). On killing: the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, Boston: Little, Brown and co.
- Haritos-Fatouras, M. (2003). The psychological origins of institutionalized torture, London: Routledge.
- Smeulers, A.(2011). Chapter 8 – Training and education of perpetrators in A. Smeulers & F. Grünfeld, International crimes and other gross human rights violations, Leiden: Martinus Nijoff Publishers.