How to Survive Waterboarding Torture
Photo by Photo Credit: FX Networks

In the rare circumstance you find yourself on the business end of the waterboarding torture, it likely means that someone wants information from you; and you have decided not to divulge whatever information that person believes you may have.

Can one die from waterboarding? Absolutely. It’s the same as drowning. In fact, those who have experienced waterboarding describe it as exactly that. Like drowning, unless the water is cleared from the lungs and mouth in a matter of minutes, the person passes out from lack of oxygen and drowns. Or, in the use of plastic barrier, as you will read, one can suffocate.

However, the purpose of waterboarding is not to kill the subject; if that was their sole purpose, there are many simpler ways to accomplish that goal, and with less people needed in supporting roles.

As a military intelligence officer myself who served in Iraq with Joint Special Operation Forces, I am very much aware of waterboarding. I know of many soldiers who have been waterboarded, intentionally, either for training, or by others simply out of curiosity.

What Is Waterboarding Torture?

Surviving anything means you have likely prepared yourself for the event; waterboarding survival is no different. The first part of survival is understanding the threat and, in this case, a thorough understanding of what takes place during waterboarding torture.

First, you will likely be blindfolded and unaware of your surroundings. Second, you will likely find yourself tied to a chair or a sitting device, restrained from moving the body. On both sides you will likely have individuals ensuring your chair (table, etc.) and your body remain as still as possible. From behind or to your rear side an individual or individuals will restrain your head back so that your mouth is facing the ceiling. Likely, at the same time, they will firmly place a cloth material over your face. Un-wet, one can breathe through cloth, much like having a handkerchief placed over your face. But when the material becomes wet, it’s like a one way valve that lets water in (toward the face), but not back out through the cloth.

But be warned, you can be waterboarded on a table, on the ground, upside down — in short, nearly any position. The tools of waterboarding are all around, and readily accessible. All that’s needed is water and a t-shirt.

Now that your captors have you secured, they will likely continue the interrogation. They may likely say that this is your final chance to divulge whatever information you may have or they think you may have. You may decide to divulge that information in hopes of being let go or you may decide to make up information or to resist completely. However, to have reached this point likely means that you are moments away from being waterboarded.

The Act of Waterboarding

Everything is black, you cannot see a single thing. You feel your legs and arms tied and held down tight. Your head is somewhere between 180 and 90 degrees. You feel that cloth material covering your face. Next, you feel the sensation of water being poured over your face. At first, you don’t notice the sensation of water seeping through the material. Your heart is pounding, you are likely perspiring, which all means that you are likely taking fast and shallow breathes.

In a matter of seconds, the feeling of terror has likely overcome your body as your captors pour water over your mouth and nose. Within moments, one will feel the strong session to gag as the fluid is inhaled bringing on the true sensation of drowning. Or you may try to hold your breath as long as possible, only to find their now next breath awaiting.

In other forms of waterboarding torture, one may have plastic material or cellophane placed over their nose and mouth with water being poured over these areas. However, in these cases, the water never enters the body; it’s simply a sensation to inhibit the feeling of drowning when one is actually suffocating.

In either case, the material is often lifted away from the face in a matter of seconds to allow the subject to take a few breathes before continuing with the process over and over.

While to some reading this, it may sound rather easy to survive moment to moment. However, I argue that there is a sharp contrast between reading how this process takes place to actually going through it yourself in an exercise to then actually being a victim of this act.

First-Hand Accounts & Effects

A close friend of mine has been through waterboarding “training.” I will refer to him as Jack. He stated that on his first exposure, he lasted only a few seconds. The sensation of drowning is so intense that it’s very hard to mentally prepare yourself unless you have been through it. Even then it doesn’t get easier. In an exercise, you know you escape. But in real-world situations, escape is rarely possible.

Waterboarding torture has different effects on different people. Two of the most famous accounts, discussed publicly, involve two known terrorists: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah. In less than 40 seconds of waterboarding, Zubaydah is reported to have caved in and gave up information, despite weeks of prior non-waterboarding that resulted in no information. However, in comparison, Mohammed is said to have lasted much longer through numerous occasions, but eventually he too gave up information.

It’s important to note that because of the high level of both physical and emotional stress. Physically, one can die from a heart attack. Similarly, prolonged lack of oxygen can bring about organ damage. And unless the captors allow you to breath and clear the water from your nose and throat, you will die in a matter of minutes. The long term effects of survival can be punishing for one’s lifetime, including nightmares, post-traumatic stress and more.

Survival of waterboarding is hoping that your captors don’t intend to kill you and that they truly understand the limitation on the human body. Survival of waterboarding likely means that you are able to convince your captors that you want to comply with their demands and that you provide them information, even if it’s false.

Final Thoughts

Having practiced some form of waterboarding on yourself will help, but only to some degree. The U.S. military trains a number of personnel on waterboarding. They are put through the entire process, including being restrained. However, each of these trainees knows that they are relatively safe. They are surrounded by professionals in an environment that will not allow them to actually die. But all that is different for the person in an unknown location and among strangers. Therefore any preparation you have gone through is still and truly limited.

Waterboarding has been around for ages. There is not an exact or perfect way to perform, or attempt to survive. At the end, your captors want information. It’s likely that once they obtain that information, you may be killed anyway.

Preparing your mind well ahead of time is the best possible way to be ready for such a situation. No matter how good you are holding your breath — or swimming — you truly don’t know the psychological effects that play such a strong role in this process until you have been there. Those I know that have gone through the training have all had that training done in the safety of others. And even in this safe environment, even the most hardened of us likely give in within moments.

As always, make yourself a hard target. Don’t allow yourself to become kidnapped in the first place. Fight back at every opportunity. Escape at every opportunity. If you end up on a waterboarding table, you probably failed in all of these.

At the end of the day, even the great [animated] spy Archer couldn’t handle waterboarding torture.

About the author:

Dr. Paul Chabot in an Iraq War Veteran and current Intelligence Officer in the United States Navy Reserves at the rank of Lt. Commander. He has 20 years of law enforcement service and owns a counter-terrorism consulting firm. Chabot is the author of “How to Fight ISIS” and “Eternal Battle against Evil.”

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