Protesters stage a “witness against torture” in Washington, DC, January 7, 2012. (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)

When I finished my military intelligence training at Camp Ritchie, Maryland in 1944, some of my fellow graduates and I were driven to a checkpoint near Washington staffed by a military policeman. Asked for the name of the place he was guarding, he shot back, “Nothing.” It turned out to be a super-secret detention and interrogation center for what would now be called high-value POWs, and we, a group of German speakers, mostly children of Holocaust survivors, had arrived to augment the small staff of this post known only as PO Box 1142.

Now I am constantly reminded of this part of my military career by the fierce debate set off by Zero Dark Thirty, an Oscar-contending docudrama about the search for Osama bin Laden that is being released nationwide today. Many seem to agree that it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. But beyond that, the torture scenes shown in grisly detail at the beginning of the film have led to sharply divided opinions. Was the information about bin Laden’s whereabouts obtained through torture? If not, as Leon Panetta affirmed when he was head of the CIA and as Senator Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, insisted in a letter of protest to Sony Pictures, why did the filmmakers go out of their way to portray the contrary? What did Katherine Bigelow, the film’s director, have in mind when she said she didn’t have an agenda and wasn’t judging? How can one not judge torture—what is there to be neutral about?

After more or less eliminating torture at the beginning of President Obama’s first term, though, not incidentally shirking the duty to hold the torturers and those who authorized and encouraged torture accountable, we are now back to a grand debate over whether torture “works.” At PO Box 1142, where we obtained a great deal of information useful for the war effort from German prisoners, many of whom were Nazi sympathizers, even members of the Nazi party, this question never came up. It was not part of the culture. That torture was not to be used was a self-evident proposition. There were, of course, psychological techniques that interrogators used to extract information. They included the establishment of human relationships between interviewer and interviewee, which was no easy matter when one was a Jew and the other a German, but personal feelings had to be suppressed for the sake of obtaining results. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever laid a hand on any of the German detainees.

All of this was before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Social and Political Rights, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture and scores of other legal instruments, both domestic and international, which made it perfectly clear, if clarity was still needed after the horrors of World War II, that torture was absolutely prohibited in any and all circumstances; no ifs, buts, or maybes.

Since arriving at this high point in the history of humanitarian law, which is another phrase for the law of war, we have been backsliding at an increasing pace. We adopted “enhanced interrogation” from the Germans after World War II, and waterboarding and other refined torture methods from the North Koreans after the Korean War.

And now it has come to this: a debate not about whether torture is permissible, but about whether torture “works” and whether it worked in the hunt for bin Laden. The release of Zero Dark Thirty on the anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison—itself a symbol of disregard for international law and Constitutional standards, including the use of torture—only underscores how far we’ve fallen. Putting aside what every professional interrogator knows—that there comes a point in the application of torture when those to whom it is applied will tell you anything, including anything but the truth—what difference does it make whether torture works or not? If its unconditional prohibition is disregarded, what use is the law of war? Once we give up on something as absolute as torture, the whole fabric of international humanitarian law, if not all international law, begins to unravel.

If we want to set an example of morality and legality to other countries, we have to do better than return to the Roman maxim, inter armas silent leges: that is, in war, the laws are silent.

For more on Zero Dark Thirty’s perversion of history, check out Karen Greenberg’s run-down of the film’s spin-tactics.