Torture and “Inevitable Demoralization,” from 1902 to the Present

Paul Kramer at The New Yorker has written a fascinating look at the use of torture by U.S. troops in the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. Back then, the U.S. was accused of using the infamous “water cure” upon Philippine “insurgents.” A then-atypical confession by pro-war Judge Wiliam Howard Taft, head of the pro-U.S. Philippine Commission, described the technique:

The cruelties that have been inflicted; that people have been shot when they ought not to have been; that there have been in individual instances of water cure, that torture which I believe involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows, which was a frequent treatment under the Spaniards, I am told-all these things are true.

Kramer’s article describes the political maneuvering around the torture scandal of that time, in ways that are eerily similar to today’s debates. What’s different, of course, is that other, more psychological forms of torture have been added since those early days of American imperialist wars. (Over 4,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict, and total Philippine deaths, both military and civilian, are estimated to be between a quarter of a million to one million people. It’s worth noting that U.S. military activities against Philippine “insurgents” or “brigands” continued until at least 1913.)

Rendition (Deadly) Games: New Revelations

Increasingly, the U.S. is out-sourcing its more barbaric, old-fashioned use of torture to foreign torturers, sending its prisoners secretly via “extraordinary rendition” to sites in countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Uzbekistan. The extent of this secret program of kidnapping and torture is still being assessed via ongoing revelations in the press. In today’s UK Telegraph, a former British special forces soldier, Ben Griffin, has charged that the British government was far more complicit in these activities than previously known.

Mr Griffin said the SAS was part of a joint US/UK unit which captured suspected terrorist who were then spirited away for interrogation….

Mr Griffin, who served for three months in Baghdad, added: “I have no doubt in my mind that non-combatants I personally detained were handed over to the Americans and subsequently tortured.

“It is only since I have left the Army and I have read the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention on Torture that I realised that we have broken so many of these conventions and treaties in Iraq.”

Other recent press reports have implicated other European Union member states — Poland and Romania — in aiding the U.S. in their rendition program. A recent New York Times article details U.S. complicity in the infamous Operation Condor program of the 1970-1980s, where a number of Latin American countries “helped one another locate, transport, torture and ultimately make disappear dissidents across their borders, and even collaborated on assassination operations in Europe and the United States.”

Meanwhile, currently, we have the hoopla over the recent Senate bill that restricts the CIA to the interrogation protocols of the Army Field Manual masks the fact that the AFM authorizes the use of psychological methods of torture, including sleep and sensory deprivation, and prolonged isolation. President Bush is threatening to veto the bill as too restrictive on CIA operations.

Wither Our Humanity?

Towards the end of his New Yorker piece, Kramer remarks on how the scandal over torture eventually faded away. A few officers had their hands slapped. Commissions took contradictory testimony; editorials fired bombastic fusillades. But in the end, the barbarity was covered up, filed away, and forgotten (until now).

Kramer quotes an extraordinary article from the time (bold emphases are mine, and please forgive my quoting also the racist jargon, indicative of that era):

As early as April 16, 1902, the New York World described the “American Public” sitting down to eat its breakfast with a newspaper full of Philippine atrocities:

It sips its coffee and reads of its soldiers administering the “water cure” to rebels; of how water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of the patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting; of how our soldiers then jump on the distended bodies to force the water out quickly so that the “treatment” can begin all over again. The American Public takes another sip of its coffee and remarks, “How very unpleasant!”

“But where is that vast national outburst of astounded horror which an old-fashioned America would have predicted at the reading of such news?” the World asked. “Is it lost somewhere in the 8,000 miles that divide us from the scenes of these abominations? Is it led astray by the darker skins of the alien race among which these abominations are perpetrated? Or is it rotted away by that inevitable demoralization which the wrong-doing of a great nation must inflict on the consciences of the least of its citizens?”

It is difficult to hang onto principles of justice and morality in a society that has become inured to the worst crimes and inhuman behaviors. The memory of events may be forgotten, but they live on in the societal failure to embrace history, in the cynicism and despair towards institutions and belief systems, and in the cries of untold victims whose pleas for mercy and justice echo soundlessly into the void.

Is this our future? Or are we already there?

Crossposted at Invictus


    • Valtin on February 25, 2008 at 21:11

    I’m not advocating demoralization here, nor am I announcing that I am suffering such an affliction. But without concrete steps taken to hold those who have tortured accountable, this is the fate we court.

    At the turn of the 20th century, even in the heyday of U.S. imperialist policy, a civilian commission was called to examine the charges. oday… well, nothing. Some closed door hearings in Congress, or the use of hearings on Mukasey as a steam vent for underlying political turmoil over the subject.

    For all the vaunted netroots and power of the Internet talk, we can not even establish what the press could circa 1900!

    Technology is overrated, in my opinion. Political courage and audacity, and moral outrage, trumps technology any day.

    • ANKOSS on February 25, 2008 at 22:55

    This isn’t going to get any better. The departure of Bush will bring fresh revelations of cruelty and horror, and Americans will have to choose between continuing to repress the facts of our collective evil or the painful process of acknowledgement and atonement. The choice is not hard to predict.

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