With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Torture & Civilian Deaths in Three Counterinsurgencies

It was revealed last week, that on top of the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Iraqi urban areas, both U.S. and British soldiers have become involved in torture as well. At the same time, comparing the three overall interventions, some writers have drawn attention to parallels with Vietnam a generation ago, and the Philippines a century earlier.

Massive civilian deaths and torture are characteristic of all three Imperial Interventions.

Our Philippine adventure resulted in the creation of The Anti-Imperialist League, in which a number of noted Americans, ranging from former General/Senator Carl Schurz to Mark Twain sought to draw attention to what the Army was doing in the Islands.

By 1902, the Senate, controlled by imperialists such as Henry Cabot Lodge, had initiated another of its often feckless investigations into the conduct of a war. The “antis,” developed a parallel investigation culminating in the publication of a small book, “Marked Severities”: Secretary[of War Elihu] Root’s Record in the Philippines. As it became clear the “antis” would focus on atrocities, some like Andrew Carnegie, withdrew the $5,000 he had promised to help with the investigation.

Calling attention to atrocities always causes the imperialists to drape themselves in the flag and denounce all such criticism as “unpatriotic.”

The estimates of civilians killed in the Philippines range from 200,000 to a high of perhaps 600,000 -- no one really knows. This writer has seen pictures smuggled out by American soldiers of pits filled with the bodies of dozens of Filipinos. One soldier wrote of troops killing a village of about 1,000 after someone had fired upon them from there.

The “water cure” was the approved torture of the day. With the mouth held open by a knife, a water hose was thrust down the victim’s throat. Whether he talked or not, most often death came later from the infection of the stomach lesions caused by the water pressure. “Civilize ‘em with a Krag” [rifle] was our great battle cry of the era.

The massive burning and killing of Vietnamese -- including the whole village of My Lai -- was much more publicized, of course, in the counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Again, total deaths are hard to estimate, but were certainly well over a million Asians.

Less so was the torture. One of my former students, in American intelligence, refused to participate in it. The Koreans for centuries have been employed for torture by the Chinese, and the U.S. often used them in that capacity in Vietnam. A common method was to jamb wire through the hands and wire them together. The person was then taken up in a helicopter, and pushed out the open door if he refused to talk.

Now, of course, in Iraq, we are repeating the shock and awe, kill civilians-torture the enemy tactics of our earlier imperial interventions. It is unclear to me how this will ever result in “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. I recall an interview in Vietnam where an American officer admitted our tactics had lost the present generation of Vietnamese, but we would win over the next one. I wondered who he thought would father this new generation? Even General William E. Odum acknowledges we have lost legitimacy in Iraq, and a number of our military professionals warned against the adventure in the first place.

One thing is certain, just as Elihu Root could concoct these policies for the Philippines, and good ‘ol “fog of war,” Robert MacNamara could do so for Vietnam, they would never personally be involved in such killings and torture -- leave that to the soldiers in the field! The same goes for Bush and Cheney today, both of whom appear in “plausible denial.”

What a century of this Imperialism has done to Americans is not apt to be mentioned by those who glorify Empire such as Niall Ferguson or William Kristol. Perhaps these are the people who ought to be trained to do the torturing for the greater glories of the Empire!

To talk about the Philippines as a “great aberration,” as once did the historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, is errant nonsense. Our Imperial policies, and especially the “national security” bureaucracies and military forces to carry them out, have been developing for at least a century now. They were not disbanded after Vietnam, and the frustrations of Iraq are not likely to cause them to be dismantled into the future.

Remember that Julius Caesar was heavily backed by what one might today call the military-industrial complex of Ancient Rome. They used "private contractors," too, and the missile weapon of mass destruction was the catapult, as one sees in the opening scene of Gladiator. Someone had the contracts to supply all of that!

It will be interesting to see how this develops given George Bush’s fundamentalist fanaticism. Recall the definition of a fanatic, as someone who redoubles his effort when he has lost sight of his goal.