Waterboarding and U.S. History

by William Loren Katz on January 6, 2008

Some high U.S. officials claim not be aware of it, and Judge Michael Mukasey, the President’s choice for attorney general, prefers to equivocate, but water boarding has long been a form of torture that causes excruciating pain and can lead to death. It forces water into prisoner’s lungs, usually over and over again. The Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s used this torture to uncover and punish heretics, and then in the early 1500s Spain’s inquisitors carried it overseas to root out heresy in the New World. It reappeared during the witch hysteria. Women accused of sorcery were “dunked” and held under water to see if they were witches.

In World War II Japan and Germany routinely used water boarding on prisoners. In Viet Nam U.S. forces held bound Viet Cong captives and “sympathizers” upside down in barrels of water. Water boarding also has been associated with the Khmer Rouge.

An extensive record of its use by the United States land forces exists in the records of the invasion and occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898. As the U.S. encountered armed resistance by the liberation army of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, and sank into a 12-year quagmire on the archipelago, U.S. officers routinely resorted to what they called “the water cure.” Professor Stuart C. Miller’s study of the Philippine war, “Benevolent Assimilation,” reveals this sordid story through Congressional testimony, letters from soldiers, court martial hearings, words of critics and defenders, and newspaper accounts. The pro-imperialist media of the day justified the “water cure” as necessary to gain information; the anti-imperialist media denounced its use by the U.S or any other civilized nation.

Fresh from their recent victories in the Indian wars, the Philippine invasion of 1898 began with a big war whoop. U.S. forces landed in the Philippines in 1898 led by American officers such Pershing, Lawton, Smith, Shafter, Otis, Merritt, and Chafee, who had fought “treacherous redskins.” At least one officer had taken part in the infamous 1891 massacre of 350 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. A U.S. media that had supported the Army’s brutal Indian campaigns rhapsodized about this new opportunity for distant racial warfare. The influential San Francisco Argonaut spoke candidly: “We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately they are infested with Filipinos. There are many millions there, and it is to be feared their extinction will be slow.” The paper’s solution was to recommend several unusually cruel methods of torture it believed “would impress the Malay mind.”

President William McKinley dispatched Admiral Dewey to the Philippines with a pledge to bestow civilization and Christianity on its people, and promise eventual independence. Perhaps he was unaware that most Filipinos were Catholics. Perhaps he did not know that General Aguinaldo and his 40,000 troops were poised to remove Spain from the islands. Dewey supplied Aguinaldo with weapons and encouraged him, but that soon changed.

From the White House and the U.S. high command to field officers and lowly enlistees the message became “these people are not civilized” and the United States had embarked on a glorious overseas adventure against “savages.” Officers and enlisted men — and the media — were encouraged to see the conflict through a “white superiority” lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.

U.S. officers ordered massacres of entire villages and conducted a host of other shameful atrocities as the Philippine quagmire dragged on for more than a decade. “A white man seems to forget that he is human,” wrote a white soldier from the Philippines.

Atrocities abounded. To produce “a demoralized and obedient population” in Batangas, General Franklin Bell ordered the destruction of “humans, crops, food stores, domestic animals, houses and boats.” He became known as the “butcher” of Batangas. General Jacob Smith, who had been wounded fighting at Wounded Knee, said his overseas campaigns were “worse than fighting Indians.” He promised to turn Samar province into a “howling wilderness.” Smith defined the enemy as anyone “ten years and up” and issued these instructions to Marine Commander Tony Waller: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” He became known as “Howling Jake” Smith.

The “water cure” was probably first instituted when U.S. forces encountered local resistance. Professor Miller states that General Frederick Funston in 1901 may have used it to capture the Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo. A New York World article described the “water cure” as forcing “water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting…” This may have been only one on the versions used.

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